OpinionsA Hamilton workshop

A Hamilton workshop

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A few weeks ago, I flew in to Manila with some high school friends to watch the touring production of Hamilton, the smash Broadway hit from Lin Manuel Miranda that has galvanized American theatre since it debuted in early 2015, and won a slew of awards—among them the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical—in the process.

Hamilton injected new energy to the Broadway stage, but above all, it also reconfigured our way of thinking about history—specifically, how our received narratives about who we are as a people, and where we come from, are often cast in stone [or on the graying, unimpeached pages of history books], but also, how in our retelling of these stories we can resort to imaginative reinvention [without necessarily rewriting history] to be able to speak to broader, more contemporary concerns.

Coming off the show at Solaire, I had to think to myself: I guess that’s one way of making history that’s so far removed from us become alive.

Miranda did it by casting the play in diverse colors, to make an on-the-nose point about the pallor of history made up mostly of white men; and making it sing in a contemporary voice, and in this case, having a musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, be told to the tune of Broadway melodies infused heavily with hiphop.

The result will not always be to everyone’s liking. I have heard contemporaries of mine agonizing over the rapping, and I have seen white nationalists go up in arms over the “wokeness” of Hamilton’s intensions.

I like Hamilton, but this is not my favorite musical—I’ve never taken to it, like many of my friends have, who I knew to have waxed rhapsodic over the original Broadway cast recording some years ago, many committing entire songs to heart and memory. [I guess, in the way I did for Les Miserables or Spring Awakening, or ehem, The Sound of Music or West Side Story when I was much younger.]

But I like it. I know snatches of lyrics [“I am not throwin’ away my shot”], I have seen the film recording of the Broadway production on Disney Plus, I know many of its original stars, and have followed their careers since then—but I went to Solaire knowing I was not exactly its audience [Fine, let me admit it: I do not get hiphop, but my partner schools me about it constantly anyway—in fact, he wooed me using lyrics from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy].

But when the curtain came down on the Solaire stage with that last spotlighted look on Eliza looking up and shouting in revelation, I was in tears: I liked that by the end—after a whirlwind of an epic retelling of the American Revolution, and the subsequent hard work [and political manipulations] of nation-building—we get three confessions in two songs:

Hamilton, dying in slow motion after a duel, lamenting: “Legacy, what is a legacy?/It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see”; Aaron Burr, the man who killed Hamilton in that duel, prophesying: “History obliterates, in every picture it paints/It paints me and all my mistakes/When Alexander aimed at the sky/He may have been the first one to die/But I’m the one who paid for it/I survived, but I paid for it /Now I’m the villain in your history”; and Eliza, Hamilton’s widow, feeling the full weight of history on its great men: “It’s only a matter of time/Will they tell your story?/Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” And the answer to her questions? “Time,” the song goes.

The power of stories and the privilege of narratives have always been things I think about constantly, even in my creative work: I have written lots of stories about the writing of stories, and I have written stories about re-seeing history with new lenses, often to give voice to the muted.

So that ending in Hamilton—more powerfully received live on stage than on a recording—really got to me. I teared up.

But this essay is not a review about Hamilton.

It’s about how, a few weeks later, after getting back to Dumaguete from that Manila trip, I come home to the news that the director of the touring production of Hamilton was going to be in Dumaguete to give a workshop on Nov. 6!

It felt like coming full circle for me as a new fan of the material, to actually be able to meet with the Australian director Dean Drieberg, in my hometown no less.

His workshop’s official title was Theatre-Making Workshop and Technique Masterclasses for Theatre Performers and Practitioners, and what participants—which included theatre artists not just from Dumaguete and Negros Oriental, but also from Cebu, Bohol, Negros Occidental, and Panay—got was an in-depth exploration of inclusive theater practices, and above all, making any material become relevant to the contemporary.

That last one is particularly important, with Mr. Drieberg saying right from the get-go: “Theater has the ability to change the way we see the world. It normalizes the way we look at the community, and it is important that we see ourselves onstage.”

