Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re hyperaware of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, which has won Tony Awards, a Grammy, the Pulitzer Prize, and the accolades of everyone from Barack and Michelle Obama to Beyoncé and Jay Z. What is especially fantastic is the #EduHam program, which has brought thousands of high school students to the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. This program gives students the chance not only to see the production, but also be able to go up onstage and perform their own raps based on themes they learned in American history class. (How cool is that?!)
Why not a take some inspiration from Lin-Manuel and use theatre as a medium to share and celebrate history in your own classroom? This could be a great cross-curriculum project with the history department at your school. As a starting point, chat with the teachers in the history department to find out what subjects they’re focusing on this semester.
There are so many areas of history that the possible topics are virtually endless:
- Local History (I live in London, Ontario, Canada, so perhaps I might get inspired by the story of the disappearance of Ambrose Small, owner of the Grand Theatre in London, or an account of Guy Lombardo, the famous bandleader.)
- Provincial or State History (For Ontario residents, how about the forming of Upper and Lower Canada in 1791, Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone in Brantford, Ontario, or Agnes Macphail becoming the first woman elected to the House of Commons?)
- National Historical Events or People (Canadians could write about Laura Secord, James Naismith, Terry Fox, Sir John A. Macdonald, Lucy Maud Montgomery…or even events like when Canada became a country in 1867!)
And these are just a few suggestions for Canadian history classes. What suggestions could you come up with from where you live? Imagine what students might be able to explore through every era of history. The real trick will be to narrow down the topics.
The important aspect will be for students to find a connection between their chosen topic and themselves (either through the topic itself or through the medium by which they create a piece). Perhaps they will choose to focus on the life of Terry Fox, because they have a family member who fought cancer. Or maybe they are interested in unsolved mysteries, so they decide to focus on Ambrose Small. Perhaps students will discover a famous historical person that either grew up in their hometown or is distantly related to them.
The connection might also come through the style of theatre in which they choose to present their topic. Maybe they will go the LMM route and present a theatrical rap based on a historical figure. Or (if rap is not to their liking) what about a mime piece about a local invention, or a full-out classic musical theatre Song and Dance piece about a specific event?
Students should choose a style of theatre that really speaks to them and really make it their own, whether or not they connect with the historical event or person. A project like this provides a lot of freedom to explore various types of theatrical presentations, whether it be through puppetry, tableaux, monologue, musical theatre, radio plays, or one of the other many, many types of theatre!
If this seems like a daunting task, take heart. It took Lin-Manuel Miranda over six years to create Hamilton in its entirety! So, get laser-focused. Divide students into groups of 4-5, and challenge them to create a theatrical presentation with the following rules:
- One moment in a historical event of their choosing,
- In the style of theatre of their choosing,
- To be presented to the class with some sort of visual representation to establish the time period (costumes, props, set pieces, puppets, etc.),
- In a performance presentation that lasts four minutes or less.
Whatever the topic or method of presentation, the goal is the same: to get students excited about history, to have them connect with the material in an engaging and interesting way, and to encourage students to think about and present the material in a fresh, original way. Who knows what cool new creations will arise from this exploration – you may have a future Pulitzer winner in your class!Click here for a detailed breakdown of the exercise, along with performance alternatives and an individual reflection.
Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer, and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. Explore her blog at www.kerryhishon.com.