Theatre to Change the World | Hamilton Education Program comes to Denver

I’ve long been a believer that storytelling has the power to change the world, one person at a time. My own life has been shaped repeatedly by stories, inviting curiosity about new things, prompting me to change my own habits with regards to the environment, opening my heart and mind to understand my own blind-spots and to try to be better... more like the heroes of stories that I've admired.

A well told story can ignite a spark of compassion in the darkness of unfamiliarity and/or fear of the unknown. An empathetic narrative can shift a long-held perspective, opening a mind to something previously unimaginable.

"Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music or a book can make a difference. It can change the world." - Alan Rickman

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There’s certainly no shortage of stories of all forms from literature to film to theatre that have done this over the millennia. But, wow... how lucky we are to be alive... right now.

Hamilton, An American Musical is arguably one of the most impactful examples of culturally groundbreaking storytelling of our time (of a lot of times). A narrative told powerfully enough to rewrite the rules of musical theatre to connect with today's audiences and rewrite the rules of diverse representation in historical storytelling all at once.

Even if you haven't seen the show you've probably heard about the intoxicating juxtaposition of a heart-wrenching true story, brilliantly written music, creative narrative elements, unexpectedly disarming humor and extraordinary talent on every corner of the stage. The mash-up of elements is truly unlike anything any of us have ever experienced.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s decision to cast historical figures as actors of color re-frames our understanding of history and allows today’s young immigrants a chance to see themselves mirrored in the faces, voices and hearts of the founders of our country. To see their ancestors as real life heroes, forging new alliances, loving, trying, failing, problem-solving, fighting, inventing and creating.

Such a simple but profound shift invites ALL of us to see a visual representation of our founders for who they were: a band of “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrants coming together to build something brand new. To aspire, to dream, to fight and to create.

How could that story NOT inspire hope in young people and theatre-goers of today?? In people of all ages really -- just listening to the soundtrack as a story inspired me so deeply that I picked up a copy of the Federalist Papers and read them for the first time at the age of forty-seven. And I speak as someone who strongly disliked history class as a kid! I've become a more informed citizen and increased my personal admiration for and investment in my own democracy.

Because of a theatrical story.

"Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasize about a world we aspire to." - Willem Dafoe

All that being said, it's what Lin-Manuel Miranda has done following the extraordinary success of this musical that I find perhaps even more impressive. In collaboration with others, together they have worked in powerful ways to extend the reach of this impactful story far beyond the typical theatre crowd .

Since the show itself connected with audiences in such a profound way and quickly became a phenomenon accompanied by sold out audiences and high priced ticket-scalping (despite Lin-Manuel's explicit desires to avoid this), he wanted a way to reach younger, low income audiences. A way for students to become moved by the story, and, importantly, to see themselves reflected on that stage and spark inspiration in the hearts of young people of all backgrounds. 

In a collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gilder Lehrman Institute and others, #EduHam was born.

I first learned of this through a friend in the Broadway cast who shared his passion and perspective on #EduHam through social media. Watching how deeply he was moved by the investment made by students in the material they were studying was profound. So when I was invited to document this program first hand, I jumped at the chance.

The Hamilton Education Program now collaborates with local low income and Title One schools in New York, and for one day in each city that the tour visits. High school juniors start by studying the historical content of the play in their high school classes. In order to more deeply engage students with the material, they then write their own Hamilton-inspired hip-hop and rap poems, songs and skits to perform for each other.

No longer is history stuck in a dry textbook. It comes alive in their hearts and through their own performances. 

Ultimately they compete for a chance to perform their acts live in front of thousands of other high school juniors (and the cast of Hamilton) on the very stage where the magic happens. Their performances are followed by a spirited Q&A with members from the cast. And finally, after soaking in each other’s brave and moving performances, they get to sit back and enjoy a matinee performance of the hottest (and most sold out) show around.

What a thrill it was to document this day for the Gilder Lehrman Institute when the Hamilton Education Program came to Denver.

The students’ performances were brave, thoughtful, intimate, raw, and ranged in tone from funny to profound to deeply moving (I've got a link below where you can watch them for yourself on the Denver Center blog). I could feel their connection and commitment to the historical material, and how perfectly each of them met the moment of our present day issues with their own material.

"The theatre is a spiritual and social x-ray of it's time." - Stella Adler

What a privilege it was to then sit in the audience for a matinee performance of Hamilton with this group of nearly 3,000 high school juniors, many of whom had never been to the theatre. The show brought me to tears (if you've seen it, you know!), but just as moving during this particular performance was the visceral feeling in the theater of their reactions to the story as they invested their hearts and engaged, often audibly, with the unfolding twists and turns of the story.

