'Hamilton Community Day' models affordable, welcoming theatre experience
Sixteen-year-old Micha Jeffrey has always loved "Hamilton." But tickets to the hit Broadway musical can be prohibitively expensive for teens and those with low incomes. Seats for the recent Seattle touring show started at $59 but sold for $200 or more.
Nonetheless, on the evening of Aug. 28, Jeffrey found himself on the bustling sidewalk by Paramount Theatre among the eager crowds of teenagers and community members.
"It's kind of stressful since there is a lot happening, but it's very exciting," he said of the commotion.
We were all waiting to see "Hamilton." Seattle Theatre Group invited 1,400 people from over 100 Seattle school and community organizations to see the show through a program called Hamilton Community Day. Various sponsors subsidized the ticket cost, making seats available for $10, allowing people who have been historically excluded from theater spaces to experience the popular event. That evening, the theater doors were held wide open to lines of students and community members, basking under the neon glow of the Paramount sign, ready to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
The audience deeply reflected marginalized communities. People of color, LGBTQ+, disabled, neurodivergent and those experiencing homelessness were enraptured by a performance they otherwise could not have afforded.
"Programs like this inspire youth to pursue their dreams and to not be scared," said Jeffrey. As a dancer and member of Seattle Teen's Summer Stage, seeing live theater as a budding youth artist was validating, he said.
The sense of ease and comfort was new to me. My experiences with big-venue productions had previously been filled with rigidity, unwelcomeness and a feeling that my clothes and appearance may never allow me to "fit in" at spaces like this. During Community Day, a flurry of people loudly conversed with each other before the show began, exemplifying the true intimacy of community.
At the ticket booth, a photographer with a monstrous camera flashed paparazzi-like photos of patrons. Other guests were grinning widely as they took selfies against the ticket booth's starry background. The staff and ushers also contributed to the safe atmosphere; they never seemed perturbed at my confusion about where to go, nor were they annoyed by the barrage of questions from other theatergoers.
Families in worn jeans and flannel jackets huddled together as they browsed the programs while students in athleisure and tennis shoes glowed under the high-vaulted ceilings of the golden theater. The space felt homey, and I felt like I was surrounded by friends and family.
STG has previously funded tickets for audiences from educational groups and Title I schools (where low-income families make up at least 40% of enrollment), but never for community members at large.
"There are communities traditionally not brought into the fold, that are an afterthought, that we wanted to include," said Marisol Sanchez-Best, the director of education and community engagement at STG. Some organizations had members who still experienced hardship with the $10 ticket, so STG worked with them to further subsidize the cost. Sanchez-Best explained why accessibility within the theater space is important, to ensure accommodations for neurodivergent and disabled people, and to provide American Sign Language interpretation of performances as needed.
Before the Hamilton Community Day performance, ticket holders were invited to attend a virtual spoken word educational session to help familiarize them with the style of the show. "If we just provided tickets, people would never know who was behind the curtain," said Best-Sanchez.
During the session, participants were prompted to describe vivid paintings and photographs through spoken word; each of my peers shared intimate writing samples that took place in free verse, rap and song. The dynamic of the sessions felt supportive and safe, as guests took considerable leaps out of their comfort zone to share their writing, encouraged by the rest of the participants. I was astounded by the creativity. I am grateful that STG gave community members an opportunity for self-growth, through poignant storytelling, spurred by the further need for conversation and youth empowerment.
STG will do a student matinee Oct. 13 at 11 a.m. for Title 1 middle and high schools for the acclaimed Broadway show "To Kill a Mockingbird"; tickets will be $10, and community members, schools, and organizations are still able to apply for the matinee.
Hamilton Community Day isn't the only effort to provide low-cost tickets to a wider audience. The TeenTix pass, a program that gives teens a chance to see local productions and art shows for $5, dismantles barriers for teens to experience the arts. However, there is also a need to supplement art with educational empowerment. Accessibility means giving the community the ability and the resources to be able to see relevant productions in-person. The internet and social media have given people the opportunity to appreciate artwork and theater to a greater extent over the past couple of years; in the height of the pandemic, artists thrived on the shared love and passion for theater and musicals that social media provided.
Theater spaces should foster a love of art in youth and community members by providing need-based accessible tickets, expanding on the freedom of accessibility on social media to provide art lovers a more well-rounded experience. Simply put, people should have the ability to connect with others and see the things they love without barriers. Need-based tickets should not continue to be a one-time opportunity, but a normal expectation of the arts world.
Hopefully the success of Hamilton Community Day propels other arts organizations to provide meaningful experiences to community members who do not have the opportunity to experience art because of financial, social, physical or other barriers.
This article was written on special assignment for The Seattle Times through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix, a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.
Disha Cattamanchi (she/her) is a senior at Juanita High School and an editor for TeenTix. Apart from arts criticism, Disha often writes stage plays, one of which was produced at The Blank Theater's Young Playwrights Festival in Los Angeles. She is also an avid participant, from acting to stage managing, in her school's drama program.