NEW YORK — The special Tony Award that honors educators this year will go to a drama teacher who picks her high school’s shows, builds the sets, hems the costumes — and nurtured many of the young people demanding change following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Melody Herzfeld, the one-woman drama department at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, will be presented with the award onstage June 10 at the Tony telecast.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Herzfeld told The Associated Press. “But I hope that this award will remind everyone of how vital and important arts education is to our kids. Drama, music, art, creative writing — that’s how you make good citizens.”
Herzfeld saved 65 lives by barricading students into a small classroom closet on Valentine’s Day when a former student allegedly went on a school rampage, killing 17 people.
She then later cheered as many of her pupils led the nationwide movement for gun reform, including organizing the March For Our Lives demonstration and the charity single “Shine.”
The annual honor bestowed by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University recognizes U.S. educators from kindergarten to 12th grade who have “demonstrated monumental impact on the lives of students and who embodies the highest standards of the profession.”
The award includes a $10,000 prize and a pair of tickets to the Tony ceremony and gala. A panel of judges comprised of the American Theatre Wing, The Broadway League, Carnegie Mellon and other leaders from the theater industry selects the winner, based on candidates submitted by the public.
When Herzfeld was being considered for this year’s honor — the fourth — one Tony administration committee member commented: “Never has the drama department looked so cool.”
Ever modest, Herzfeld said she should take little credit for shaping her teenage students. She said she just lays the foundation by insisting that honesty — onstage and off — be a guiding principle.
“These kids are so close to adulthood they can taste it, but they don’t have all the responsibilities of adulthood yet. So it’s important to give them a safe place where they can fail or experiment and it doesn’t matter.”
Truth is so ruthlessly important in her department that her students are as likely to brutally offer a critique that her outfit or hair isn’t working as they are to decide that their dramatic scene isn’t strong enough.
“I want them to feel confident enough to call out any adult, any bureaucrat, any politician, anyone, even their teacher,” she said. “They need to speak truth to power.”
Heather Hitchens, president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing, said Herzfeld is a great example of so many teachers doing great work under all kinds of difficult circumstances across the country.
“She does her work every day and she believes in it. What the kids are doing is enough that the idea that someone outside of that would recognize it has floored her,” said Hitchens.
Herzfeld, the mother of two adult children, has been teaching drama at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School since 2003 and has led some 50 productions. She notes that drama can help students find their voice, teach teamwork and problem solve — features that arts administers also stress.
“Arts education teaches leadership, teaches civic involvement, and brings out the best in people, helps them to be better citizens — more well-rounded and balanced citizens,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League.
MARK KENNEDY, AP Entertainment Writer