Last month, I took a group of my students and their parents to a performance of “Dear Evan Hansen.” When the curtain came down, every single one of us was flooded with emotions—there wasn’t a dry eye amongst us.
Without giving anything away, “Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical about a teen who feels invisible, but through a tragedy and a misunderstanding, finally starts to know what it’s like to fit in, to belong. The themes are universal and all too close to home for many. As one mother in our group stated, “We’ve all felt left out, lost, and alone at some point in our lives.”
After the moving theatrical experience we all had, I wanted to share what my students and parents took away from those hours in the theater. Regardless of whether you are an actor, parent, or civilian, no matter your age, gender, or religion, there are great life lessons to be learned from “Dear Evan Hansen.”
As an actor….
1. Be the character.
The show was believable because it was so real. These were real people having real experiences, not fabricated performances. The characters weren’t just being portrayed, they were living within the skin of the actor onstage.
2. Find the humor.
How can something as intense as a show about suicide be funny? Part of it is obviously the writing, but much of it relies on the actors. Throughout the show, Will Roland (in the role of Jared) and Kristolyn Lloyd (as Alana) used adept comic timing to make a serious subject real and tolerable. Just like life, we use humor to deal with pain.
3. Be vulnerable.
As actors, we’re taught to be vulnerable, a hard concept for many actors in training. But Ben Platt’s performance is a beautiful example of the power of being vulnerable. He offers himself totally and completely to the character of Evan Hansen. As the audience, we saw his insides, his raw emotion, and we’ll never forget it.
4. Allow silence.
When it comes to acting, it’s often the silence that has a greater impact than words. There is a moment in the show when the character of Evan is silent for what seems like an eternity, both to him and the audience. It’s uncomfortable, but we feel his anxiety and pain beyond what words could ever convey.
5. Make it original.
After countless stereotypical high school musicals with cheery dance numbers and sappy love songs, “Dear Evan Hansen” offers something wholly original and refreshing. We’re not watching a revival or a clone of something we’ve already seen. This is something new, something we’ve never seen before, and the energy and excitement is palpable.
As a human ….
6. Stay authentic.
Tell the truth. Don’t hide behind what you think others want you to be. “In a world of growing social media presence—which ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ portrays beautifully—we are constantly attempting to portray who we want everyone to think we are,” said 24-year-old Kevin Johnson, a member of our group that day.
“In reality, and even as a social media strategist, I find that authenticity gives the most positive and engaged feedback…. Students and adults alike need to know that being themselves is how we survive as people and that we do so by being honest with the most important person in our lives: ourselves.”
7. Stay aware.
Think about how social media affects us both negatively and positively. We often think we’re connecting with others virtually—more followers equals more friends, right? But in reality, spending all day with our heads in a computer or phone can mean that we’re actually disconnecting from the people around us. Make an effort to stay present.
8. Be relatable.
In the song “Waving Through A Window,” the lyrics begin, “On the outside always looking in, will I be more than I’ve always been?” This is the first introduction to Evan as someone who feels like he’s standing outside of something, never part of something.
“The words were such a powerful trigger, immediately triggering a thought that I was watching myself as a struggling teen in my darkest days,” said a 17-year-old student. The feeling was mutual for parents in the group: “As a mom, it also made me feel that same powerlessness of the two mothers on stage as they tried to deal with their sons’ pain and loneliness. There is nothing worse than being in the dark, unable to help.”
9. Embrace the imperfect.
Real life rarely ends with a big Hollywood flourish where everyone is happy and everything works out. Life is hard as lessons get learned and experience grows. This is reflected beautifully in “Dear Evan Hansen.” The show ends the way something so real, raw, and reflective should.
While the show is currently the darling of Broadway with its powerhouse cast, brilliant score, lyrics, and moving book, Dear Evan Hansen is profound on a personal and professional level. Run, don’t walk! This is a must-see for every theatre goer.
“It’s important to remind ourselves, young and old, that we must be our true, authentic selves. ‘You are you’ rings throughout [the show],” as Johnson reminds us. “I not only thought, ‘it is so vital for students to hear this,’ but also, ‘I needed this myself.”