At the end of the day, who else could get nearly three thousand high school juniors to cheer during a debate in a cabinet meeting about the structure of state debt?

Only Lin-Manuel Miranda.


To learn more about the Hamilton Education Program please visit:

On the evolution and origin of this program: Gilder Lehrman Institute and Hamilton Education Program

To view a great video about the program: PBS segment about the Hamilton Education Program

To see the student performances from the Denver tour, please visit the Denver Center’s post featuring videos.

Also check out the Hamilton App for lottery tickets, and weekly inspiration from the cast & show


ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Jennifer Koskinen is an internationally published theatre, dance and stage production photographer based in Denver Colorado. She is the production photographer for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival after having photographed multiple seasons for the Denver Center for Performing Arts Theatre Company. She has also volunteered with the Denver School of the Arts Theatre Department, capturing actor headshots and staged productions for the past 6 years. Her photos have appeared in around the world, and in publications such as the New York Times, Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, The Denver Post, and Broadway World, to name just a few.

Troilus & Cressida | A Photographer's Appreciation of Staging for Theatre

I don’t typically create blog posts about photographing individual stage productions.

I’ve already written at length about how much I love photographing live theatre, and you'd be bored by now if I waxed poetic about how VERY much I love it after every show. There’s a whole world of arts critics and journalists whose job it is to write about the performances themselves -- the production quality, acting, direction, design, etc.

But really, everyone who knows me is aware that I’m -- how shall I say? -- easy to entertain and genuinely quick to love, so my effusive praise of a particular show, heart-felt as it may be, admittedly probably doesn’t carry a lot of weight.

All that being said... I was so moved by the aesthetic experience and technical challenges of photographing this particular production of this lesser known Shakespearean play that I felt inspired to share a few “photographer perspective” thoughts (and photos) from this production; this extraordinarily beautiful, intriguing and -- at least judging by this particular iteration -- perhaps too little produced play.

My first experience photographing Carolyn Howarth’s work was last season at Colorado Shakespeare Festival, when she directed HENRY V on the indoor stage at the University Theatre. Everything about that production was spectacular -- for me as a photographer AND to experience without a camera (and I say this having attended several times throughout the run, including closing night when I almost cried because I still wanted to go see it again… but I digress… )

Photographing a director’s work multiple times gives me a chance to learn how to “dance” with a director’s blocking. It allows me to move through space in anticipation of where actors will be to create the best photographic compositions. Carolyn’s work was so beautifully staged for Henry that I was giddy to see what she would do with the outdoor Mary Rippon stage on the campus of University of Colorado, Boulder.

And let me tell you…  this entire team of designers spectacularly delivered on a vision which somehow was at once both distopic and stunningly, viscerally beautiful.

The opening scene of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA immediately thrusts the audience into a visual (and acoustic) landscape of overwhelmingly powerful beauty. Symmetry of design, of stage direction and blocking, of light, and even somehow of sound -- which is difficult to capture in a photo, but somehow, it was so powerful that I actually hear the beating of Benaiah Anderson’s incredibly crafted swords and shields when I see the opening photos.

The outdoor setting of the Mary Rippon Theatre provides a spectacular backdrop for the set design that changes throughout the evening. Wide photo of  Troilus & Cressida  at Colorado Shakespeare Festival, photographed by Gabe Koskinen for Merritt Portrait Studio

The outdoor setting of the Mary Rippon Theatre provides a spectacular backdrop for the set design that changes throughout the evening. Wide photo of Troilus & Cressida at Colorado Shakespeare Festival, photographed by Gabe Koskinen for Merritt Portrait Studio

Howarth’s stage aesthetic is simply divine. Her blocking of the actors -- how they move through and inhabit different parts of the outdoor stage -- so perfectly complements the depth of the incredible set design, the colors of the wardrobe, and the dramatic and compelling lighting design, that even for those who may not follow every twist of Shakespeare's story, there is always something beautiful, sexy and dramatic to absorb for eyes and ears.

How the wardrobe -- the colors of the designs of each scene as a whole worked so that everyone on stage at a given time complemented each other as an ensemble... I mean, just look at the palette of costumes and how they work together in this scene (the last set of photos above). It nearly took my breath away, even where the colors on each actor stood on the stage!

And yes, it IS my job while shooting a production to become almost “lost” in the visual. To celebrate the composition, color and light… but it is also my goal to capture the connection I see in actor’s eyes, with each other and to their character. The most satisfying productions to photograph are those which provide all of these things in concert with each other. When that happens, my job honestly feels like playing...

...until the light design becomes so brilliantly in line with the story that it envelopes the audience in near darkness as the stage fighting intensifies... and the photographer who wants to capture it all freaks out.

