Category Archives: Theater Highlights

In the Heights: Meet the Neighborhood

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of In the Heights, used people in his own life as inspiration for the characters in his play. (In fact, Nina is based on his sister; Vanessa, his sister’s best friend.) As we discovered while talking with members of the original Broadway cast back in January, the experiences of the characters from In the Heights felt very real to the lives of the cast members’ families and loved ones. Part of our responsibility in producing In the Heights is to educate our community about the struggles of traditionally under served, immigrant communities like the one we see in the play. So, without further ado we introduce you to the characters from In the Heights. Be sure to check out the links below for more information about the community and people of Washington Heights.

The company sings IN THE HEIGHTS during our final dress rehearsal. Photo by Joanna Chattman.
The company sings IN THE HEIGHTS during our final dress rehearsal. Photo by Joanna Chattman.


The ensemble. L-R: Destiny Nwafor, Sarah Lucia, Abby Berry, Nick Hill,, Caleb Stern, Eric Chen, Kai McCalla, Nate Gordon, Henning Fischel, Haley Beecher, Triniti Slaughter, Anna Wilinsky, and Josh Calianos
The ensemble. L-R: Destiny Nwafor ’17, Sarah Lucia ’16, Abby Berry ’16, Nick Hill ’17, Caleb Stern ’19, Eric Chen ’16, Kai McCalla ’17, Nate Gordon ’16, Henning Fischel ’17, Haley Beecher ’18, Triniti Slaughter ’18, Anna Wilinsky ’17, and Josh Calianos ’18.

Mr. Miranda writes the ensemble into nearly every song in his play– songs that would normally be solos like BREATHE and PACIENCIA Y FE have the entire ensemble  bring the song to life. This is not an accident. Mr. Miranda wants the audience to feel the presence of the community in Washington Heights. When they sing “Mira, alli esta nuestra estrella!” (Look, there is our star!) during Breathe we feel their faith for Nina and what her accomplishments mean to them. When they sing “You better learn Ingles” with Abuela Claudia, we feel the pressures that immigrants, past and present, have faced and continue to face today. It’s unusual for a musical to have the ensemble woven in to the story like this, but thankfully Mr. Miranda gives us the gift of these characters who enrich the play.  Without them the community wouldn’t feel like home, and the end of the play (no spoilers– come see the show!) would make little sense. Read this article to learn more about Washington Heights.


Josh Holmberg '18 and Gabby Record '17 as Piragua Guy and Graffiti Pete
Josh Holmberg ’18 and Gabby Record ’17 as Piragua Guy and Graffiti Pete

Piragua Guy is a beloved character from In the Heights. Played on Broadway by Eliseo Roman (who we had the honor of meeting on our trip to New York in January), Piragua Guy’s character grew in the development of the show because Mr. Roman brought so much depth to the role.  Anyone who has spent any time in New York City in the summer has probably seen a Piraguero– Spanish for Piragua Guy.  More than just giving New Yorkers relief on those humid summer days piragua, Puerto Rican snow cones, provide a link back to the islands and gives locals a taste of home. Piraguero’s are typically recent immigrants. They do what they can to survive, often sending money back home, while speaking very little English.  Watch this YouTube video about Piragua. Try not to let your mouth water too much, though!

While Unsavi calls Graffiti Pete “this little punk I gotta chase away,” Graffiti Pete saves the day. To learn more about graffiti read this blog post about our work with Wane COD, a graffiti writer from the Bronx.


Makenna Hambley '17 and Neha Nascimento '17 as Carla and Dani
Makenna Hambley ’17 and Neha Nascimento ’17 as Carla and Daniela

Daniela and Carla are brash and fun. Daniela owns the salon next to Usnavi’s bodega. They both love to spend their days gossiping about what’s going on in the neighborhood. Despite their love of a good piece of juicy gossip, Daniela and Carla’s support for their friends runs deep. After years in business, Daniela is closing the doors of her salon and moving to the Bronx because she can no longer pay the skyrocketing rents in Washington Heights. This is an all-too real conflict for mom and pop shops in communities all over New York City.  Read this article  from December 2015 to find out more about the current state of gentrification in Washington Heights.


