Cardale Emmery, a senior at Monticello High School, was dancing in a classroom four years ago when drama teacher Madeline Michel called him into the hallway. He thought he was in trouble.
“She looked like an administrator,” he said.
But he wasn’t in trouble. Instead, Michel wanted to talk with him about joining the school musical.
“We went out into the hall and I was like, ‘you seem like you really like to dance. Why don’t you join the musical?’” she said.
Michel, who has led the Monticello drama department for more than decade, is always watching for students who have an inkling for theater, whether they know it or not. Like Emmery, she might see students dancing in class or in the hallways.
“Or maybe I’ll see them on Instagram rapping,” she said.
By individually recruiting students, Michel has brought together a diverse group of students for theater productions and built a drama department that champions inclusivity and empowers students. Her approach will be honored Sunday night during the 73rd annual Tony Awards. Michel is receiving the 2019 Excellence in Theatre Education Award, which recognizes the top K-12 drama teacher in the country.
“For me, the whole importance of theater in high school is to give kids confidence and to give kids a voice,” she said.
In recent years, Michel has given students the opportunity to write plays that highlight their experiences and perspectives on controversial issues. Among those works was Josh St. Hill’s 2017 “A King’s Story,” which centered on a fictional black Charlottesville teenager who is shot and killed by police. She’s also chosen productions with an eye toward what students want and the diversity of dance numbers, such as hip-hop, Latin, ballet and lyric dances.
“I can’t deal with 50 kids all doing the same thing on stage,” she said.
Emmery said he was unsure about theater when Michel approached him. He did try the musical but didn’t like it. Yet, he returned the next year to be part of “In the Heights.”
“I saw it was a little bit hip-hop and I love hip-hop,” said Emmery, who will be playing football at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, next school year.
Since “In the Heights,” he’s discovered that he has a knack for writing poems and found a place to call home at Monticello High.
“She always sees the good in people,” he said of Michel. “If she’s your friend, which is most likely true, she will always be there for you. She’s somebody you can call on.”
Michel is upfront that she’s not a theater person; in fact, she dropped her first theater class in college.
“I’m just a humble little English teacher,” she said.
She was a Monticello parent when she was asked to become the drama teacher.
“I got into this for the love of students and love of writing and history,” she said.
Now, she prefers to put her students in the spotlight, rather than talk about herself. She plans to spend the $10,000 that accompanies the Tony Award on student scholarships.
“That’s what I’m about — giving opportunities to students,” she said. “I have everything I want in my life.”
When Michel took over Monticello’s drama department 12 years ago, she taught two classes made up of mostly white girls.
“And I thought, wow, this is not very representative of this school and who is in this school,” she said.
To Michel, theater is “boring” when it doesn’t involve a diverse group of people.
So, she went recruiting. Expanding and diversifying the program took work and time.
“Because you have to make kids see that the way our program runs is not necessarily what they thought theater would be,” she said. “… You have to be willing to make this place where everybody can be successful. And that means not being a gate-keeper.”
Michel didn’t want to reveal all of her recruiting tactics but said she meets students where they are at, even if they aren’t the most participatory in drama class. She then finds some way to engage them, whether having them critique a work or share a facet of their culture with the class.
“Because no matter what job you get in life, you are going to have to present ideas and find information and be accurate about your information,” she said. “Those are transferable skills no matter what you do. I don’t encourage my students to go into professional acting at all. I just encourage them to use the skills that they get here to do whatever they want to do.”
When she started at Monticello, the drama classroom was filled with desks and chairs. Now, her room has couches and tables, decorated with photos and posters from past productions.
Kayla Scott, a senior at Monticello, said the drama department is a safe place at the school.
“She allows students to express themselves without judgment,” Scott said. “They can come to her with anything.”
Scott wrote the play “#WhileBlack,” which deals with racial profiling and was performed last fall. She said she didn’t think of herself as a playwright before Michel challenged her.
“I’m grateful that she gives students a platform to talk about controversial issues that most theater departments would just be like, ‘no, you can’t talk about that,’” Scott said.
Michel said art can be more than entertainment, which she said is why she turned to students for original plays.
“Art can change people’s minds. Art can open people’s hearts and make people see things they never saw before,” she said.
The Tony Awards air on CBS starting at 8 p.m.