Luckily I had scouted this show the night before, so I knew this was coming, but still -- to capture the combination of extreme low light and extreme fast motion -- it pushes even the best photographer and equipment to the limits of what is possible. Even with a super high ISO and the widest aperture my lens could shoot, this is still a nearly impossible combination to capture, but I pushed myself and my equipment, tried a few new things and was actually able to capture more than I thought would be possible. Though I must say still… you really need to SEE these scenes to get a sense of how incredible they are. Geoffrey Kent’s stage fight choreography and his movement onstage during these scenes is jaw-droppingly good.

I'll add a few more photos of ending scenes AFTER the show closes so as not to give away any dramatic and incredibly aesthetically powerful spoilers...

The artful storytelling of this lesser known Shakespearean work, which contains both comedy and tragedy, in the hands of these incredibly talented actors is not to be missed!

CREDITS:

Direction by Carolyn Howarth | Scenic Design: Caitlin Ayer | Lighting Design: Shannon McKinney | Costume Design: Hugh Hanson | Sound Design: Jason Ducat | Fight Director: Geoffrey Kent | Photos: Jennifer Koskinen + Gabriel Koskinen for Merritt Portrait Studio

CAST: Christopher Joel Onken, Howard Swain, Lilli Hokama, Carolyn Holding, Naomy Ambroise, Kristofer Buxton, Kelsey Didion, Sam Sandoe, Mare Trevathan, Zach Stolz, Austin Terrell, Sean Scrutchins, Geoffrey Kent, Spencer Althoff, Coleman Zeigen, Steven Cole Hughes, Emelie O'Hara, Jihad Milhem, Benaiah Anderson, Lindsay Kyler, Coleman Zeigen, Jesse Wardak, Paige Olson

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, by William Shakespeare has 8 remaining performances at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 6, 2016. VISIT: CSF for tickets!

And a final sequence to appreciate, from my son's wide angle photos, how spectacular it is to feel twilight stretch into night, watching theatre under the stars on a summer night in Colorado is an experience everyone should have. How the trees surrounding the theatre space are included in the lighting and set design -- just breathtaking!

The Art of Live Theatre Performance Photography | Denver Stage Production Photographer

My love of theatre and stage was born in high school. Singing was my thing, so naturally, I loved musicals. Being on stage and belting out a musical number was heaven to me. But acting -- having lines to deliver -- let alone in character -- while trying to remember blocking, props, being aware of other actors and having new director’s notes to assimilate -- that was all rather terrifying to me.

Tony Award Nominee Beth Malone in The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Photo by Jennifer Koskinen | Merritt Design Photo

Having spent just enough time ON stage to have even a tiny taste of what goes into it, I am completely, utterly, wholly in AWE of actors. The courage it takes to be unabashedly vulnerable combined with the intuitive ability to inhabit the lives of others to tell a story is profoundly inspiring to me.

Storytellers, in general, have my utmost respect -- the desire alone to tell a story that could make someone feel, think, or widen perspective -- it's a beautiful thing to me. But being able to tell a story while in character, and to do it with nuance, humanity and honesty… that is a gift that I find to be ridiculously amazing. RESPECT.

In recent years I’ve discovered that my own gifts with regards to the theatre may not have been given in the realm of any discernible acting talent -- but -- I DO feel blessed to have found a profession in which I'm able to capture live performances in all their ephemeral light and magic. Or at least I feel honored to be asked to TRY to capture some of that magic!

Theatre is, by nature, fleeting. It's alive with the particular conditions of the moment in which it is breathing. So to photograph a production -- to attempt to best capture a design team's work, as well as specific moments based on their theatrical, artistic, aesthetic and compositional quality -- is no small thing.

These moments, captured in still photographs, become part of the collective memory of a particular story, cast, design team and production company.

[ Note: click on photos to view larger and for actor and production credits ]

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Denver Center Theatre Company

When I'm working with professional theaters, I shoot during the final dress, designated as a "photo call" rehearsal -- Ideally this is a full costume, full tech running performance with no audience. In an ideal world, I've been able to attend a rehearsal prior to shooting, but this isn't always possible, so sometimes I shoot never having seen the material, the light, the set or the staging, and I need to be able to react quickly to whatever conditions may present themselves during the run, viewing the performance in those cases, essentially through my lens alone. It's surreal and incredibly exhilarating (read: anxiety producing).

