Interview: Educational Theatre Association's Musical Theatre Teacher of the Year Matthew Wolfe Fosters Inclusion and Accessibility

Wolfe is a teacher at Westerville South High School in Westerville, Ohio.

By: Aug. 23, 2023
Interview: Educational Theatre Association's Musical Theatre Teacher of the Year Matthew Wolfe Fosters Inclusion and Accessibility

Each year, the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) honors the achievements of individuals and theatre programs with special awards presented in recognition of notable accomplishments.

This year's recipient of the Stephen Schwartz Musical Theatre Teacher of the Year Award was Matt Wolfe of Westerville South High School in Westerville, Ohio. The award is presented in partnership with The ASCAP Foundation to recognize the highest level of achievement for teaching musical theatre. Wolfe will receive a $5,000 cash prize, and the award will be formally presented to him at EdTA’s Theatre Education Conference September 28-30 in St. Pete Beach, Fla.

BroadwayWord sat down with Matt to discuss winning this award, his thoughts on creating a safe, inclusive theatre department, and hopes for his future, as well as the future of his students and program.

Congratulations! How does it feel to receive this award? 

It feels great! lol. I love what I do, and I have known that teaching was my path since I was very little. To be recognized, to be seen, helps the ego, you know? It also reminds me that on the tough days (or years) our work is important and critical. It feels good to be recognized, but I am grateful that there are organizations and incredible people like Stephen Schwartz, ASCAP, and EdTA who are actively working to not only shine a light on arts, specifically theatre education but also find ways to make one person feel so special, is pretty incredible.

You’ve created quite a few innovative programs to assist with affordability and accessibility for young theatre artists. Can you tell us a bit about them and why they were important for you to implement? 

I have an incredible community of students and supporters of all backgrounds and places in life. The perspective that I have gained living and teaching in my community has been profound for me, so it is part of what I want to channel.

I think there are some lessons that theatre teaches that make our profession vital:

  1.  That fair is NOT always equal, and that's okay.
  2. The world has competition, and we can't handle that.  How we accept defeat, react to setbacks, and move forward is in our control.
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Creative Thinking

[Those lessons,] mixed with planting seeds career readiness skills to help propel them for the ever-changing world:

  1. Painting
  2. Construction
  3. Sewing
  4. Audio and Visual Technology
  5. Design
  6. Public Relations/ Communications

Making these happen for all students at all levels has become a necessity to build my program, but also just the right thing to do. Aside from making the theatre troupe and performances accessible to all, we spend a lot of time at school. We do a variety of performances with a variety of casting needs. One of our shows is dedicated to being written by a BIPOC writer and featuring a black cast. We bring theatre to the elementary schools, support our middle school theatre, and attend conferences, competitions, and auditions as a group. We celebrate together and we pout together, lol. But really, we enjoy the happy moments and we talk through the upsetting ones, it is where the growth really happens. The teacher part of me is what is responsible for finding those moments for all my students. 

How have students and members of the community responded to these programs?

The support and reaction has been incredible. It has broken down walls between our students and created an opportunity for students to have difficult discussions, ask questions, and better yet, look at themselves through these characters. Many of the titles we have done: School Girls, Or the African Mean Girls Play, Akeelah and the Bee, Pipeline, Milk Like Sugar, and this year Blood At The Root, give my students an opportunity to teach and share with me while still teaching them about storytelling. We usually do the show in a black box-style theatre and create a really intimate setting for the audience.

What made you decide to become a theatre teacher?

As I mentioned earlier, I knew from a small age that I wanted to be a teacher. My grandfather and I would play school. I was always the teacher (in charge) and he was the student that every stuffed animal wanted to be. I fostered a love to take charge at a young age and I enjoyed leadership opportunities. When I found theatre in middle school I felt saved. It was instant. My best friend April and her entire family were theatre people. As we grew up and April became more and more excited about theatre, I made myself [get excited] as well. But when I walked into the theatre it was like I took a breath for the first time and I have really never left. I got my English teaching certificate because English was my hardest subject in class and I knew there needed to be more patient English teachers, I tagged on my theatre ed certificate in tandem to make sure I could get hired. I found my dream job where I get to spend days with my favorite people in the world!

What would you recommend for other educators looking to create an inclusive and safe space within their own arts programs?

Sometimes you need to force it. When we started theatre for a specific audience, sometimes we had to find students and invite them to come into our space and tell a story that only they can. You have to make sure you listen and REALLY listen when no one is talking. All families have different rules about how to interact with peers and teachers and rules at home. I have learned that being in a healthy, happy environment is a lot less stressful than trying to get everyone to do theatre exactly like I think it should be done. Inevitably, when I flipped that switch, I learned a lot more about storytelling and other perspectives. 

Arts education funding is often one of the first things cut when schools are looking to reduce expenses. What would you say to someone who isn’t convinced that theatre education is important?

I have talked a lot about my love for education and it is impossible to say what is important and what is not. I think Theatre Education can enrich the community of a school. It provides an artistic outlet much like visual arts, choir, band, orchestra, and PE where students can go and do something that brings joy. The soft skills that I have mentioned above along with self-esteem, teamwork, rejection, and elation of a job well done (opening night is always magical) are feelings that students should experience and have access to before we send them into the world beyond our doors.

What do you hope to accomplish in your program in the future? 

I hope to keep my enthusiasm and love for what I do. I know as long as I keep showing up the students will be there to learn and push themselves to learn and grow through theatre, so I want to never lose this feeling. I hope to help bottle the magic I have found and spread it around. I hope to keep growing (next stop PhD), but most of all, I hope to keep allowing my students to teach me. Any award I might receive, I promise you, is simply a reflection of the students, parents, and colleagues whom I have the absolute joy to surround myself with.

Thanks so much, Matt!

The Educational Theatre Association, home to the Educational Theatre Foundation and International Thespian Society, is an international nonprofit whose mission is shaping lives through theatre education. The foundation provides essential financial support to enhance theatre education, expand access, and foster racial equity. The International Thespian Society, an Honor Society active in nearly 5,000 schools, has inducted 2.4 million students since 1929. Visit to learn how EdTA honors students, supports teachers, and influences public opinion that theatre education is essential for building life skills. 


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