Next week, Agoura High School senior Griffen Hamilton will be directing the school’s production of Mamma Mia!, his first full-length musical. Griffen has been featured in Raymond Saar’s Youth Musical Theater productions of shows including Elf, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Aladdin, Jr. but the talented thespian is now moving into directing, which has been an exciting development in his young career in theater arts. We spoke with Griffen during a recent rehearsal at the school’s black box theater.
VCOS: So is this production serving as your senior project?
GRIFFEN: Yes, this is a senior project. Each year at Agoura, one senior gets chosen to direct a student-directed musical. They have to pitch it the year before, so I pitched Mamma Mia! because of the show’s feminist themes and its positive aspects. A lot of Broadway shows are either male driven or have females pitted against each other, fighting for a boy or something, but this show is all about female friendships and female empowerment and that’s why I thought it was great, especially in today’s day and age.
VCOS: Did you think through the technical aspects of what it would take to put it on, or were you just determined to do this show, no matter what?
GRIFFEN: I first had the idea of using a flat with two stories and a balcony and doing it in the round. So I talked with Ian Connelly, our scenic designer, and he gave me the idea of using a more angular set with three doorways, so the dads in the show can come out of those. It was a really masterful idea, I thought. So we went with that, we drew up some sketches, pitched it to our technical director teacher here, and he loved it and gave us the go ahead, so now we have a two-story set in a black box.
VCOS: Have you seen productions of Mamma Mia! before?
GRIFFEN: I have. But I tried not to look at them a lot because I wanted it to come organically from me as a creator and as an artist. I tried to create more of a story that was about the mother-daughter relationship between Donna and Sophie because on the outside, it’s a very two-dimensional show, but when you read more into it, I discovered little nuanced moments that we could work with and I think those moments are quite beautiful. For example, there’s a moment in “Super Trouper” where Donna goes over to Sophie and Sophie joins her mom in the super troupers because that’s what she always wanted to do. So when I had the actors do that moment, it made me tear up because it was so beautiful. I thought it was great.
VCOS: Is the music live or are you using tracks?
GRIFFEN: It’s a live band. Paul Taylor is our amazing pianist and have some students and some adults in the band, which is really cool because the adults can mentor the students.
VCOS: So how does this production fit into your “grand scheme” for a career? Have you thought about college and what you’d like to do?
GRIFFEN: I have thought about college. I have auditions next week, which happens to be the week before the show, for many schools. I’ve applied to some schools for directing and some others for acting, but I want to keep directing in college. I directed 21 Jump Street last year as part of our one-acts and it was a big hit, everyone loved it, and that gave me the directing bug.
VCOS: Do you have a mentor who you consult more often than anyone else?
GRIFFEN: Yes. Raymond Saar is my mentor for directing. I’ve worked with him at Lindero for three years, going on four, and he is one of the most brilliant people I’ve worked with and I’ve worked with many, many directors. He really understands what we need as artists now, how to grow, and not only how to get jobs but how to be better people, create friendships and bonds, and I think that’s what’s so important about theater. It’s not just about putting on a fantastic show but it’s about the fun the students have and the friendships that I have with people who I might never have gotten to know on campus otherwise. It’s something I’ve seen him do now for seven years since I started working with him. He’s always so inclusive and makes everyone feel welcome, whether they’re twelve years old or twenty years old. You can always feel you have a place in one of his shows.
VCOS: How have you surprised yourself as a director in going through this process?
GRIFFEN: Yesterday, I walked in and saw the set, and on paper it didn’t look like much, it didn’t look like it would be that big, but when I walked in, it looked a thousand times bigger than I had imagined, so having a small idea and then having a team make it come to life was shocking to me how supportive and productive high schoolers can be when given the opportunity and inspiration to create something.
VCOS: What about being a leader as opposed to just being part of the team? What kind of different dynamics are you dealing with and how is that going?
