Sometimes, when you ask, you receive. So it was for Rolland Janairo, the new executive director of the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League. A few months ago, he attended a performance of Hamilton in San Francisco, went back stage to meet the actors, pitched Christopher Henry Young on coaching a gaggle of high school debate students, and "his eyes just lit up."
So it was, with an assist from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, that Young showed up with at Yerba Buena High School in San Jose last week with three fellow cast members (in an unofficial capacity, as far as the musical is concerned). Unofficial or not, it was the headlining highlight of this year's SVUDL summer debate institute.
"Little secret," Young confided before the group gathered in the cafeteria. "We're all much shyer than we appear. It's all smoke and mirrors. So I'm able to be up here, and look you in the eye, not because it's natural to me, but because I've had to learn tools and tricks," said the Hamilton ensemble member, who's also been in The Wiz and Guys and Dolls on Broadway.
Frankly, they could have recited the U.S. Constitution and this crowd of 35 students would have paid rapt attention, but it turns out debate and public speaking are legitimately a lot like theatre, because performers have to be prepared to respond to the unexpected while performing on stage.
"A lot of the exercises that we’re going to have you do today are things like we’ve done in theatre classes. They all help with concentration, flexibility, being able to think on your feet, focus, empathizing and sharing experiences with each other," said Marja Harmon, who is the standby for all the Schuyler sisters in the local tour of Hamilton, after stints in Book of Mormon and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway.
There were powerful moments of poignancy as a few students were called up on stage and asked to describe themselves in 90 seconds. Think you can do it on the spot? Not so easy, regardless of your age. Most of us shy away from the most compelling thing you can be in front of others: confidently genuine. It's what a lot of people describe as "owning your own truth," and if it were easy, we'd all be doing it, all the time.