Cam Stanley '16 and Noah DeVos '17 as Camila and Kevin Rosario
Cam Stanley ’16 and Noah DeVos ’17 as Camila and Kevin Rosario

Kevin and Camila Rosario immigrated from Puerto Rico when they were eighteen. They worked and saved for years before they were able to open a car service in Washington Heights. Taxi cabs are a way of life for wealthy New Yorkers, but many taxis won’t take passengers to low-income communities.  In response, local, mostly family-owned, car services provide the transportation yellow cabs refuse to. The Rosarios have done everything they can so their daughter, Nina can truly live the American Dream. They represent the voices of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the U.S. and the sacrifices they must make in order to make a better life.


Calvin Ticknor-Swanson '16 and Julia Wise '16 as Benny and Nina
Calvin Ticknor-Swanson ’16 and Julia Wise ’16 as Benny and Nina

Benny has worked at Kevin’s dispatch booth since he was a kid. He has big dreams of going to business school and opening his own dispatch one day. Nina Rosario comes home after her first year at Stanford University. Nina was the star of her neighborhood. She defied the odds and got a full scholarship to Stanford– the first in her family to go to college. The challenges of transitioning from an underserved neighborhood to an Ivy League college proved to be greater than she’d imagined and she returns home after dropping out of school. The phenomenon of high-achieving first-generation college students struggling when they leave home is all too real. Listen to this story from This American Life, which Julia Wise used as character research, to learn more. It’s about an hour, but worth every minute.


Hana Brown '16 and Calvin Frye '16 as Abuela Claudia and Sonny
Hana Brown ’16 and Calvin Frye ’16 as Abuela Claudia and Sonny

Abuela immigrated to Washington Heights from Cuba in the 1940’s. While Abuela means grandmother in Spanish, as Usnavi says “She’s not really my “abuela,” She practically raised me. This corner is her escuela (school).”  Abuela Claudia is the caretaker on the block. She looks after the neighborhood kids whose parents are working and makes sure they all stay on the right track. Through her song “Paciencia Y Fe” we see the correlation between the immigrant experience in 1943 and now. Sadly, not much has changed.

Sonny is the youngest character in the play. He works with his cousin Usnavi in the bodega but he has big dreams of becoming a community organizer. With his rap in 96,000 we get a glimpse into the changes he wants to bring to the neighborhood, and the world. See this list of community organizations working to empower the residents of Washington Heights.


Verdi Degbey '16 and Leeanna Albanese '16 as Usnavi and Vanessa
Verdi Degbey ’16 and Leeanna Albanese ’16 as Usnavi and Vanessa

Usnavi, born in the Dominican Republic but raised in Washington Heights by Abuela Claudia, is a bodega owner. Bodega’s are a way of life in New York City (see a brief definition in this article from the Gothamist) and the owners are the caretakers of the block (a skill Usnavi undoubtedly learned from Claudia). They know what everyone orders for breakfast in the morning and exactly how they take their coffee. Usnavi dreams of returning to D.R. one day and opening a small bar near his parents’ hometown. He harbors a long-time crush on Vanessa, who has big dreams of her own. Growing up with a dysfunctional mother, Vanessa has worked at Daniela’s salon with hopes of saving enough money to move out of Washington Heights. Sadly, she lacks the good credit necessary to get an apartment in downtown Manhattan.

To learn more or to purchase tickets to the show visit our ticket website.  Seats are going fast so make your reservations soon.

In the Heights: Director’s Note

On closing night of In the Heights, which ran for over twelve-hundred performances, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, composer, and star gave an impassioned speech. Freestyling in rhyme for almost eleven minutes, Mr. Miranda thanked everyone who helped bring the show to life. (The speech is on YouTube but– be warned– it contains some pretty colorful language!) He closed by assuring fans of the show that In the Heights would not end with its close on Broadway– it would have a second life in high schools all over the country. High school was, after all, where Mr. Miranda discovered his passion for musical theatre. He hoped In the Heights would, amongst other things, “teach kids in Ohio what a Puerto Rican flag looks like.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyles his closing night speech for In the Heights.

