When fourth-grader Ellen Brown auditioned for the role of a child in Greensboro Day School’s middle school play, it lit a spark for theater that has taken her from Greensboro to New York and back to North Carolina as the theater teacher at Durham Academy Middle School.
“Greensboro Day had a really wonderful middle school musical theater program. I got incredibly involved and found that’s where I felt I came alive more than any other space. I started devoting my energies pretty heavily toward singing, acting and dancing. When I wasn't in school, that's what I was doing, and when I was in school, any opportunity I had, I would jump on.”
While musical theater was new to Brown, music was not new. She had been singing since she was a little girl. “I think the first time I felt like ‘Oh, I'm good,’ I was singing to Little Mermaid, ‘Part of Your World,’ and my parents filmed me.”
She is classically trained, having begun piano lessons at age 6 and voice lessons in sixth grade. Music continues to be a big part of her life — “I am still a professional accompanist.”
Brown performed in school and professionally in North Carolina while earning an International Baccalaureate diploma at Greensboro’s Grimsley High School. She graduated from the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, studying straight theater, musical theater and acting for film and television; worked professionally in New York; and toured nationally in a production of Aladdin for young audiences, where she discovered her passion for teaching and directing theater.
“I moved to New York as an 18-year-old. And it's funny, I wanted nothing to do with North Carolina. … I felt like North Carolina had given me everything I could possibly have and now I needed to move to the big city.
“I still had this focus that professional theater is where I had to be, that that was the only place I would ever be happy. During college I worked professionally in New York — I was really lucky to book jobs. They were mostly Off-Off Broadway. I did a lot of original works with new playwrights. It was exciting to get to meet young directors and young writers and be a part of the collaborative process. … I'd never been on the creating side, aside from creating a character. Getting involved in new works helped me understand how playwrights work and started whetting my appetite when it comes to producing theater. But I still didn't know that's what I was going to end up wanting to do. … My first professional audition [Aladdin], I was really lucky to book right out of college.”
Brown enjoyed being part of the Aladdin cast, a production she called a hybrid of Disney’s Aladdin and Arabian Nights, “but what struck me as I was performing for young children and I watched their faces as we came onstage, as we told jokes, as we sang — for the first time, I felt like I was interacting with an audience in a way that I hadn't before. When you're doing theater that's in a proscenium arch — meaning the beautiful theaters we see — you can't see the audience. They're blacked out, the lights are on you. But when you're performing for kids in Ohio, you really see the way that they're affected by the theater you're doing. Something came alive in me, even more than when I was performing, when I realized that I was fascinated by the impact that theater was having on children. I started dabbling, while auditioning, with teaching and directing theater and ended up finding that's what I was fascinated by. I got my master's in applied theater [at City University of New York while simultaneously earning an M.A.T. from Relay Graduate School of Education],” learning how theater can be used to support a community, an educational institution, a group of young children.
“It was the most stellar education I could have ever received, and that's the influence I really bring to the classroom, which is working from the interests of the students as opposed to saying we are going to do Shakespeare because he's the best and this is what we're going to do. … Applied theater taught me how to work with young people, and from there, I started working in New York City public schools. I did performing and teaching at the same time. I would bring educational pieces of theater that would be aimed toward looking at bullying, or sex ed, or all kinds of social emotional well-being. Instead of just performing and leaving, we would perform and process them, and sometimes have students get on stage and try things out so that they could change an outcome and learn from our story.
“New York was this incredible playground of learning, where I was able to bridge performance — this talent and passion I have for performance — and this wild interest in young people and their development and their thinking.”
Working at Harlem Prep Academy in East Harlem, “I really learned the value of investing in a community and seeing what would happen when I poured all of my energies into one group of people and got to know young people really well. That's where I saw that life-changing relationship, where I saw the value in that.”
But life in New York wasn’t easy. Before settling at Harlem Prep for a few years, Brown’s teaching would take her to the Bronx in the morning, Brooklyn in mid-morning, Queens in the afternoon “and then I would direct a show in Manhattan. That was a commute of about 45 minutes each way. To Harlem, I was biking for 45 minutes to get there at 6 a.m.”
North Carolina began to look good to Brown, who was now married and “wanted a lifestyle that would support the family that I hoped to grow one day.” Her husband was also from Greensboro, and they wanted to be closer to their families. “We wanted to move down to North Carolina eventually. I would only go for the right space, have to have the right situation.”
