When playing real historical figures, the onus on the actor to ‘get it right’ and channel the ‘essence’ of who they are supposed to be playing brings enormous pressure. Compound this with performing one of the lead characters in the musical Hamilton and the pressure goes up to ‘11’… The Hamilton musical transferred from New York to London in 2017 and actor Giles Terera was one of the lucky few to be cast. However, the path to this goal was anything but easy. Luckily for us, Terera kept a journal of this period of rehearsal – as much a personal odyssey as a chronicle of one of theatre’s most ambitious shows.
An anecdote referenced in the introduction sheds light on the genesis of Terera’s talent for expressing thoughts and feelings with an economy of words. Spurred by his mother to keep a journal during a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ family holiday, Terera’s knack for succinctly articulating experiences has a Hemingway-esque quality. It also explains his insights when ‘in the moment’ as a performer.
While the journal primarily covers October to December 2017, it also touches on Terera’s days as a Shakespearean actor and what led him to arguably the most famous musical of modern times. One of the things I like about Terera’s writing is how candid he is about the actor’s life. Nothing is too mundane for inclusion. When Terera first hears there is interest in him for the show, it’s July 2016 and he’s rehearsing for The Merchant of Venice. Following positive auditions, Terera waits months for further feedback. By this time, he’s offered his dream Shakespearean role – Aaron the Moor (Titus Andronicus), a proto-Iago figure who is inscrutable and unapologetic for his actions. Yet Terera’s agent insists Hamilton is still on the cards (thought the official confirmation is still forthcoming) and both runs would clash timewise. Should Terera turn down the Titus Andronicus role because of the high probability of being cast in Hamilton, or is it too great a risk? Choosing between a guaranteed opportunity or one that’s a risky “maybe” is something we all can relate to…
Of course, we know that Terera would eventually be officially offered the role of statesman Aaron Burr, but it wasn’t handed to him ‘on a plate’. The journal lists not only Terera’s initial preparation for the role and the long, demanding rehearsal days, but also his ‘after hours’ research. This entailed analysing ‘anything and everything’ that could ‘connect the dots’ of all the information he assimilated – the logical, methodical connections that Aaron Burr would make, as well as the ‘circular’, lateral behaviour of Alexander Hamilton himself.
The journal is replete with examples of Terera making unexpected connections and insights to his character, Burr. Much like his namesake in Titus, Aaron Burr is a figure who has courted controversy, and history has cast aspersions on his actions and motives. Also, like Burr’s Biblical namesake, once he was not ‘in the room’, his ‘uninvited’ presence had ‘troublesome’ consequences… Certainly, as Terera builds his character, it’s more apparent to the reader how the events of the nascent American nation take on a Shakespearean quality (especially the play Julius Caesar), with the blurring of distinctions between ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ over time. When the ‘betrayals’ do occur, they are taken very personally…
Asides from deconstructing the character of Burr, Terera is very candid about the different types of rehearsals for the cast and crew, and more importantly, how the various parties feel about the (sometimes prolonged) periods of rehearsing. While Hamilton is a special show, the different stages in its inception, from casting to premiere are emblematic of all large productions. Terera is also not afraid to share the moments during the rehearsal process where at times he didn’t ‘hit his mark’ for one reason or another. Even for the most gifted artists, they need space and time to ‘make mistakes’ before delivering faultless performances.
In between the anecdotes regarding rehearsing, Terera includes ‘non-sequitur’ incidents which obliquely offer insights of a different sort to his quest for ‘clarity’. These ‘random’ incidents take on a poetic quality, hinting at subliminal truths…
Yet even with full transparency and highlighting seldom-talked about aspects of theatre, Terera’s journal doesn’t diminish what Hamilton has accomplished. Rather, it only serves to emphasise how the ‘magic’ that shows are capable of are in direct proportion to the talent and hard work of all involved.
© Michael Davis 2021
Hamilton and Me: An Actor’s Journal is available to buy from Nick Hern Books in Hardback/Ebook/Audiobook, RRP £16.99.