Detroit Performs | Cass Technical High School Drama Department
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"In theater, you’re forced to think beyond your own limitations, beyond yourself. Having a climate where you can do that is essential. When you don’t have that, you’re stuck in a box."
For director and former Cass Tech Theater Department head, Mrs. Marilyn G. McCormick (“MC” to many who know her), theater is a space where transformation can happen.
“You start with nothing but maybe a piece of paper and some words on it, and you can create a whole new self a whole new world, a whole new existence.”
“The Experience Up From the Ashes” a musical written and performed by McCormick’s performing arts students at Cass Technical High School in 2014 exemplified that. That year, arson fires damaged parts of the Heidelberg Project—Tyree Guyton’s art installation project in Detroit’s east side.
From those ashes, the students found inspiration to write songs and a script based on the houses that once stood there, turning their ideas it into a full-fledged production.
Since the musical’s run ended, many of the students involved in the production have graduated and moved on to their next chapter. For Mrs. McCormick, some things have changed, but her belief in the power of theater and its importance for Detroit’s youth remains a constant.
In 2016, Mrs. McCormick officially retired from Cass Technical High School, the same place where she started her teaching career in the 1970s.
At the end of her closing show in May, students and faculty commemorated her nearly 40 years of service by renaming the school’s Black Box Theater in her honor, carrying out the sign they would proudly hang over its entrance.
McCormick said she’s still in shock at the honor. “To me, it just means something I did must have been right. I don’t know what, but somewhere in my life, somehow, I did something right that people thought was lasting…I have three grandsons, and I hope one day, they’ll be able to go into that building and see that, and say, Wow, that’s what we’re about’.”
“If I’ve ever doubted the value or respect for what I’ve done,” McCormick said, “this validated that it is good, that it is right. It makes a difference.”
That same month, McCormick also discovered that her current and former students nominated her for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award. Out of a pool of 1,100 entrants, she’d been selected as the winner. She was then told that she would have to travel to New York to be honored at the Tony Awards that June.
At the awards ceremony, the experience felt surreal: “I kept thinking, ‘Am I walking, am I breathing, am I okay’? It was like being in a tornado. Things were spinning, and my son just kept saying, ‘Smile and nod.’”
McCormick was shoulder to shoulder with theater legends, including Hamilton creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. “He came up to me and he said, ‘I want to thank you for being a teacher. If it wasn’t for a teacher, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing’.”
McCormick is still pursuing her passion for theater and teaching students, now through a venture called BMA, an organization she co-founded in 2016 with two former Cass Tech theater students, Daniel Bellomy and Harron Atkins. The letters in BMA stand for the last names.
McCormick said BMA’s goal is to help develop a platform for actors in Detroit who want to pursue acting professionally.
“We have different kinds of organizational groups in the city. And then, they don’t know the next step—where do I go, how do I get into the industry? How do I keep working on my craft? BMA seeks to be that bridge between starting here and getting there.”
For McCormick’s former students who are in the industry, it also creates an opportunity for them to share information based on their experiences, and also foster projects they can work on between acting jobs.
When asked about her first experience with theater, McCormick recollects when her father took her to see 1776, a musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The family was living in Pittsburgh at the time.
As a young child, she had trouble walking due to a birth defect. Seeing the musical was a transformative experience as it opened her eyes to what she describes as a perfect alternate universe. “Maybe on this planet, these legs don’t work too well. But there, I could be anything I want to be.”
According to McCormick, there is a need for more theater, especially in the Detroit school system, where arts programs are few and far between.
In a recent article by DJC Partner Chalkbeat Detroit, Erin Einhorn reports that out of 81 schools providing general education studies to students, 40 had no music or arts instruction.
“In theater, you’re forced to think beyond your own limitations, beyond yourself,” McCormick said. “Having a climate where you can do that is essential. When you don’t have that, you’re stuck in a box.
You may not ever leave the city, but look at where you can travel to mentally. Which goes back to my whole thing about not being able to walk for so long. I lived other places. I did live on the other side of the rainbow.”