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New Hillel Theater Director Michaels Talks Arts Education and Judaism

Patch sits down with Stephanie Michaels — mother of two, soprano, and new musical theatre director of the Farmington Hills day school.

For Stephanie Michaels, teaching runs in the family. The second generation educator (her mother retired from teaching in Detroit and Fraser public school districts) was recently hired as the new director of musical theater at after one year as a vocal music instructor at .

To stay patched to local Jewish community was an important part of Michaels' decision. A mother of two with a six-year-old Hillel student who enjoys playing teacher at home, Michaels seemed just as devoted to her craft as she is the arts, her family, and the Jewish tradition.

Michaels, a 1998 graduate of The Juilliard School in New York, spoke with Patch over the phone this week:

What role does education play in vocal music performance? What inspires you to teach?

"My mother was a teacher for 35 years and growing up with that all along, it’s been of interest to me. I've always sort of envisioned myself in a teaching role. I see it in my daughter as well — she runs a classroom in our basement."

"I've taught at Frankel for one year in addition to teaching Sunday school at for the past eight years. In addition to teaching these students, I’ve taught private voice lessons for 10-plus years, which has let me develop and mentor students, which is very exciting. I have two kids graduating this spring to study music theatre at New York University and the University of Wisconsin. I have another kid who's going to the Interlochen Arts Academy, which is where I went to school for my senior year after three years at . It’s exciting when you start to see that path."

What role does Judaism play in arts education, specifically, the instruction of musical theatre? 

"I just spoke to the kids at Hillel, a group of fifth- through eighth-graders, and I try to remind them that they're in a transitional age and they form opinions of their identity, but it's important to continue exploring. I also remind them of this major Jewish contribution to the arts and that even if it’s just from that perspective alone, they should feel some sort of obligation to explore the arts."

"Historically, I think it’s amazing to see that so much classic twentieth-century theatre has been written and performed by Jews. It speaks historically to anti-Semitism, one of the impressions, that this group of people set upon themselves to find roles that perhaps in life they were not supposed to be seen as. It seems like there's a longstanding desire for people to be in other than their current situation."

What role do you hope to play at the school? What was your impression the kids at Hillel?

"I think I’ve been handed a program which is already strong. It’s not like we’re building from the ground up, thanks to Robin Lash, who has been the director of musical theatre for 20-something years. She did a wonderful job and I'm glad she'll continue teaching."

"A lot of students who come to me privately do not have that innate ability, but I think what anyone at any age can get from this, particularly when they are young, it’s about getting to know yourself and improving your self-confidence."

"I think the kids are really excited. They were charming and so excited and hooting and hollering. They were excited to stand up in front of me and sing and I think it’s great."

How are you feeling about this new community and leaving the old one behind? What will you be teaching?

"I think the assumption is that I'll continue to be involved at Frankel in an after-school role. I'll be involved in the fall musical, Oliver, which will be amazing. I'll be "

"As I sit in the room of front of these kids, I look around the room and there’s a handful whose Bar or Bat Mitzvahs I officiated. It's wonderful. Our spring musical will be coming up before you know it — I hope to do something big bright and colorful and leaving the people happy. I'll be teaching a series of classes as well."

"I look forward to another new and exciting partnership with a wonderful Jewish institution. Hopefully together we can develop a strong appreciation for the arts and create a future genration of artistic contributors."

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