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Hip-Hop Theater Workshop #BARS Is Training The Next Generation Of Lin-Manuel Mirandas

The breeding ground for Broadway’s next hip-hop hope

A future star of Broadway smash Hamilton may be here among us in room 16L of Manhattan’s Ripley-Grier Studios.

Nearly 50 performers, stagehands and spectators are packed into a rehearsal space about half the size of a tennis court on this late May evening. Crew members hurry set pieces into place before crawling away from the camera’s view, actors sling on increasingly disheveled wigs as they rush to their marks. The room is thick with smoke machine vapor and human sweat—the air conditioning has been turned off as not to interfere with this grand finale taping for #BARS, a theatrical workshop that schools participants on the fusion of hip-hop verse and stage drama.

Tonight’s run concludes the six-week program with a one-take performance of popular scenes from classics like Kill Bill and Mean Girls, strung together and adapted to rhyme over live instrumentation. The resulting 18-minute clip is packaged as Mixtape Musical Medley, Vol. 1. Behind the production is HBO Def Poetry alum Rafael Casal and his friend and frequent collaborator Daveed Diggs, currently starring on Broadway as Hamilton’s Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette.

“I get a lot of people asking me to teach them to rap because they’re gonna audition for Hamilton—and that’s a complicated ask,” says Diggs, 34, who has scored a Grammy and may win a Tony Award on Sunday for his roles in the musical. He and Casal met more than 15 years ago as students at Berkeley High School in Northern California—they formed arts collective The Getback together years later. They’ve collaborated on recording rap music and teaching performance art courses at Bay Area middle and high schools. “We started to realize there’s a set of skills to performing rap music that’s useful in a lot of worlds, particularly in the theater world right now.”

Casal’s background is similarly split between theater and poetry. In 2008, as Creative Director for the hip-hop theater undergraduate program at University of Wisconsin-Madison—the country’s first of its kind—the 30-year-old Bay Area native developed a four-year curriculum. Along with Diggs, he kicked off #BARS in April to teach students “how to use verse as a way to communicate story, on the stage. That’s poetic verse, that’s traditional rap, that’s anything from Shakespeare to Kendrick Lamar to Hamilton, in a way that feels sincere.”

The program brings together performers of all backgrounds and experiences, from a schoolteacher looking to branch out, to a rapper curious about transitioning into musicals, to current Broadway thespians. The common link is that everyone is finding his or her entry point into the hip-hop theater space.

“It’s fun to see there are some other people who are also existing in this duality, or want to, and try to find a way to practice,” says Casal. “Where, aside from the Hamilton auditions right now, do you even get a chance to do it? They need that development space, they need somewhere to fuck up, somewhere to sit around other people that are able to go ‘Eh, that doesn’t feel like you,’ or ‘That rhyme scheme could be better,’ or ‘That’s corny,’ or whatever.”

As the first run of #BARS wrapped up, Genius sat down for a convo with Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. Check out the final cut of Mixtape Musical Medley, Vol. 1 below, and read on as Casal and Diggs discuss their dramatic approach to instructing hip-hop and the future of theater.

ON THEATER ‘VERSUS’ HIP HOP

Rafael Casal: People love to create lines between these mediums, but we’re at such a multi-hyphenate artist moment in that the idea that the theater is so drastically different from the hip-hop world is like… it’s not! Get up there, put on a show. People cheer or they boo. Reviews come out, they don’t buy your shit, you don’t make money, you don’t have a fucking career. And you’re always trying to connect with the audience in a way that feels sincere, that’s how you get an emotional reaction. The principles are the same.

Daveed Diggs: What’s shocking to me is how little crossover there’s been in musical theater before now. Rap music is 40 years old and it’s been a popular form for a lot of those 40 years. There’s academia surrounding it and a commercialism. Even if you don’t choose to listen to it, it’s hard to imagine somebody never having heard what a rap song sounds like. It makes sense that it’s now existing in all of these spaces.

In rap music, we culturally have a fixation on authenticity—on things being true—but we also know that’s not necessarily the case. So what it’s really about is the performance of authenticity. It better feel true when you’re saying it, or it’s not hip-hop. We’re all acutely aware that Rick Ross probably doesn’t know the real Noriega. But he can deliver that line in such a way that it feels true and the character that he’s created through his music is one that would know the real Noriega, so you get to say things like that.