In the Heights brings to life stories that typically don’t get told on the Broadway stage. The actors involved in the original Broadway production, most of whom were first or second generation, were able to play characters that reflected the experiences of their families—something that is, sadly, incredibly rare in the entertainment industry. How then, does a school like Williston take on a production like In the Heights? If Mr. Miranda had not explicitly urged high schools all over the U.S. to produce the show with actors who, likely, did not share the cultural background of the characters they would be portraying, we would not be doing the show. With a widespread practice of white actors playing non-white characters on the stage and screen (which still occurs at a disturbingly frequent rate) the voices of actors, directors, and writers of color have been systematically excluded from mainstream media. We see this continue today in the hashtag #oscarssowhite. But Mr. Miranda, the child of Puerto Rican immigrants, asks non-Latino communities to do his play. More than that he asks us learn about the immigrant community of Washington Heights. I took Miranda’s message to heart– not only because he asks us to, but because it brought back memories from one of the best times of my life.

In September of 2002 I started teaching theatre to seventh graders at IS 90,  a middle school on 168th and Jumel Place, the southeast corner of Washington Heights.  All but two of my students spoke Spanish as their first language and many hopped between the Dominican Republic and New York frequently.  My students’ drive to connect was fierce and their positivity was overwhelming. Do you guys want to do a talent show? Yes! Do you want to go downtown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Yes! Do you want to see a commedia play at Julliard? Yes! Families with whom I could barely communicate did their best to connect with me and I learned as much Spanish as I could.  Life was not perfect by any means. Outside of their neighborhood my students felt invisible. They wondered how they would survive past high school and help support their families back in Puerto Rico and D.R. But the closeness of the community made life’s challenges more bearable. I was only in my second year of teaching when I started at I.S. 90 but it was the relationships with students and families there that set me on a path as an educator.  It is no surprise then, that I have always wanted to direct In the Heights– I see the stories of my former students onstage in Mr. Miranda’s play.

I.S. 90, now a KIPP Charter School, on the corner of 168th and Jumel Place in Washington Heights.

My connection to Washington Heights made it even more important to follow Mr. Miranda’s directive.  Luckily, the production team of Williston’s In the Heights was on board. (In fact, without Debra and Aaron Vega we would not have had half of the amazing experiences we had!).  Heshima Moja, an international recording artist, came on board as dialect coach. Moja not only taught us the difference between how Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans might say “Por Favor,” he taught us the cultural significance of each Spanish phrase and brought to life the exhaustion of trying to communicate in a language you do not speak. Knowing that the neighborhood is as much a character in the play as any of the people on the stage, we brought the cast to Washington Heights. We walked past I.S. 90 and the bodega where my students used to buy soda and lollipops after school. We saw Caridad (the Dominican restaurant Kevin Rosario refers to in Act I). We heard Spanish being spoken on the street and, sadly, witnessed first-hand the gentrification Usnavi warns about at the end of the play. (To read more about our trip to New York read this blog post from January.)

The cast of In the Heights gets ready to take the train uptown to Washington Heights.
The cast of IN THE HEIGHTS  gets ready to take the train uptown to Washington Heights.

We came back to Easthampton armed with enough research to start building our characters—almost. That’s when our panel of Dominican and Puerto Rican community leaders from Holyoke came to visit. Sharing stories of what it feels like to constantly feel pulled between to homes, two cultures, two languages, it almost felt like Sonny, Vanessa, Nina, and Usnavi were in the room with us. All of these experiences deepened our connection to the characters in the play, but more than that they taught us about the contemporary immigrant experience.

Dialect coach Heshima Moja, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Member Josh Garcia, C-Town owner Tony Diaz, Holyoke Director of Planning and Development Marcos Morrero, me, and State Representative Aaron Vega (with special guest Odin Vega) share the stage during our panel.

We invite you to come talk with us about what we’ve learned. Share your family’s story with us, or about the time you discovered the true meaning of home. Hopefully this will make the reach of our research a little larger and open the door to make lasting change where all voices and experiences are heard with equal weight.

