Hamilton Actors Bring the Art of Performance to our Summer Debate Institute

SVUDL students were rapt with attention as current cast members of the SF tour of Hamilton shared their talents at our 2019 Summer Debate Institute at the Yerba Buena High School in San Jose on July 22.

Christopher Henry Young, Morgan Anita Wood, Marja Harmon and DeAundre Woods spent their one day off helping the 35 students at our summer debate workshop grow in confidence, live in the moment, and use their voice. The students got a lesson in the “dramatic” and learned a wide range of skills from acting exercises and the art of improvisation to finding your confidence. Christopher Henry Young inspired the students when he shared this:

“Confidence is about owning the facts. Be unapologetic about who you are. There were no other gay, tall black men in my line of vision. So I am that person for kids now. To my younger self, I would say find your family. These are the people who understand you.”

They also discovered that empathy and compassion were at the heart of great story-telling, and heard some personal insights and bold words of wisdom from these rising broadway stars.

“I lost a parent when I was 13. I went from being an outgoing kid to being completely shut down. I stopped speaking. My mom told me that if I couldn’t find my own voice than I was to use someone else’s. That’s when I started acting back in Louisiana. You can find joy in telling the story over and over again. You can put yourself in a place where you believe the ending could be different this time.”

- Christopher Henry Young

Each actor took center stage giving some incredible life advice at the workshop while helping to connect the dots to debate. DeAundre Woods began by asking SVUDL’s Summer Debate Institute students to appreciate each moment:

“Be present today. I always wanted to rush ahead to be older and do more. But there is a lot to be said for learning from the moment you are in today at this very young age.”

Across the day, the students tried their hand at a range of games designed to hone debate skills and improve their confidence speaking in public. These experiences ranged from a simple fact-based ice-breaker to a “sudden death” staring game where the second you locked eyes with another participant in the circle you had to fake a dramatic death with full body motions and screaming!

At one point, students were asked to form two lines and only cross over to the other side if the statements being made resonated with them. They also attempted to communicate without speaking. This exercise generated a great discussion and students noted that it was incredibly hard to not talk or hear the social cues of tones when listening to someone speak, and they found hand gestures confusing, frustrating, and complicated. But, to the students’ surprise, they were able to put themselves in order of height from shortest to tallest, line-up in order of birthdays and line-up according to the first initial of their middle name, all without uttering a single word!

The students also tried their hand at improvisation as these skills transfer well into the art of debate. The beauty of improvisation is that it ”gets you out of your head” and “stops you from judging yourself so that you can be free to be creative and say what you want” noted the attendees.

Another aspect of improvisation that is useful in debate is the ability to quickly handle a change in direction. Marja Harmon worked with students on active listening and being “ready”:

“Active listening is hard. Improv forces you to listen and gets you out of that space of just waiting to speak what’s already on your mind. Be ready for your partner to take you in a different direction to what you were expecting.”

Then the students attempted an exercise where the speaker had to tell their life story in just ninety seconds. When relaying the facts began to fail the speakers, they were forced to go deeper and get personal with their authentic life story. The actors talked about the symbiotic relationship between the performers and the audience. Morgan Anita Wood shared this piece of advice about the craft of acting as it relates to debate and connecting with others:

“You can defend every character because everyone has a truth and a story. You become a more empathetic human.”

To be in the room with these actors was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all. Thank you to Christopher Henry Young, Morgan Anita Wood, Marja Harmon and DeAundre Woods, for sharing your personal journeys, time, and talent with us, and giving these students some incredible life advice at SVUDL’s 2019 Summer Debate Institute. A big thank you to the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company for helping to arrange this special experience. What a day! Thank you!

KQED was also in attendance to capture some words of wisdom from the Hamilton stars. Click this link to hear the story online.