We (myself and the fabulous Hayley, a librarian at the local college and sub at our library) finally pulled the trigger on our Hamilton program this week. Because we plan programs so far in advance (not the best way to go about developing responsive services for teens, but in a heavy-programming library system, setting the schedule 4-6 months ahead of time is the only way to secure space) I worried that our ship may have left the harbor, but so many people are still completely obsessed with this (nearly-perfect) piece of musical theatre we didn’t want to throw away our shot.
It went really well, if not exactly as imagined. When you love (or, are obsessed with) a thing you are programming around, you are all but helpless in the face of your vision for it. I’ve learned how to prioritize which elements are essential, which are nice, and which can be jettisoned when you inevitably run out of time, but when you engage with super-popular thing that you, yourself, feel passionately about, it’s easy to go overboard.
In planning Ham(ilton) Jam!, I didn’t realize until the event was running that I had created what I call a ‘leveled’ program (There probably is a proper technical term for this, but that’s how I think of them) created to cater to different levels of audience engagement simultaneously. This is commonplace, especially for youth and family programs, but something I’ve been reflecting more on in regards to teen programs. You want everyone to get something out of a session, but people prefer engage in their own way, on their own terms. If we want to put on frothy events, we have to be cognizant of and respond to this.
The Ham Jam (visualize that! Or…don’t!) was a fine example of a leveled program. Finding a good time to run it was (as always) a challenge: school stuff, a barely-existent budget, other library programs, etc. Wd decided to go on Hamilton’s birthday – January 11th. This was before our library program bible (we do SO many programs that I call our seasonal brochure a Cheesecake Factory menu. I kid, but I’m proud that we offer such a quantity and variety of classes and events to our community) was released so publicity would require extra effort, it was midweek (Wednesday) and it was during our traditionally quieter winter months. (I’ve had luck programming in such ‘slow times’ lately, with larger-than-expected turnouts, and as this whole thing was a banana-pants experiment anyway, I decided to go with it.) The ‘Hamilton’s Birthday’ angle was too delightful to resist.
Although this was conceived as a teen program I didn’t limit registration and soon saw from our online reservation system that we were attracting a diverse age range, which was borne out by the attendance: About 60 Hamilfanatics ranging from an 85 year-old who knew every word to a crew of 3rd graders who requested that I just play ‘My Shot’ over and over again to a three year-old with serious dance moves (who showed them off in front of the crowd.) Some popped in for a few songs, some stayed for the first act, and about a third of the attendees stuck it out for the full three hours.
How can you plan for a crowd with such a diverse age range? Well, in short, I didn’t: I planned a teen program. Lately, it’s pretty much the same thing. I had to consider that there would be vastly different levels of engagement and focus in the room: Some would be singing. Some would gaze at screens, either the large one in the room or the small ones in their hands. Some would dive into the table games provided. Some would (purposely or not) pull focus and run around and dance. And some (a few benevolent chaperone-type parents in the room) would just endure it, just shy of complete indifference.
All of these responses and levels of engagement are valid and worthwhile.
I wanna talk about what I have learned; the hard-won wisdom I have earned, because it took me a while to let go of my own expectations inside of my programs. The intellectual and creative exhaustion that occurred during my second year of weekly Fandoms group broke me for the better in this. I’d go into a session ready to share something I thought was important, or an obscurity that I thought the teens would love (sometimes it works: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; sometimes it does not: Documentary Now!) and many would respond by…ignoring the featured content, pulling out phones and/or just hanging out. After spending time preparing for each session, trying to thoughtfully incorporate high-interest educational elements, this could be frustrating, and alas, I admit it: sometimes it showed.