Technical expertise is a critical starting point. While the technology is improving, cameras aren't yet capable of seeing the dynamic range of shadows to highlights that a human eye can see, which means getting things as close as possible in camera, then extra editing time to get shadows and highlights to look natural in each photo. Oh, and that low light? It's constantly changing and often has colored gels on it! Colors and luminosity typically vary widely throughout a show, and the effects are amplified when falling on a variety of costumes, changing set design and texture, different skin tones and other elements of production design, requiring experience and comfort with the ability to constantly be adjusting one's camera settings throughout the show.

Set, costume and lighting design often feature low light, high contrast and varying color to help tell the story, pushing the limits of even the best equipment, and ALWAYS keeping a theatre photographer on his or her toes!

Once you get used to constantly changing technical conditions, the real art is in being in the right place at the right time to capture a human moment and an interesting composition. This, of course, is largely dependent on a not so perfect formula of experience, anticipation, and good timing!  It's a workout running non-stop for often over 2 hours, carrying heavy cameras and lenses the whole time. OH! And let's not forget that for final dress, there are still many obstacles in the house (lightboards, stage managers, directors, designers... all of their dinners, computers, electrical cords, etc.), and inevitably in your way as you run madly while watching action with your equipment through the theater. In the dark. Yes. I am often bruised the next day from running into chair arms with my thighs!

Ultimately, photographic composition in the theatre is part magic, and part math -- a dynamic and always changing formula based on where you are standing relative to where actors are moving within a space.

Getting to know work with the same theaters, actors, designers and directors more than once is always advantageous, and I love it when, ideally, there's time to scout a rehearsal prior to photographing a show. These things allow me to better anticipate blocking, staging, light, and the potential inherent in a particular production. I watch for appealing compositions as well -- I particularly love the opportunity to photograph a downstage (foreground) actor looking out over the camera, eyes to the light, another actor out of focus in the background, and I definitely need to be in the right place at the right time in order to catch this shot. Shakespearean soliloquies aside, it's often a very fleeting moment!

Capturing expression in an actor's EYES -- especially when he or she is facing the light is my absolute favorite! Lit eyes are critical to most any portrait as they convey so much expression, and here, capturing the soul of a character in a living, breathing moment is my ultimate goal.

[ Seriously... click on photos to view larger -- especially with these EYES -- and for actor and production credits ]

Of course, weave into all of this the fact that this is living, moving action -- actors are people, and people do blink… if someone blinks, they blink, and I move on to try to catch the next moment! Cards need to be changed and there's not always a convenient moment to change them. When the moment is gone, it’s gone forever. There are shots I've missed (some still haunt me)...

In many respects, live "running shoot" production photography is similar to wedding photography: it's not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the lazy. And like when I was shooting weddings, I still get nervous before every single shoot. Every. Single. One. It's unpredictable, constantly moving, and un-repeatable.

But… Oh my goodness when I GET THE SHOT... The one that captures the emotion of a scene… the shot that tells a piece of the story or hints with nuance at the essence of a character… or freezes a moment of soul, comedy or action …

Kathleen McCall in BENEDICTION at the Denver Center Theatre Company, photo by Jennifer Koskinen, Merritt Design Photo

One of my all time favorite photos! All credit for this amazing capture goes to my assistant, who was 14 years old at the time, and a former cast member of this production at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Allen Dorsey, above, captured mid-leap in the Fezziwig scene of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Photo by Gabe Koskinen, Merritt Design Photo

. . . there’s no more satisfying feeling than capturing that perfect moment. Patience, experience, stamina, passion, and no small amount of luck all factor into the photos that make the final cut. I often hear myself audibly gasp while sitting at my computer editing production photos. A fresh photo pops up on the screen and suddenly I'm reliving a moment that positively takes my breath away...

Ultimately, my gratitude circles back and is given wholly to the incredibly talented teams of storytellers and designers who create beautiful, performance art. From their passion and art I get to hopefully create another layer of art. A documentation of an experience that hopefully will, in some small way, get to live on long after the curtain has come down.

When I get it right, I help in some small way to tell the story of the storytellers.

And I love it to no end.

CHEERS!!  Leonard E Barret, Jr is the Ghost of Christmas Present in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Photo: Jennifer Koskinen | Merritt Design Photo

NOTE: Click any image to see Actor, Production and Company credits.

QUESTIONS? INQUIRIES? Want to discuss photography for your theatre company?

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Jennifer Koskinen is an internationally published theatre, dance and stage production photographer based in Denver Colorado. She recently was brought on as the production photographer for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival after multiple seasons photographing live theatre for the Denver Center for Performing Arts Theatre Company. She has also volunteered with the Denver School of the Arts Theatre Department, capturing actor headshots and staged productions for the past 4 years. Her photos have appeared in around the world, and in publications such as the New York Times, Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, The Denver Post, and Broadway World, to name just a few.