Madeline Michel sits on one of the couches lining her classroom, balancing a sparkly gold laptop on her knees as she tells two students about being summoned to the Monticello High School principal’s office.
Principal Rick Vrhovac called her in for a “meeting,” she says, her voice slightly sarcastic as she makes air quotes, “about next year.” Once she got to the office, Vrhovac told her she had a phone call (Michel did not want to sit through a phone call), and that he was going to put her on speakerphone (“super unprofessional,” thought Michel).
The call was to inform Michel that she had won the 2019 Excellence in Theatre Education Award from the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University, an honor that recognizes K-12 drama teachers for championing arts programs in their schools. Michel will accept the award, which comes with a $10,000 grant for the Monticello drama program as well as two scholarships for Michel’s students to attend Carnegie Mellon’s pre-college summer program, at the Tony Awards on Sunday, June 9, in New York City.
“In the principal’s office, of all places!” Michel exclaims, tossing her head back in dramatic exasperation, to giggles from Kayla Scott and Joshua St. Hill, two 2019 MHS grads whom Michel insisted participate in this interview, partly because “they’re so much more interesting than I am,” says Michel, but also because everything Michel does, she does in service of her students.
Michel describes her teaching philosophy as shutting up, listening, watching, finding out what’s important to her students and following their lead, offering encouragement and guidance where and when the teens need it. It’s an approach Michel started developing when she began teaching in 1980 in Baltimore, and one she’s honed over her 12 years at MHS.
“She’s not the typical theater teacher,” says Scott. For one, drama is a year-round commitment: During the summer months, when school’s not in session, Michel leads summer writing groups to encourage students to write, produce, and perform original material.
Secondly, Michel isn’t into staging what she calls “fluff.” Monticello drama productions “have to have something in [them] that relates to a problem we’re facing in our world,” she says, or reflect the experiences and interests of MHS students, who come from diverse backgrounds. In recent years, the program has staged, among other productions, In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ musical with a hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and soul score; Leap of Faith, Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s musical about a charismatic con man posing as a man of faith; A King’s Story, St. Hill’s original play motivated by the stories of black men who have died as a result of police violence; and #WhileBlack, a play that Scott penned about racial profiling.
“She gives us students a platform to talk about anything that’s on our heart,” says Scott. Another teacher might have told Scott that #WhileBlack was too controversial or that a high school student was too young to write this kind of play in the first place. But not Michel.
“She gives us opportunities we wouldn’t have had [otherwise],” says St. Hill, an athlete who would sing and rap here and there, but didn’t take writing rhymes seriously until he joined the drama program on a whim. “There are so many people that I have to speak for, who can’t speak for themselves,” whose voices are lost, he says.
But the skills Michel teaches aren’t just for the stage. “Theater is really just a form of learning how to express yourself and feel confident in front of other people,” she says. That helps in a job interview, a public speaking engagement, a presentation, or even a one-on-one conversation. “It’s about confidence more than any kind of content,” says Michel. “What can you do without confidence? It’s so hard to live life without a sense of confidence.”
Scott, who will attend North Carolina A&T in the fall, wants to be a pediatric surgeon, and though she has a rather extraordinary gift for acting, writing, dancing, and choreography, she says Michel has never steered her to forsake medicine for theater. In fact, Michel (and her children) have helped Scott with biology homework on more than one occasion. Scott and St. Hill rattle off the names of other MHS students who have come to the drama program and discovered new things about themselves, their peers, and the world in which they live.
“I couldn’t think of a better person” to receive this special Tony Award, says Scott, to wide-eyed nods of agreement from St. Hill, who will attend UVA in the fall and is acting in Live Arts’ summer production of Rent. “She puts all of her students before herself.”
“That’s so sweet,” says Michel, her voice quivering slightly as she touches her hand to her chest before taking out her phone and asking Scott if she wants to see a picture of her Tonys dress.
They coo over the beaded gown before Scott counsels her teacher on what kind of shoes to wear. “No baby heels at the Tonys,” advises Scott, much to Michel’s chagrin.
“See, that’s the best part of my job,” says Michel. “Learning from my students.”