History has its eyes on "Hamilton." And so too does a group of storytellers honing their craft at Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.
Straddling the disciplines of film, dance, music, theater and transborder studies, 80 “young, scrappy and hungry” students are getting their shot (and taking it) to experience ASU Gammage’s presentation of the Broadway hit "Hamilton: An American Musical" on Feb. 15.
The opportunity comes through the “What 'Hamilton' Means to Me Project,” a four-part workshop series facilitated and organized by Tiffany Lopez, director of Herberger Institute’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre.
“The project is the first of many projects that will give students the opportunity to connect with artists and activists through workshops designed in conjunction with a major touring production at ASU Gammage,” Lopez said. “The goal of the project is for students to find themselves inspired and informed about how to create work born from their own cultural experiences and the forms of artistic expression that make them feel passionate about telling their stories.”
The room where it happens
The first workshop, led by Arizona Theatre Company artistic director David Ivers, included an interactive exchange that expanded on the phenomenon of the musical, its cultural impact and on the idea of taking creative risks.
“'Hamilton' to me is our planet’s masterpiece of the era,” Ivers told students gathered for the Feb. 2 workshop at the Lyceum Theatre on ASU’s Tempe campus. “It has an inevitability to it that makes us examine everything we have ever known, everything we have ever seen.”
Ivers’ words resonated with film, dance and theater junior Maryam Ishaya. She said the racially diverse cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary retelling of America’s Founding Fathers re-invigorated her passion for theater and has helped her push back against the typecasting she says she has experienced as an actress of Middle Eastern descent.
“Lin-Manuel wanted to show the diversity from his community through the story of 'Hamilton' and we talked about how he did that by highlighting the great success that immigrants bring to this country,” Ishaya said. “'Hamilton' has actually inspired me to write about a queen in my culture who was the very first woman in my community to give herself the right to do what a man can do. Not a lot of people know her story and so I would like to write about it and make it a musical.”
Rhett Gajcak, a freshman majoring in theater, said he was first turned on to "Hamilton" by a friend who showed him a video of the show's cast performing at the White House. Gajcak, who admits to having experienced just one musical, said he is excited about participating in the "Hamilton" workshops and sees the opportunity as a fresh start for his focus in life.
“For the few plays that I have seen, they have been phenomenal,” Gajcak said. “If I am able to see 'Hamilton,' it would be like a stepping stone to a new life of chasing theater. I see this workshop as a great opportunity for me to get accustomed to musicals and theater and what I want to do.”
Students participating in the "Hamilton" workshops have the option of taking them for credit as part of a dynamically dated course. The tickets they receive to see the musical are really just the icing on the cake, said Lopez, who thoughtfully set aside discretionary research funds to bulk purchase the hard-to-come-by "Hamilton" tickets when they went on sale in fall 2017.
Brandon Riley, a second year dramatic writing graduate student, said he jumped at the chance to participate in the workshop series.
“Since a lot of us can’t afford 'Hamilton' tickets, it was a golden opportunity to learn about the effects of this phenomenon and to be able to see the show at the same time,” Riley said. “In a country where we are so divided, 'Hamilton' represents what America could be and should be — having diverse cast members unite to create one show.”
And while it was not quite the duel-to-the-death event between the show’s historical namesake, U.S. statesman Alexander Hamilton, and his political rival Aaron Burr, the selection process for students to participate in the “What 'Hamilton' Means to Me Project” was a competitive one. Each student had to submit a one-minute video essay about what "Hamilton" means to them as artists, storytellers and cultural voices. Freshman theater major Daniel Zemeida offered up a creative take on the "Hamilton" song “My Shot” for his essay.
Students in ASU’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), like nursing major Andrea Patino, were among the interdisciplinary students invited to submit a video to participate in the "Hamilton" workshop project.
The second "What 'Hamilton' Means to Me" workshop is slated for Feb. 16 — the day after the students see the musical at Gammage. It will offer a look at the history of hip-hop theater and the role of "Hamilton" in the work of building community. The final two workshops — on Feb. 23 and March 2 — will link themes in "Hamilton" to contemporary issues related to immigration and social justice.
“We cultivated participants from these programs to foster our goal of bringing together a diverse group of students who are deeply and differently invested in thinking about the power of art to build and transform community,” Lopez said. “We wanted to bring a range of engagement to the workshops in order to generate new work and new conversations with students who are well versed about 'Hamilton' as a work of art and students who know very little about the play and have never seen a musical.”
While priority seating will be given to students selected to participate in the project, the workshops are open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Through "Hamilton’s" recurring themes of storytelling and seizing the moment, Lopez hopes the “What 'Hamilton' Means to Me Project” will inspire the students she calls "'Hamilton' ambassadors" to be storytellers “in the here and now.” She offers the reminder that Lin-Manuel Miranda was still just an undergraduate at Wesleyan University when he conjured up "In the Heights," his first Broadway success story.
“The Herberger Institute’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre is committed to developing storytellers who want to make a difference in their communities and create art as a means to transform how people think about making art and making the world,” Lopez said. “We task our students with thinking about how they most want to create work that has the power to transform the ways we think about history, art, music, poetry, dance and visual aesthetics, among other things.”
Lopez and 19 other mentors associated with the workshops will also join the students in seeing the Feb. 15 performance of "Hamilton" at ASU Gammage. The musical runs through Feb. 25 and has inspired a number of other ASU courses and lectures built around the "Hamilton" phenomenon.