In the Heights is a play about the power of community, and this production would not have been possible without the thoughtful contribution of members of our own community. We are very grateful to those who have given their support along the way, especially the following:  the Academic Dean and Dean of Students’ office who approved our New York trip, athletic coaches who let their players out of games or practices to attend the trip, Williston parents who drove their children to school at the crack of dawn so we could get the most out of our time in New York, Debra and Aaron Vega who graciously invited their friends to contribute our panels and discussions, Priscilla Kane Hellweg at Enchanted Circle Theater who connected us with Heshima Moja, and Austin Sarat and Stephanie Sandler’s whose donation to the theatre program helped fund our trip to New York.

IN THE HEIGHTS runs April 28-30 and May 5-7. For tickets and more information visit our ticket website



In the Heights: What is a Sitzprobe?!?!

Lin-Manuel Miranda (Usnavi) and Karen Olivo (Vanessa) during the sitzprobe for the original Broadway production of "In the Heights."
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Usnavi) and Karen Olivo (Vanessa) during the sitzprobe for the original Broadway production of “In the Heights.”

I’m sure most of you haven’t heard that word before. It’s a German word that means “seated rehearsal.” Sitzprobes came to prominence in the opera world. They soon became part of the musical theatre process and something everyone on a show looks forward to because it can only mean one thing—opening night is coming soon.

You are still probably wondering what we actually do at a sitzprobe. Well, sorry to disappoint you hardcore German speakers out there, but we don’t actually sit at all. We stand!   And the most exciting part of the sitzprobe: we get to sing through the show  with an orchestra for the first time!

Music Director, Orchestrator, and Conductor of the original Broadway production of "In the Heights," Alex Lacamoire, gets ready for sitzprobe.
Music Director, Orchestrator, and Conductor of the original Broadway production of “In the Heights,” Alex Lacamoire, gets ready for sitzprobe.

During most musical rehearsals a pianist plays along with the singers while the team works their way through the show. Separately,  musicians learn their music and have rehearsals with their conductor. In Williston productions the orchestra doesn’t come in until tech week. Sitzprobe, in this case about a week before our first tech rehearsal, is the opportunity for the musicians, singers, and music director to work together.

It’s an exciting time! Our sitzprobe was Monday, April 18.  With the orchestra playing with us we certainly felt the reality of our situation—opening night is coming up fast. It was also particularly special because the music in In the Heights is as much of a character as any person you will see on the stage. The sounds of the neighborhood are in the percussion. The feeling of the Caribbean comes through in the horns. Suddenly the hustle and bustle of New York City and the smell of salt air in  Puerta Plata D.R.; La Vibora, Cuba; and Arecibo, Puerto Rico don’t feel so far away.

Some of the percussion as it's being loaded in to the theatre.
Just some of the percussion as it was being loaded into the theatre.

The excitement is even greater this year because thanks to the generous senior class gift, the Williston Theatre program is now the proud owner of a set of individual wireless microphones. These mics, which will be worn by anyone with a singing solo, will enable our audience to hear the actors perfectly. While we rented them for our last musical, Urinetown, these mics are ours!

Sitzprobe was a busy night. We tested mic levels and orchestra tempo. We had to make sure the mic packs fit the actors and the mics themselves were staying in place. Despite all that, spirits were pretty high as we put more of the finishing touches of the musical in place.

In the Heights runs April 28-30 and May 5-7. For tickets and more information visit our ticket website

In the Heights: Graffiti Art

Graffiti plays an important role in the story of In the Heights. Without giving too much away, I will say that one character is named Graffiti Pete. My knowledge about graffiti and its origins was pretty minimal at the start of this rehearsal process. I knew that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator, composer, and star of In the Heights, wouldn’t have put Graffiti Pete in the show without a reason, and so I needed to learn more about the origins of the art form.

Luckily, our choreographer, Debra Vega, invited Wane COD, a graffiti artist who grew up in New York and has worked for corporations like Sean Jean and Nike,  to help us out. Wane is a legend in the graffiti world, so we are enormously lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him!

Wane’s work on a truck in New York City.

Back in February Wane came to visit the cast of In the Heights. He gave us a presentation on the evolution of graffiti from an underground community of taggers to a widely respected art form practiced all over the world. Since its inception in the 1970s, graffiti was an art form of survival.

