Corey Mitchell has seen a lot in his 25 years of teaching.
He won the first-ever Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education. He has helped countless young students in the Charlotte area learn to find their creative voice and express themselves on stage. He’s watched many of them audition, land spots in college programs, and launch successful careers — some even landing on Broadway.
But there’s also something else Mitchell saw: Some students’ dreams are derailed by the complexities of navigating the system. He’s noticed that it’s the students with more resources — say, the ability to catch a flight any weekend for an audition — who tend to have better luck.
“These tended to be the kids who were able to get into the BFA programs and able to progress and eventually transition into a career,” Mitchell said this week. “And generally speaking, those kids, for the most part, weren’t my African-American students, who in many cases were just as talented but didn’t have the same opportunities.”
Mitchell aims to do something about it. In June, he retires from Charlotte’s Northwest School for the Arts, where he has worked for 20 years, and launches the nonprofit Theater Gap Initiativea college prep program to help students of color prepare for and be accepted into Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater and Drama programs.
The program, which is accepting applications from Thursday, can accommodate 24 students fresh out of high school who will spend seven months in individual training – not only in acting and performance, but also organizing auditions and strong college applications. . He notes that a barrier for students can be family members and support systems dismissing acting as a bad career path – something he hopes the practical experience of the year approaches. sabbatical will be able to solve as it also includes training in areas such as life skills, budgeting and public speaking. .
“We’re going to, like I said, ‘build the actor’s toolkit,'” Mitchell said.
Of course, getting accepted into a program is only one piece of the puzzle. Mitchell also wants to help students stay enrolled. As TGI grows, he hopes the program can gather information about the ins and outs of the various BFA programs in a way that opens a dialogue that not only helps students navigate the process, but leads the diversification of the program.
“I want to help create a network for BIPOC students in an academic setting,” Mitchell said.
As an example, he pointed out that Howard University is the only historically black college or university with a BFA musical theater program.
“What happens is we send BIPOC students to predominantly white institutions and then there’s this sense of isolation that goes with it,” Mitchell said.
And he thinks there’s a growing appetite for change right now, especially in the context of systemic racism in the United States. Like many industries, the theater world has faced calls for change. Accountability groups like We See You White American Theater and united black theater trained, pushing for a fairer industry.
But these efforts are largely focused on professionals. And Mitchell knows that getting people into the industry pipeline starts earlier — in high school.
“The thing that everyone seems to agree on is to expand the cake, if you will,” Mitchell said. “What matters is that the students have talent and that they have the ability to tell an interesting story. And those are the things that I think are valuable because the arts are the things that seem to last and we judge and understand cultures by — the art that’s produced. And so we need more voices to help reflect what our culture is and understand the intricacies of what this country is.
Mitchell says his program is already generating a lot of interest. And TGI has already recruited a few notable advisory board membersincluding Aunjanue Ellis, Billy Porter and Charles Randolph-Wright, among others.
“If you’re in the arts and you’re a person of color, you mostly understand what this struggle looks like,” he said.
The program is carried out in collaboration with Central Piedmont Community College. Enrollment in TGI is free, and the program itself costs $6,300. Applications must be sent before May 17, and the first cohort of students will begin in August. Mitchell says it’s not just limited to Charlotte-area students and the program will try to find host families for anyone who’s accepted but doesn’t already live here.
As for Mitchell, he himself will miss teaching at Northwest, but he says he’s ready for the new challenge.
“I was afraid of becoming an institution,” Mitchell said. “And the problem with institutions is that they are difficult to adapt and change. And when you can’t adapt and change, you don’t grow. And I was very interested in growing up.