Madeline Michel Creates Space for Students To Find Voices
By Pam WigleyMedia Inquiries
Madeline Michel's drama program at Monticello High School in Charlottesville, Virginia, has never been afraid to tackle difficult subjects. From the time Michel took over the program 12 years ago, people knew to expect something different from the status quo. The "usual" choices for the high school's spring musical quickly went out the window when Michel took over, allowing her performers to take on "Urinetown" as their first production under her direction. That's when students began to realize this was a new kind of drama program.
Michel, the 2019 Excellence in Theatre Education Award winner — presented by Carnegie Mellon University and the Tony Awards — has used her program to help students find their voices when dealing with the triumphs and pitfalls of life as a teen in today's world. And, in the process, the drama program and its students have become award-winners who are known for their original works. The Virginia Theatre Association has bestowed awards and honors on the program regularly for original plays such as "#whileblack," written by graduating senior Kayla Scott, and "A King's Story," written by senior Joshua Hill.
"It's funny," Michel said. "We never do something because we're looking for a win. We do it because we truly love the material, or because we really want to send an important message. And when we win, it's rewarding but not what drives us."
What drives Michel and her students is, simply put, love and trust — both in the classroom and in their personal lives. Michel's students without exception refer to her as a second mother — the kind who is there when you need her, and often before they even realize they need her.
"She gives everybody a chance to shine and do what they do best," said Esperance Buluma, a 10th grader who moved from Tanzania to Charlottesville and was personally affected by a 2017 rally in the city that escalated into violence over racial issues.
"Ms. Michel is genuine. She's just there for you, no matter what," said Italyia Lee, a 2018 graduate of Monticello who keeps in touch with Michel. "She loves you so hard."
Hill agreed, and pointed to his experience with public backlash over his "A King's Story," which was controversial and also focused on racial issues.
"I don't know how I would have coped with the controversy if she and this group hadn't been there for me," he said. "She has been there for me from the time I met her until now, and she'll be there in the future. I know that."
Hearing the accolades, Michel downplays her importance but clearly is touched by her students' expressions of gratitude. A graduate of University of Rochester and Johns Hopkins University, she began her career as an English teacher in the Baltimore City Schools. She is married to husband, Jon, and has three children: Jesse, Paul and Valerie.