'Be it, so others can see it.' SF 'Hamilton' Actors Run Improv Workshop at San Jose High School

1 min
Broadway actors Morgan Anita Wood, DeAundre' Woods, Christopher Henry Young and Marja Harmon conducted an improv workshop in San Jose for the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League. (Photo: Courtesy of SF BATCO)

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.

Broadway actors Christopher Henry Young, Marja Harmon and Morgan Wood pay rapt attention as students with Silicon Valley Urban Debate League perform an improv exercise. (Photo: Courtesy of SF BATCO)

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.

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Of course, everybody, students and debate coaches alike, were waiting for Q&A time, when they got to ask the actors about their careers and advice on life generally.

Morgan Anita Wood (a Hamilton ensemble member and understudy for the the Schuyler sisters) admitted she's a natural extrovert. When students asked what she likes best about acting, she professed she loves to play characters completely unlike her. "Everyone has their truth and their story. You could be playing a murderer, and there’s a reason they did what they did. Getting to play people who are completely outside of my personal realm of understanding makes me a more empathetic human being."

The actors are not too far from high school themselves, and Young made a point of urging students to accept themselves in all their awkward, teenage glory. "When I was younger, if I would have saw me, I would not have been afraid to be me then. Be it, so others can see it."

That, really, was the point of the program, said Janairo, noting that SVUDL is focused on low-income students in East Palo Alto and San Jose. "I hope they're taking some nuggets home about how to present themselves, how to speak their truth, and find their joy."

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