By Bernie Petit
After 25 years teaching theater arts – the past 20 at Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts – Corey Mitchell asked himself a question that changed the trajectory of his career.
Is there more I can do to help build and support the next generation of theatre professionals?
His deep-seated drive to make a difference in the lives of his students and community is one of the reasons why he’s such an accomplished educator. Throughout his career, he’s demonstrated an incredible ability to reach his students, from those who feel like outsiders to those labeled “geeky theater kids” or burdened with preconceptions about them because of their race or orientation.
His accolades range from winning the first-ever Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education to receiving the inaugural Stephen Schwartz Musical Theatre Teacher of the Year Award and ASC Cato Lifetime Achievement in Teaching Award.
Amid the renewed and persistent calls for social and racial justice over the past year, Mitchell read the epistles from We See You White American Theatre and Black Theatre United, which expose the racism that Black, indigenous and people of color face in the theater industry.
“I kept thinking that part of the problem is where it all begins – that intersection of kids leaving high school and getting into college and what that process looks like,” Mitchell said.
He realized his background, expertise and extensive connections uniquely qualifies him to fill a void that exists in the theater education space.
As of this month, Mitchell is retired from Northwest School of the Arts and focused on his new nonprofit, the Theatre Gap Initiative, a college-prep program to help high school grads of color prepare for and get accepted to Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) and conservatory programs.
The Theatre Gap Initiative will welcome up to 24 promising theater arts students this fall and help them refine and sharpen skills and expand the monologue, songs and variety of work they have in their repertoire. Participants will receive training in acting, dance and voice as well as guidance through the entire process of applying to college professional training programs – program applications, FAFSA, headshots, resumes, prescreens, auditions, acceptance and scholarship applications.
Housed at Central Piedmont Community College’s Levine Campus, Theatre Gap Initiative will also allow program participants to earn college or continuing education credit in Music Theory for Singers, Public Speaking and College Readiness.
The initiative has also received support from ASC and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, as well as the Broadway Collective and the Craft Institute. Industry professionals who have joined the initiative’s advisory board include Emmy and Tony Award winning actor Billy Porter, Tony Award winning actress and singer Lillias White and Broadway actress and former Northwest School of the Arts student Renee Rapp.
“I have been knocked out by the positive responses and support that I’ve received,” Mitchell said.
Historically, there has not been a viable pathway for black and brown students to pursue careers in theater to a large degree, according to Mitchell.
The lack of opportunity is compounded by increasingly tenuous admissions processes skewed towards students whose families have the resources to send them to auditions near and far to gain admission to competitive programs. Additional hurdles – family situations, experience, support systems and other circumstances – make a professional career in theater seem all but impossible.
“For so many black and brown kids, it’s like ‘I don’t have the money, I can’t get (to auditions), so I guess I just give up the dream that I have,’” he said.
While Mitchel knows what he’s proposing is impactful, he also understands that the idea of a gap year may come across as privileged. His message is this that the Theatre Gap Initiative makes a career in the arts more viable and allows young people to pursue careers they’re passionate about.
“Taking a gap year to mature, some to help hone their skills to work with people who are looking to be a support system in activating what their aspirations are, and it’s not suspect and it’s not odd either,” he said.
Ultimately, Theatre Gap Initiative is about moving the needle in the lives of participants. Often, when it comes to helping young black kids, it’s about providing as many one-time experiences as possible, not consistent, sustained and transformational support over time.
“My big fear is when I say I’m going to help 24 black and brown kids who don’t come from a privileged background get into college,” Mitchell said. “It seems like I’m not doing much, but those are seismic shifts.”
About Theatre Gap Initiative
The Theatre Gap Initiative (TGI), founded by longtime Charlotte educator Corey Mitchell, is a nonprofit college-prep program for high school grads who aspire to apply for Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) and conservatory programs. TGI’s programming is focused on helping students of color successfully navigate the process of applications, prescreens and auditions.
It was founded on the principle that equity means more than the distribution of wealth. It is access to systems that people of color have been historically excluded from. By collaborating with local, collegiate, and national Arts Institutions, TGI wants to help to dismantle those systems.
For more information or to support TGI, visit theatregap.org.