Practiced mostly by teenagers, writers (as graffiti artists are known) were kids who took their moms’ kitchen cleaner to help make their writing thicker and more visible. Younger writers were mentored by older kids who had been around longer—traditions were handed down from one generation of taggers to another, who then built on those traditions. It was a community and a home for the writers. (This is when the light bulbs started to go off in my head. Community! Home! This is what In the Heights is all about! Aha!)

While gang members did capitalize on the work of the graffiti pioneers, that was a small piece of a much larger movement, the goal of which was to represent underserved neighborhoods. While graffiti actually started in Philadelphia, it came to prominence with writers in The Bronx. Graffiti art soon got the attention of the downtown art scene in Manhattan, and writers could see a way out of their circumstances through their art. Graffiti is now practiced all over the world and its role in empowering and celebrating communities through public art is well established.

The Writers Bench in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, where young graffiti artists could meet and be mentored by older writers

Wane came back to Williston in early April to teach tech theatre students about the origins of graffiti and to show them some skills they’ll apply to the set for In the Heights. He also spent some time with Gabby Record ’17, who is playing Graffiti Pete in our production, so she could get to know how to handle a spray can. Wane will also put his own mark on the show with an original work, but you’ll have to come see the show to get more details.

Owen King practices his graffiti skills after a workshop with Wane COD.
Owen King ’17 practices his graffiti skills after a workshop with Wane COD.

Again, I don’t want to give away any plot points, but as I suspected, Miranda’s rendition of Graffiti Pete is another way to celebrate community and the power of art. One of the many reasons I love this play!

For more information on the production or to order tickets visit our ticket website


Williston Theater presents Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights

Students to perform the hit musical from the creator of the Broadway sensation Hamilton, after first conducting immersive field research in New York City

by Jon Adolph

Before he revolutionized Broadway with Hamilton, the musical that mashed hip hop with American history, playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda launched his remarkable career with another genre-redefining musical, In the Heights. That production, set in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, explored Latino and immigrant culture and won four Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Musical. Miranda’s music and lyrics for the show, which combine elements of Latin salsa and hip hop, also won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

So it’s not surprising that Williston Northampton School theater director Emily Ditkovski calls In the Heights “one of my favorite musicals of all time. I was dying to do it.” She gets her chance, April 28, 29, and 30 and May 5, 6, and 7, when the Williston Theater brings the Broadway smash to Easthampton.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” Ms. Ditkovski says, and she means that in all senses of the phrase.

To help her cast better understand the origin of the production, she traveled in January with her students to New York City, where they met with faculty and staff of City University of New York’s Dominican Studies Institute and got to hear firsthand about the play’s development over lunch with members of the original Broadway cast (see The students then toured the real-life setting of the play, Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, which also happens to be where Ms. Ditkovski taught in early 2000s. “I took the students by my old school and the bodega my students would go to on their way home,” she says. “It was a pretty amazing experience.”

But preparing for the play has also been a journey of discovery for her students, as they immersed themselves in new cultures to better understand the context of the musical. “We hosted a panel of Dominican and Puerto Rican community leaders in Holyoke, who spoke of their experiences, and we have been working with [local music director and teacher] Heshima Moja, who has not only been our dialect coach but our cultural consultant,” she explains. “With each line of Spanish, Moja teaches us not only the translation, but the cultural importance of the phrase.” The cast also met with Wane Peterkin, a graffiti artist, who discussed the importance of graffiti in New York City, and beyond. (Graffiti plays a key role in the musical’s plot.)

In the Heights tells the story of Usnavi, a bodega owner (named for what his parents first saw upon arriving in America: a U.S. Navy ship), and other residents of the largely Dominican American Washington Heights neighborhood. Usnavi has his eye on Vanessa, who works in the neighboring beauty salon, and he dreams of winning the lottery and returning to his native Dominican Republic. Over the course of three eventful days, Usnavi and others in his community experience heartbreaks, make sacrifices, and celebrate triumphs as they face changes in their neighborhood and in their personal lives. Ultimately, the play becomes an exploration of timeless human values, with lessons that apply to audiences and communities everywhere.