GRIFFEN: Being a leader can be rough sometimes, especially when you’re directing your peers. I’ve been in a lot of student-directed musicals, and being able to learn from their mistakes and their achievements and seeing them rally while they’re doing college apps and auditioning made me think, “How am I going to do that?” And when I got the job I thought again, “How am I going to do it?” But being able to pull all these elements together is something that was crazy to me and I didn’t think I could do it, but the thirty-three students that we have in or cast really inspire me because they are so kind to each other. There were some people who I and my assistant director Kylie Utso cast who I wasn’t sure would get along with each other, but if they had any differences, they threw them all away and have really connected and bonded. Being able to be in an environment where you feel safe with another student and not have to impress a teacher is a different experience.
VCOS: If things are going smoothly, it’s easy to not anticipate things that might go wrong. Do you have any plans should something happen, like ego conflicts, unexpected disasters, or things like that?
GRIFFEN: Well, there have definitely been some bumps in the road, but again, I’ll go back to the cast. They’ve been beyond supportive. Whenever we had a bump in the road, they would say, OK, we’re going to get through this no matter what. They always rally up. And they inspire me to want to succeed also. I feel like I made them and they made me. So it’s a real give and take between me and the thirty-three of them, if that makes sense.
VCOS: What have you accomplished that you thought was impossible to do?
GRIFFEN: Casting 33 students. We had 85 people come out to audition for the show. We had five-minute slots scheduled for two straight days, from 3-7 PM. I wish I could have cast them all, but being able choose 33 was so hard because each kid that came in was so deserving and so talented. So that’s what felt impossible at first. Some of the kids who didn’t get cast are helping to build our set and put up the lights and that’s why I love this community of people who can do anything with a positive attitude. You don’t see that a lot. Especially in high school.
VCOS: Is there any aspect of the show that you can proudly point to and say, “This is mine”?
GRIFFEN: A lot of it is mine. We have some cool aspects using shadows in Act 2 that were my idea, to create a sense of memories when they’re singing songs like “One Of Us” or “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and especially “Slipping Through My Fingers.” I wanted to create a really touching moment with that song instead of it just being a pretty song. I wanted it to be really heartfelt. She’s standing off to the side and behind her, I put projections of shadows of her and a younger version of Sophie dancing with each other and cooking and singing together. In the last vignette, they’re talking and this guy comes along, takes Sophie’s hand, and walks off with her, leaving Donna’s shadow all alone. And then Sophie walks on the set wearing her wedding dress. To me, that affected me a lot, thinking about saying goodbye to my mom and dad and going off to college in a few months.
VCOS: You didn’t grow up when this music was new, but I did, and everyone I knew thought ABBA’s songs were just cotton candy pop fluff and nothing more, but it’s remarkable how these songs were molded into the framework of the story to make it more meaningful. What impressions had you had of ABBA and their music when you first saw the show?
GRIFFEN: I’ll be honest. I did not like the show when I first saw it years ago. My mom always wanted me to audition for the show and I would say, no, the show is so cheesy and corny. And then I saw on MTI’s website that the rights were coming out, so I looked at the synopsis and read the perusal script and I thought, “There’s something here. I can make this work.” So I took it and read it over and over and I looked deeply into the meaning of each song, and did research on what ABBA meant to say in each song, like “Super Trouper,” which, on the surface seems like a little bachelorette party but we made more out of it than that. Same thing with “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” It has such sad lyrics: Breaking up is never easy, I know, but I have to go. That’s one of my favorite lyrics in the show. That’s just heavy. And it’s just a pop tune, but when both of our Sams use that emotion, it’s really amazing. They’re like “I don’t want you to end up like me, Sophie. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.” And Donna does that, too, in “Slipping Through My Fingers.” And it kind of makes you think that Donna and Sam do belong together. So seeing those little moments where it all comes together and clicks was like a puzzle to me. So it blew me away when I realized how good it was and how something that people just have fun with can also mean so much. It’s a real challenge to do that with these so-called “fluff” songs. But I think we did a really unique and cool job with it.
VCOS: Imagine what you could do with something that was meant to be serious.
GRIFFEN: I know! I can’t wait.
Mamma Mia! plays at Agoura High School’s black box theatre, February 13 – 17. All performances are sold out.