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Teacher’s lifelong passion for theater wins her prestigious award

Laurilea McDaniel teaches theater at Mountain Ridge Middle School in Highlands Ranch


At age 5, Laurilea McDaniel’s mother took her to New York City for the Broadway musical, “Cats.” It was the first of hundreds of shows she would see. That same year, her mom taught her how to sew a costume.

“That’s definitely where my passion for musical theater started,” said McDaniel, sitting in an open classroom where an assortment of props — funky hats, a set of wooden steps, a piano, black stage curtains — replaced tables and chairs.

McDaniel, director of Headstrong Theatre at Mountain Ridge Middle School and executive director of Front Range Theatre Company, was one of eight teachers worldwide selected for the 8th annual Freddie G Fellowship. The honor recognizes educators from schools and performing arts centers across the world who are making a difference in students’ lives and communities through theater productions. Of the other recipients, one was from Australia and the others from across the U.S. McDaniels was the only one from Colorado.

The Littleton resident applied for the fellowship for fun last year, she said. She never thought her name would be announced at the 2017 Junior Theater Festival, a weekend-long event for student musical groups held last February in Sacramento, California.

“I thought, ‘There is no way I am going to win this award,’” McDaniel, 36, said. “When they called me onstage, it was unbelievable.”

It wasn’t surprising for those that know her.

Mountain Ridge Principal Shannon Clarke said McDaniel’s honor was well deserved.

“She has such a passion for the content,” said Clarke, “but more importantly, the kids.”

McDaniel was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She attended Texas A&M University, where she triple-majored in journalism, theater and education. She was nearly finished with her journalism degree when she realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do.

“My mom said I could stay in school,” she said. “I tried out for a play on campus and I loved theater.”

She went on to receive a master’s in curriculum and instruction for theater. She taught in Houston for a year and ran the theater of University of Memphis for two years before budget cuts forced her to look for a new job. She had her eye on Colorado ever since learning about the state in a college geology class. So she applied and landed a position at Mountain Ridge Middle School, where she has been teaching for nine years. Her seventh- and eight- graders produce a fall musical and a spring play. Some participate in theater competitions.

Zach Fox, 13, likes the freedom of McDaniel’s class. Students are able to pick scripts, design choreography and costumes and utilize props from around the school, he said.

“In normal theater, you don’t have that,” Fox said before moving to a corner of the room, putting headphones in his ears and reciting a song from the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

The Freddie G Fellowship included a four-day trip in early July to New York City, where McDaniel worked alongside some of the top names on Broadway, including Jeff Calhoun, producer of Disney’s “Newsies.” She worked with professionals from Music Theatre International and iTheatrics, who she describes as “the people who make decisions for kids’ musicals.”

McDaniel also received $5,000, which she will use towards a technical theater-learning lab in her classroom. The materials — such as a grid of lights and stage — will give student hands-on experience with the production side of theater.

McDaniel returned from the fellowship with a “newfound excitement for being in her classroom.” She now starts every class with a “musical theater moment,” where students watch a song from Broadway on a projector and discuss how it relates to their lives.

Said McDaniel: “I think it’s important for kids to understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves.”


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