He began the workshop by demonstrating to participants how he exactly goes about directing his performers tackle the music they have to interpret for musicals. First up, we had Louise Remata Villanueva performing With You from the musical Ghost, a lovely rendition from Wowie, and which Mr. Drieberg workshopped with a series of probing questions: Who is this song for as a character? What do you think your character has to gain by singing this song? What has just happened just before the first lyric was sang? What happened in the moment?

(In other words, ask: “What am I doing?”) Why do you think your character sings this part? Why does this song exist? “Emotions [called for in the scene] are too high that you can’t speak about [them],” he reminded the participants, “[but at the same time] we need to sing about this.”

He asked Wowie to explore key changes, to investigate why certain choices are made, to see the moment of acceptance after the peak of release, to breath [and to reset], and even to speak of the song as if it was a monologue. “What word is mostly sustained?” he asked.

“[The word] you…,” Wowie replied.

“Underline that word, [that’s] who she misses.”

She sang the song one more time, differently this time. More felt. More real.

Next up, we had Jon Riam Quizo, singing Being Alive from Company. Mr. Drieberg asked him: Who is this song for? “Picture a mirror in front of you,” Mr. Drieberg said. “There’s just a mirror confronting the character. Don’t play the room too much.” He asked JR to delve into the “moment before”: “That feeling of being cornered, suffocated, ganged up on,” he said. And then, other questions: Who is this character and why are they singing this? Why is this a song, and why is this not just a written text? What is the character doing in the scene?

“Play the punctuation mark,” Mr. Drieberg reminded everyone. “Or is it a question mark? Is the comma a pause? Read the scores, because there are notes there you can’t see in lyrics alone.”

Later, he delved deeper into actors as theatre makers, and the challenges of staging stories for contemporary audiences.

“We can all create theatre, we can all put an idea together,” he said. “The type of theater that I really love, what I like to create, is about re-imagined stories—taking an existing show, and reimagining it for a contemporary audience.”

For him, re-imagined stories tackle best social issues, even politics; re-imagination can make an old story still relevant today. Which was why he was eager to do production work for Hamilton—and he noted that the casting alone can really be powerful thing to wield, because presence on stage is a form of activism, a bold statement. “[Imagine seeing on stage] people of diverse cultures [become the] Founding Fathers.”

He cited that other Broadway shows have taken this tack, especially Six, which chronicles the stories of the wives of Henry XIII, set to contemporary music, remaking the historical into pop, recalling Beyonce and Adele.

He also cited recent productions of older shows, which are now being revived with a fresh outlook of adaptation. “Why must we restage them the same way many years ago?” he asked.  “I like to watch revivals that are reimagined, and made more relevant. Like the 2019 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!

Revivals are important, according to Drieberg, but the adaptation must answer three basic questions: Why this? Why now? What are the parallels happing to the world now?

With that in mind, he put the participants, divided into four groups, to task: to reimagine three old tales—Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Hansel and Gretel—choosing just one, or several of these choices, and to work around the material(s) with respect to the culture, to people, and others. “What is integral to the storytelling without perpetuating stereotypes about culture and gender, and other such things?”

Then he told them to put on a showcase of their adaptation with only an hour of conceptualization and execution and rehearsal.

All the groups turned in fantastic productions—some even with music and choreography—but the efforts of two groups are burned into my mind.

One group called their piece, Burn the Bodega, and in it, they retold the Goldilocks story as the [often-funny] story of a strike—eventually leading the characters to call for the titular act, and ending their strike with a grand conflagration, only to be provided with a twist: an innocent girl trapped in the flames. Which begged the question: what are the lines dividing social action and crime?

In another quick production, one group presented Influence, a deeply disturbing story, following the conceit of the Pied Piper story, and told mostly in mime, which follows a young woman trapped in CoVid-19 quarantine. She finds a way to alleviate her boredom with social media, and soon, she develops a growing presence on TikTok. She becomes so influential that when she dares her followers to do challenges, they do them without any question. And then one day, she dares them to go to high places, and jump. And they jump.

Talk about making old fairy tales relevant again.

Thank you for the visit, Mr. Drieberg!

______________________________

Author’s email: [email protected]

 

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