Carnegie Mellon University
September 26, 2019

The Arts Define Teacher Who Inspires Students' Journeys

By Pam Wigley

Pam Wigley
  • College of Fine Arts
  • 412-268-1047

When Marilyn McCormick was called to the principal's office at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, she thought she was in trouble. She couldn't have been more mistaken.

Instead of being on the hot seat, she learned she had won the 2016 Excellence in Theatre Education Award, presented by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University. To say she was surprised is an understatement.

"I didn't even know I was nominated, much less be in a position to win it! The more I think back on that, the more I can't believe how totally clueless I was," McCormick said upon hearing the news via speakerphone. "When I found out [I won], I turned around and all my students were there screaming and yelling."

"We all need a place where we can go and have other experiences in our lives — outside of what we normally do‚ and we do that through the arts." — Marilyn McCormick

Marilyn McCormick accepted the Excellence in Theatre Education Award in 2016 during the Creative Arts Awards portion of the Tony Awards ceremony.

Even now, three years later, McCormick finds much of the experience a blur. She said it wasn't until the beginning of this year that she really took the time to sit back and absorb all that happened.

"I want to tell the other winners, 'Take your time, breathe, and let it all sink in,'" she said.

Her Tony Awards weekend in June 2016 was like "being on the other side of the rainbow," she said, comparing her journey to Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" following the yellow brick road. "Sometimes, I still find myself remembering moments that I experienced, and I can't believe it was all real."

One of those moments was when "Hamilton" creator and Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda met her backstage and thanked her for her influence on young people. Actress Glenn Close followed suit at a Tonys after-party. And then there was "Andy," or Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had contacted McCormick prior to the Tony Awards and asked if she would attend his private party so he could toast her success.

"First, we went to the Tony Awards Gala," she recalled of attending the weekend events with her son, Michael. "And then there was a car waiting for us outside the Plaza Hotel to take us to Andrew Lloyd Webber's party." Once there, she and the theater legend chatted before he did, in fact, have the entire party raise a glass in her honor. She said she didn't want to move from where she stood because she wanted to stay in that moment forever.

"It was hard to believe I was the center of it all," she said. "Everyone I met kept saying, 'Oh! You're the teacher.' Not, 'You're a teacher,' but 'You're the teacher.' What an honor that was!"

Through the course of the evening and into the wee hours, she and her new friend, Andy, went to several parties — each of them more exciting and glamorous than the one before. Exhausted but elated, she and Michael made it home at 5 a.m.

She "floated" home to Detroit and, because she had retired from her drama teaching role at Cass, began a new project in the community with two former students — who just so happen to be CMU School of Drama alumni: Daniel Bellomy, who graduated in 2014, and Harron Atkins, who graduated in 2015. Detroit natives, they formed "Project Move" with McCormick with the goal of positively influencing young people through theater arts, keeping them "out of trouble," as McCormick put it.

They had two successful shows and were about to do a third when health issues required McCormick to take a step back. Bellomy and Atkins continued, with McCormick's guidance via Skype. Their separate careers took them in a different direction shortly thereafter, so "Project Move" was put on hiatus.

She looks back on the entire experience fondly, though, and is grateful for the $10,000 grant that came with her award. Although the foundation associated with the Detroit Public School System was granted part of the funds, McCormick was able to purchase some much-needed items for Cass, including microphones and a new sound board.

All this, she said, was made possible through the arts, beginning when she was 9 years old. Because of a hip condition, she was required to wear a body cast for almost two years, but her mother and father helped her experience life through the arts.

"Even though I couldn't move, I had no limitations when he read to me or watched television with me. I am who I am and believe what I believe because of the arts.

"We all need a place where we can go and have other experiences in our lives — outside of what we normally do‚ and we do that through the arts. The arts are color blind and economically blind. They are open to all, and there aren't many things like that in our world."

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