Miranda, the show’s creator, has made a point of encouraging high schools all over the country to perform the work, citing how valuable theater was to him when he was in high school. Ms. Ditkovsi needed little persuasion, but she also understood the challenges.

“Playing another culture, as we will be doing with In the Heights, is complicated—especially with the history of our nation and the history of white-dominated storytelling on Broadway,” Ms. Ditkovski explains. “I wanted to do this as best I could and make this project more than just a play but a holistic learning opportunity.”

Audiences will be able to see the results over two weekends, April 28, 29, and 30 and May 5, 6, and 7, starting each night at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 (general admission) and $7 (students/seniors), available at

About the Williston Theater: The Williston Theatre provides the performers, technicians, and designers of the school with hands-on opportunities to practice their craft. We produce performances for the Williston community and the greater Pioneer Valley that entertain our audiences, enrich their lives, and challenge them to think about our world in a new way. In addition to our extensive extracurricular program, we offer classes in acting and directing, and Williston Scholars projects in acting, directing, playwriting, and technical theatre.





Winter Arts Roundup

Trimester 2 wrapped up with fantastic performances by Williston visual and performing artists:

  • From February 18-20, Williston students presented the annual Winter Theatre Lab performance, this year entitled “Fish Out of Water.” See photos here.
  • At “Songs of Then and Now,” a Winter Choral Coffeehouse, students performed a variety of songs, from pop music to madrigals. See photos from the February 26 event here.
  • Dance and choreography students presented their work in an afternoon performance in the Chapel on Monday, February 29.
  • This Thursday, March 3 in the Grubbs Gallery, the Trimester 2 Arts Walk will offer an opportunity to see student work in the Grubbs Gallery and hallways of Reed Campus Center, from 6:30 – 7:45 p.m.


Winter Theatre Lab: Fish Out of Water


Student directors have selected one-act plays dealing with characters who, in one way or another, don’t quite fit in. Theatre Lab productions will be brought to life by student teams of directors, designers, actors, and stage managers.

This year’s one-acts are directed by Alara Akisik, Makenna Hambley, Neha Nascimento, Charles Raffetto, Caleb Stern, and Trixie Willems.

Dates: Thursday, Febbruary 18 through Saturday, February 20 at 7:30 p.m. in the Williston Theater. On Friday night, February 19, Williston Scholars performing arts students will present their works before and after the play.

For tickets, visit

Visit Williston’s Flickr site to see an extensive gallery of photos.

In the Heights: Research in New York

On Wednesday January 21st the cast of In the Heights took a research trip to New York City. The play takes place in Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood in upper Manhattan, so it was only natural that we should visit the neighborhood and learn all we could about life between 155th and 181st streets. Neha Nascimento ’17 (who plays salon owner Daniela in our production) said, “It is one thing to look at pictures of the neighborhood. It’s another thing to actually experience and see it face to face.” Not only did we take in the neighborhood, we soaked up all of the information we could with a visit to CUNY, lunch with members of the original Broadway cast of In the Heights, and a performance of Fun Home on Broadway.

We started the day at CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute around 10am, which houses a library and archives. We were lucky enough to talk with Assistant Professor Anthony Stevens, librarian Jhensen Ortiz, and archivist Jessy Perez. There was a plethora of incredible information they passed along to us, most notably about the strong community ties in Washington heights and the impact those ties had on changing the political landscape of New York City and empowering the residents of Washington Heights. This is part of the reason that the neighborhood, despite rampant poverty, emerged after the devastation of the 1980’s crack epidemic as a strong and stable neighborhood. The power of  community is a central theme in In the Heights so the cast found this point particularly compelling. We also learned about the role music plays in Dominican culture (a huge one), and the Dominican hero, the first non-Native American resident of what would become New York City, Juan Rodriguez, who arrived in 1613 on a ship belonging to Dutch merchants.

Anthony Stevens of CUNY's Dominican Studies Institute recounts the history of Juan Rodriguez to the cast of In the Heights.
Anthony Stevens of CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute recounts the history of Juan Rodriguez to the cast of IN THE HEIGHTS.