The lucky ticket turned out to be teaching theater at Durham Academy Middle School. Brown is in her third year at DA, lives 10 minutes from campus and has a 17-month-old daughter.
“[When I visited] I just had the sense, it was the joy I saw on our students’ faces, the way they seemed engaged in their learning. And in my interview, seeing how invested the faculty was and how committed everyone was to making this feel like our school. I could sense that everyone had so much pride — especially the faculty — in making the space a really intentional strong, wonderful school, a school where they'd want to send their kids, and that was what I was looking for. And I haven't been wrong. I've been fully supported since I've been here, and I am wildly happy.”
Part of what makes her happy is working with middle school students.
“It's my favorite place to be because I find that they are still playful, they want to have fun and play. Even eighth-graders — cynical, second-semester eighth-graders — want to play, but they have the cognitive development to handle deeper questions, and that's what I want. Truly, the work that I do, and I think I'm best at, is supporting people with the creation of original theater that says something about this world and challenges the audience's thinking and their own thinking in the process of creating it. …
“Theater helped me find my footing, and so I hope to be that for a lot of people. And if even if it's not theater, I hope that as an advisor, I can just support young people. This is such a vulnerable, volatile time, and they grow so much and that's so fun to see.”
Brown’s middle school experience was a turning point in her life and her favorite role, of all she has played, was Golda in the Greensboro Day middle school production of Fiddler on the Roof.
“That was the first time I felt I had gotten into a character's skin. How old are you in eighth grade: 13, 14? You are a young person and I have to be a woman who has children and who's frustrated by her children and having to say goodbye to her home and fighting with her husband. I didn't have any of those life experiences and it was the first time that I had to learn what acting was.
“I think prior to that — I was a singer first, and then an actor, then a dancer, I'm not a very good dancer — I was always placed in the roles that have me singing as the main feature and this role is much more acting-focused role. It was digging into the life of the person and trying to understand her. Doing that at an eighth-grade level, I was such a beginner, so it was magical to go ‘Oh my gosh, I have to think about the way she would think about this’ and that just excited me so much to understand acting for the first time.”
The positive feedback she got from her school community was also important.
“That's also something I try to do [as a theater teacher]. I put on strong shows for the young people so they feel that their work has been valued by the community, because when someone says ‘That was fabulous,’ that can change the way they see themselves.”
Brown’s parents and sister are medical professionals and she often thought their dinner table discussions were boring. Her family had an appreciation of the arts and were always supportive and proud of her musical ability, but Brown functioned on a different side of the brain.
“I didn't feel like I had a place until theater.” But she soon brought theater home.
“I have a younger brother who has Down syndrome. He's such a wonderful human, he taught me so much about empathy and love and joy. He was the star of all my first musicals as a director.”
Theater, and particularly musical theater, has had a huge impact on Brown’s life, and she would like to bring musical theater back to the Middle School. (DA Middle School used to produce an annual musical, including productions of Annie, Les Misérables and Guys and Dolls.)
“When I interviewed here, I asked, would you be interested in having a musical theater program? I was looking for that space where I could be, because I'm this weird social justice, critical thinking, let's create theater that says something [kind of person]. But then I also have a side of musical theater and fun and entertainment for entertainment purposes. That's what I want to have here.”
She offers an after-school enrichment class that focuses on musical theater — “I needed at least eight kids to sign up, and I got something like 45” — so she knows there is interest. Next year, there might be a small pilot class that would study musical theater and put on a showcase.
And that interest fits well with construction that begins this summer to re-imagine the Middle School campus. The first phase is a new Middle School performance/event center with fine arts and language classrooms, slated to open in 2020.
Brown’s goal, in conjunction with music teacher Karen Richardson, is to “have a musical theater program here in 2020 where we have an actual course. Instead of doing it after school, making a kid choose between sports [practice] and the musical, they would take a musical theater course, and then we would put on a show in April.”
She believes musical theater would have an impact on the school, much like it had on her as a middle school student.
“It just seems like such a valuable experience for everyone involved, for families to see their students and for us as a community to come together to put something on. I'm so excited about the day that we will able to make that happen as a school.
“We'll start small and make it happen. What’s that quote: If you build it, they will come?”