I don’t know how much of my irritation was due to a heretofore undiscovered teacher-type mentality lurking within me. Or maybe it was that Fandoms was the most success I’d had with a weekly program so I was being too ambitious, or that in our second year the number of teens in the room (35, 40, 50) felt unmanageable (I got used to it.) Or maybe it’s that I was a theater major who studied directing and liked to have things go exactly as I envisioned them. I don’t know when it happened, but one day I just let go and…stopped…trying to direct their focus. (I didn’t give up control of the room, exactly. We installed an in-program ‘policy’ where people who aren’t interested in that week’s conversation/viewing filter to the back of the room and try not to get too loud as they play or hang out, and those who want to engage in the planned content move up, closer to the screen and speakers.) I realized that for our teens, who are often over-scheduled and stressed, to opt in to a library program on a Friday afternoon was a special thing and significant commitment, so they should spend their truly precious time as they saw fit, and if that meant getting sucked into phones, so be it. I would never want a teen to stop doing what they want in order to meet my expectations. (Unless it’s in any way destructive, but you know what I mean.)
(When I have some time I mean to study up on the way teens and others split their attention. I find that teens who seemingly never lift their eyes from their screens absorb a lot of whatever it is we are talking about during Fandoms, and other ‘gathering’-style programs, in a sort of mental multitasking. I find it fascinating and need to learn more.)
How did we plan a three-hour program for all ages that can satisfy multiple levels of engagement? I’ve mentioned some bits of it, but here are the specifics:
There are ten things you need to know:
- We played the full score and encouraged people to sing along.
- We did not scroll lyrics for the show, but encouraged attendees to bring their own sheets/books/Hamiltomes, and to share them. Instead we scrolled…
- A 200+ slide presentation of #hamilfacts about the history in the show, the production, references to other songs and showtunes, and Revolutionary-era trivia. I keyed each fact to a lyric so I could track and manually advance the slides with a clicker while I walked around and supervised the room. I used Genius as a starting point, saving time and sanity as I generated a resource list for attendees.
- We put out a display of books for all ages on Hamilton, Burr and other figures from the show.
- We had table games, including a cast/historical figure match game, a word scramble and a crossword puzzle, as well as coloring sheets.
- We also set out birthday party hats and mini-signs with words from the show (Work! Hamilton! Boom!) made with barbecue skewers (an essential craft supply…I use them for everything.)
- We had snacks – pretzels, cookies, and a birthday cake.
- We had a ten-minute intermission, where we ate said cake and sang the Birthday song.
- We set a hashtag for Instagram and Snapchat and incorporated them into the slide show.
- We walked around the room and sat at different tables to chat with attendees and celebrate our favorite songs and moments.
Not everyone did every thing. Some people just chatted or snapped or musical.ly-ed, some let their energy run wild, some sang their hearts out. No one seemed helpless or irritated by anyone engaging with the program elements in their own way and everyone walked out with something positive to say (including a dad sitting with his overjoyed daughter and her crew, reading a newspaper, who said at the end “That was not…terrible?”)
It was a community event in every sense of the word, centered on a contemporary rap/sung Broadway musical about the scandalous life and times of an immigrant Founding Father, which is kind of amazing. It had something for everybody, including those who didn’t really want to be there. It was super-library and we were all satisfied.
We’re going to run it one last time, at our branch library this spring. (Probably during the day on a weekend – three hours on a weeknight was way too much for the littles in the room.) And this time we’ll call it ‘Jamilton!,’ as suggested by one of my Fandoms teens after this first run. (‘Why didn’t you mention that sooner? It’s perfect!’ I cried. ‘You seemed to really like Ham Jam, so I didn’t want to ruin it for you’ he replied. Beware: Enthusiasm can drown out better ideas if you get overly-attached to your own vision. Another thing for me to work on.)
I’m glad that the world, and our event design, was wide enough for all these patrons who may not ordinarily ‘see’ or interact each other out in the community to come together and enjoy this program together, each in their own way.
PS: Fun fact – Aaron Burr’s dad was born here in Fairfield. There is an elementary school named for the family, and whenever I visit, I listen to ‘Wait for It’ and ‘The Room Where It Happens’ on the drive there and back.