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Not throwing away their shot: MEAD Alternative students are headed to ‘Hamilton’

UPDATED: Sun., March 11, 2018

Emily Polhamus, left, and Tommy Neace perform their spoken-word composition in front of their MEAD classmates March 8, 2018. Students at the Mead School District alternative high school wrote and performed history projects inspired by the musical ‘Hamilton.’ (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Emily Polhamus, left, and Tommy Neace perform their spoken-word composition in front of their MEAD classmates March 8, 2018. Students at the Mead School District alternative high school wrote and performed history projects inspired by the musical ‘Hamilton.’ (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Tommy Neace was never looking for a spotlight.

The MEAD Alternative High School student describes himself as an introvert, someone more comfortable in the audience than at the microphone.

So when he found out he’d be onstage at Seattle’s Paramount Theater next Wednesday, performing an original work in front of the cast of the hit musical “Hamilton” – not to mention a theater full of hundreds of other students – his feelings were … mixed.

“I definitely was not in my comfort zone,” he said.

Neace is one of 40 MEAD Alternative students selected by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to participate in its Hamilton Education Project, a curriculum created in partnership with the musical and the Rockefeller Foundation. Since January, they’ve been combing historical documents from the late 18th century, drawing source material from their findings and, with it, crafting short, theatrical pieces.

The payoff? A day of workshops with Hamilton’s cast, a chance to show their talent and, finally, the main event: tickets to the musical.

That’s no small thing. Since going on the road last year, “Hamilton” tickets – which run between $179 and $199 for regular seats and $800 for premium billing – have consistently sold out in advance. In Seattle, the show’s 7 1/2-week appearance was so overbooked that the only option for desperate fans was a shot at the $10 ticket lottery.

The opportunity wasn’t lost on Link Stockler, another MEAD Alternative student. After his girlfriend introduced him to the soundtrack a while back – “actually relatively decently cool,” as he described it – “Hamilton” had been on his radar, or at least on his playlist. But between the distance and the cost – with his parents out of the picture, Stocker splits his time between school and a friend’s couch – it seemed like that’s where the music would stay.

“I came in on Wednesday and they were talking about, ‘Isn’t it great, we’re going to go see Hamilton!’ And I just looked at my friend and was like, ‘Wait … what?’ ”

Each student still has to purchase a ticket, but at the bargain price of $10.

It’s the kind of opportunity theater lovers salivate over. Few recent musicals have had as much impact – or subverted as many of Broadway’s norms – as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop rhapsody on the younger days of the country’s founding fathers. Based on the historical biography by Ron Chernov, the musical follows its titular character through revolution and reformation, love, politics and rivalry. It has won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

To qualify for the opportunity, students had to copy Miranda’s method: choose a historical moment, study the history through primary documents and distill what you find into original creative works.

That’s no straightforward task. As genres, historical documents and Broadway musicals are as far apart as science and science fiction. In a note to the students, provided in the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s source materials, Chernov, the biographer, notes there is “an inevitable tension” between the mediums.

“(W)hile history is long, messy and complicated, Broadway shows have to be short, coherent and tightly constructed,” he wrote. Still, if “the ingredients in the broth are authentic, the broth has the flavor of real history.”

At an average length of two minutes – the target duration for MEAD’s student projects – describing the goal as “short, coherent and tightly constructed” was an understatement.

“Turning (history) into a performance was the hardest part about this,” said student Emily Polhamus. “I mean, you could write a paper on it, that would be easy.”

A two-minute piece of performance art? Not so.

“It’s not easy to find that balance between historical accuracy and satire,” agreed classmate Alissa Bajramovic.

But in many ways, MEAD Alternative’s less conventional structure was an advantage in the project.

“We only learned about this opportunity in January,” said MEAD Alternative teacher and advisor Karina Berven. A larger or more traditional school might not have been able to shift its curriculum in time to take advantage, she said.

MEAD Alternative – which serves the district but also takes students from other high schools in the area – provides an unconventional academic environment. There are no classrooms. Students and staff circulate freely, and when they do sit, chairs are arranged not in rows but in a circle. The school’s mission statement stresses community service and civic engagement. In one review, the New York Times dubbed “Hamilton” “Young rebels changing history.” The tag line would not be out of place at MEAD Alternative.

At the same time, the school is designed to provide support for students who struggle in more traditional educational settings. Programs are individually tailored, with the goal of helping students gain the credits they need to graduate. Graduates cite past struggles with emotional control, substance abuse or conventional learning as issues the school helped them to cope with or overcome.

For many, those issues stem from difficulties interacting with others.

“When we interview students to come here, I think the No. 1 reason they want to is because of social anxiety,” Berven said.

“So the fact that so many were willing to get up and share these creative works” was a sign of how far they’ve come, she added.

Neace was among those students who would ordinarily have hung back. Still, he let himself be drawn in – or, perhaps more accurately, pulled in by his partner, Emily Polhamus. “I think I pushed (Tommy) a little hard at times,” she said with a grin.

Polhamus had latched onto the idea of a two-person dialogue, framed as a call and response – one voice from the past and one from the present.

“The idea was, I wanted to connect that history with the history happening today,” she said. Public officials trading barbs over Twitter recalled the kinds of anonymous, editorial sniping that went on between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, she said. Themes of tyranny and authoritarianism echoed the present’s political divide.

The two students worked on their dialogue and rehearsed it in private, Polhamus searching old letters and documents from the Revolutionary War era, Neace combing social media for a current historical record.

One central aspect of MEAD Alternative made the prospect of performance less scary. Students said the atmosphere engendered by the school – “We’re kind of a family,” said Stockler – was key to bringing the more reclusive out of their shells.

“It’s definitely a safe place,” Bajramovic said.

Outgoing and a natural performer, Bajramovic said she’d brought her finished Hamilton skit out at Open Mic, the school’s regular talent show.

“I might not have gone out in front of strangers, but I was willing to perform in front of other students,” she said. “I knew they’re either going to be super supportive or they’re going to give me some sort of constructive criticism.”

That atmosphere drew many of the group out of their shells, Polhamus said.

“All of that really aided in our school taking on the ‘Hamilton’ project and not being super scared of it,” she said. “We were willing to put all we’ve got into the project.”

Still, Neace was holding back. When the other groups brought their acts to Open Mic, he and Polhamus stayed in the wings. But his friends made him promise: If his act was selected by the school, he’d perform in Seattle.

“I didn’t think we’d get chosen,” he said of the promise. Then he shrugged. “It’s cool that we did, but …”

Of the 23 regional schools participating in the program Wednesday, 15 acts were selected by the Gilder Lehrman Institute to go onstage and perform in front of members of the “Hamilton” cast and hundreds of their peers. Neace and Polhamus’ was one of them.

That has even Polhamus feeling a little nervous. Still, “when the lights are bright enough and you can’t see the (audience’s) faces, I think when you’re in that moment, you just go for it,” she said. “We’re going to practice a lot more.”

And they might be the only ones onstage, but they won’t be alone.

“You know that we’re all going to be out there cheering for you,” Bajramovic said. “We’re all your No. 1 hype man.”

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