Casal: In rap music, you’re playing a version of yourself, and so sincerity is really at the core there. If you present yourself inaccurately, people have problem with it. And in theater, you are already playing a different person. And so your point of sincerity has to be through the mechanism of that character. You and your body cannot feel inauthentic. That’s a much easier bridge to cross then like, “How am I gonna become a rapper?” It’s more, “How do you make Alice [of Alice In Wonderland] rap without leaving the character? [How do you] use verse in a way that feels natural and organic, that aids the scene and isn’t a distraction?” Don’t just do it to do it; do it because it’s the yelling moment and we’re gonna interpret yelling by way of the rhymes—the internal rhymes intensify because the scene is intensifying. Use it as a mechanism, don’t just have this sort of posturing.

ON HOW TO TEACH RAP

Casal: [It’s] the joy of vocal warmups with Busta Rhymes shit, to learn how your tongue is supposed to move. It’s not that he can just say anything fast, he chooses words that have the right alliterations, so that he can do that. And that’s the art of it, is picking the words specifically that take your tongue from the top of your your mouth to the bottom of your mouth and the next word takes it back to the top, so you can do these fast cadences.

Diggs: There are technical aspects that are skill sets that you can learn. You can talk faster, how to listen closely rhythmically, how to enunciate better and get words out that both maintain tempo and cadence and convey emotion. The hardest thing to teach is the swag—your personal set of biorhythms. For actors, this is something you do for every part. Every part I’ve ever done is a process of figuring out what naturally occurring in myself I can use for that part and what are the things I really need to work on, trying to err more on the side of things that come easy. You don’t want to feel like you’re acting; you want to feel like you’re living. That’s the same thing for rap music.

I’m part of this group clipping., and I don’t ever write in the first person—that was one of the rules we set early on. Part of that is a grand experiment to see how functional rap music really is without “I” statements. But part of it is about contributing as honestly as possible to the tradition of gangster rap without necessarily having to claim any particular upbringing or influence of anything. Allowing us the freedom of telling any story that already exists in the rap canon and seeing if that works. So that was a point of entry for me in terms of figuring those things out, really looking at it as storytelling and trying to figure out ways that tell your stories and how much of yourself can you really bring forward to the table. That was something that was so important in the process of working on Hamilton, too. [Hamilton director, Tommy] Kail was constantly reminding us those people should be real people, so everything has to feel comfortable, everything has to feel germaine to… you.

THE FUTURE OF HIP-HOP THEATER

Diggs: My favorite thing about Hamilton are the student matinees, because we get to show up at 10 a.m. and students perform for us. This generation of kids has access to everything and growing up with that makes their performances wide open. Rap is one of the many tools that they are really comfortable using. But imagine from a technical standpoint the things that they’ll be more comfortable doing than theater practitioners are right now. I don’t mean that to suggest that we’re gonna get a whole bunch of rapping special effects plays. Theater is at its heart a pretty low- artform—that’s sometimes why we like it. But kids are so open to taking influences from anywhere, which is why it’s important to make sure we are attracting younger audiences into all of these spaces. They’re the ones who are going to keep it going forward.

As this generation of artists grow up and become practitioners in all of the arts—particularly in theater—it gets to feel more and more like a melting pot. There are more ingredients in the gumbo than there ever have been before.


‘Hamilton’ is the first of so many iterations of the ways that rap can be used. [It’s] very much Lin’s interpretation of rap. We’re just breaching the ways that Broadway can get comfortable with rap. —Rafael Casal


Casal: Hamilton is the first of so many iterations of the ways that rap can be used. [It’s] very much Lin’s interpretation of rap. There’s gonna be so many other playwrights that come along that interpret rap differently. We’re just breaching the ways that Broadway can get comfortable with rap so far. Really, as you watch Hamilton, it is a musical first, and the rap is the new element to something that is a traditional form. We’ll keep seeing that line being pushed in different ways.

What’s fun about Hamilton is that it just got everyone a reference point who was never really familiar with [hip-hop]. So now they can experience the breadth of the work that’s been going on for the last 30 years.

There are those few shows now that are on Broadway, but I’m excited for all the other ones that have already heard “no” for the last 10 years. It’s not like they’re not written—they’ve been there but people won’t take risks on them. And now those shows are getting a push. Lin was doing In The Heights for 11 years. And Hamilton was [in the works for] seven years. I can’t even imagine what was written in the last four years that just needs two years of development to be ready to go.

There’s a whole pocket of writers that never thought that Broadway was an option, and now they do. And there’s the ones who already tried and failed and are gonna come back and try again now that the door is a little more open. And the ones who are seeing things that are coming out now, the connection between them is close enough where people can see the leap a little bit easier, even if what they envision is nothing like what’s on Broadway now. Every once in awhile I think about how many light bulbs are going off and it makes the next 10 years look hella exciting.