After our work at CUNY was done we made our way to Times Square to meet Eliseo Roman and Robin de Jesus, who originated the roles of Piragua Guy and Sonny, respectively, in the original Broadway production of In the Heights.  Our choroepgrapher Debra Vega organized the lunch with Mr. Roman- the two used to do theatre together in the early 2000’s. Mr. Roman is currently on Broadway in On Your Feet, a musical based on the life of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Mr. de Jesus is currently in Wicked, and has been nominated for two Tony awards (the first nomination was for his role in In the Heights). It was unbelievable to hear these two Broadway veterans talk about bringing the original production of In the Heights to life, and how the play evolved throughout the workshop process (Piragua Guy’s song was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda on a fifteen-minute break). They left us with some incredible stories. During the off-Broadway run of In the Heights there were only two dressing rooms- one for the guys and one for the girls. The actors were shoulder to shoulder every day before the show started. Sharing stories while getting into costume, hair and make-up brought the cast together. They became a family.  The sense of community was palpable for the audience, and was part of what made the show so special. When the show moved to Broadway, the dressing rooms were spread out all over the Richard Rogers Theatre. Many actors would not see their costars until they got onstage. Mr. de Jesus told us that Christopher Jackson, (who played Benny and is now on Broadway playing George Washington in Hamilton) organized a group prayer before each show to allow the actors to connect before they got onstage to keep their connection alive. Mr. de Jesus implored the cast to get to know one another and not be shy about making new friends- an invaluable life lesson- and something that will make the show come alive. Both Mr. de Jesus and Mr. Roman spoke about how In the Heights made Latino stories visible on Broadway for the first time. To be a part of that experience was life-changing for both of them. For the first time they played characters whose stories were similar to their own and they were not playing stereotypes. After lunch, Mr. Roman left for a wig fitting before his 2pm performance and Mr. de Jesus prepared to take in a movie on a rare Wednesday off.  To see these actors, who by all accounts are at the top of their field, so open to talk to us and genuinely excited about our production, was inspiring and humbling.


Robin de Jesus and Eliseo Roman share memories of bringing the original production of In the Heights to life.
Robin de Jesus and Eliseo Roman share memories of bringing the original production of IN THE HEIGHTS to life.

After lunch we rushed a few blocks north to the Circle in the Square Theatre to see Fun Home, which won the Tony in 2015 for Best Musical. The show is based on Allison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel which follows a young Allison as she navigates a childhood raised in a funeral home, her college years as she comes to grips with her sexuality, and her adult years as she processes her relationship with her father. Her own fully out of the closet life contributed to her father, a closeted gay man, having a nervous breakdown. The story, told in snapshots as an adult Allison struggles to write her graphic novel, moves seamlessly through time and space and does not fit neatly into categories. It is a family story told through music, where you find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. It was amazing for our young actors to see Broadway vets Michael Cerveris (who plays Allison’s father Bruce) and Judy Kuhn (playing Allison’s mother Helen) along with a cast made of many newcomers (including a cohort of child actors) give their all to their roles and bring such specificity to each character choice.

The cast outside Circle in the Square Theatre before our matinee of Fun Home.
The cast outside Circle in the Square Theatre before our matinee of FUN HOME.

Our day finished with a trip uptown on the A train to Washington Heights itself. We got off at 168th Street and Broadway, walked west towards Jumel Place, and back toward Broadway and 175th. We were able to see Caridad restaurant (referenced in the play), a number of Bodegas (we visited my old favorite on 168th), and took in a breathtaking view of the George Washington Bridge. We were treated well at El Malecon, a Washington Heights establishment, for dinner. It would be hard to pick a favorite part of the meal, but I’d have to say the coconut flan was an overall favorite.

We left the city a little before 7pm. Tired, but enriched and ready to pour ourselves into the story of In the Heights.

In the Heights runs April 25-27 and May 5-7 at the Williston Theatre. Tickets will go on sale in early April.

The production team would like to thank the Dean’s Office, the Athletic Department, and the parents of our cast for helping to make this trip a success. 

This trip was made possible in part by a gift to the theatre program from Austin Sarat and Stephanie Sandler. We are very grateful for their support. 

For a student perspective on the trip, please see Nate Gordon’s article in The Willistonian.


Williston Winter Theatre: What ISN’T Happening in the Building?

Winter is one of my favorite times of the year. When most of us are hunkering down, sipping cider, and lamenting the lack of sunlight the actors, designers, and technicians at Williston are revving their engines for a marathon of theatre-making. The list of things going on is even too long for a blog post so here are a few highlights:


Former Pixar animator and Hampshire College professor Chris Perry will be on campus this Monday to discuss how to make an animated T.V. series. He will be talking about his latest project which features voice work by Williston seniors Calvin Ticknor-Swanson and Leeanna Albanese. Those two will be on-hand with Mr. Perry who may give us a sneak peak into what’s next for the project. Williston Theatre students will be attending the event but it is open to all Williston students, families, and faculty. Join us at 6:30 in the Williston Theatre on Monday December 14th.


We have spent the last two night auditioning for our spring musical, In the Heights. We had forty-four students show up to auditions– about ten percent of the student body! That nearly beats our record of 54 for Pippin auditions in 2009. On Tuesday students learned about the show and read scenes for the production team. Debra Vega’s choreography, which students learned and presented last night,  was meant to give our dancers a run for their money. The piece required students to demonstrate skills in hip-hop, salsa, and traditional Broadway moves. It kept everyone on their toes (literally and figuratively).  Ms. Vega and I were both impressed by the energy and zest the crowd brought to their dance auditions! Tonight they will learn music from the show and present sixteen bars to Joshua Harper (our wonderful Director of Choirs and Music Director of In the Heights). While there certainly will be some disappointed students when the cast list goes up Monday (there are only 21 or so roles in the play) it’s good to know our campus is overflowing with talent.


Williston’s Theatre Lab program, where students are at the helm of a one-act festival that performs at the end of February, launched in November. A strong cohort of middle and upper school students have officially taken over the Williston Theatre (under the watchful eye of Technical Director Charles Raffetto). Described by Mr. Raffetto as energetic, collaborative, inspiring, and supportive, working with the theme Fish Out Of Water, this year’s Theatre Lab is certain to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.


These are just a few of the amazing things going on at Williston as we launch the second trimester.  Check back soon to hear about the “tinydance project” visiting the Williston Scholars performing arts class and our trip to A.R.T in Boston to see  Obie-Award-winning Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, an immersive theatre experience.




Acting I: Learning to Listen

Students in Williston’s Acting and Theatre I class have been hard at work since day one mastering the elements of acting. Using techniques developed by the great Stella Adler and Uta Hagen, students learned about the imaginary circumstances, character objectives, and the other building blocks of creating a role. They applied these skills to a monologue…now they have the chance to work on those techniques with a partner.

One of the objectives of Acting and Theatre I is to examine the connection between plays and the time in which they were written. Each scene was chosen with that idea in mind. Some students are doing scenes from post-modern plays (The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and Members of Tectonic Theater Project) others from American Realism (Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge). Through these plays we get a glimpse of the time in which the pieces were written and gain a deeper understanding of history. Students are learning that playwrights often take stories that are invisible to mainstream America and make them visible to society for the first time. In order to do that effectively, as the father of modern acting Stanislavsky discovered, actors must endow their characters with as much truth as they can. This is where acting technique comes into play.

Students were excited to start these scenes- all trimester they’ve been waiting for the moment when they can play off each other and unearth that invisible truth. So how does one do this exactly? The secret is…listening. We’re working on a few ways to build what I like to call the “listening muscle.” Using exercises devised by two legends of acting, Sanford Meisner and Michael Chekhov, students practice listening to their scene partners and responding truthfully (as opposed to responding with something clever or an idea they planned ahead of time on their own). It takes more work than one would imagine, Meisner’s repetition exercise asks actors to repeat the last line their scene partner just said before responding with their own,  but it’s well worth it. The results of this hard work will be evident in the final presentation of scenes during assessment week and I can hardly wait.

Henning Fischel '17 and Kira Bixby '19 use Meisner's Repetition Exercise while rehearsing their scene from Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge.
Henning Fischel ’17 and Kira Bixby ’19 use Meisner’s Repetition Exercise while rehearsing their scene from Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Photo by Joanna Chattman.