CHAMPAIGN — A few months into the shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Broadway actress Stephanie Umoh started noticing a trend in her inbox.
With the shutdown of theaters across the nation, Umoh was out of work after spending several months acting in one of the highest-grossing musicals of all time.
But suddenly, requests were coming in from all over the country, and one from Canada, to have her join Zoom calls to speak with students.
“Suddenly, everybody was getting really creative with how to continue educational environments,” said Umoh, who plays Angelica Schuyler in the first national tour of “Hamilton.”
“And also, within that came the discovery of, ‘Wait, we can bring actors, or whomever, to the classroom without them actually being there.’ And it seemed like everybody discovered that at the same time, because over the summer and into the fall, there were so many requests to do it. I think it is extremely important. I can’t believe we didn’t think of this before.”
On Thursday, Umoh paid a visit to Amanda Danowitz’s art class at Franklin STEAM Academy, a visit that was scheduled to last an hour but lasted almost two.
While working through students’ pre-written questions, Umoh extensively covered a wide range of topics, including racial stereotypes in the theater world, the self-doubt she feels at times, her favorite Hamilton songs to sing, and how she trains her voice.
“You have to constantly have conversations with yourself where you say, ‘Just because something is hard, you don’t walk away from it entirely,’” she told the Franklin students. “You have to remember why you do something in the first place. You have to remember what your love and your passion … were from the get-go.”
The idea for the visit was first conceived when student Evelyn Alvarado decided to center an art project around the Schuyler sisters, who play a focal role in “Hamilton.”
As members of the class began talking about their love for the musical, teacher’s aide Janet Zeis-Wolf mentioned that her husband’s cousin was in the current iteration of the show.
“I said, ‘That’s great. Are they ensemble cast or lighting? Music?’” Danowitz said. “And she said, ‘Oh no, she’s Angelica.’”
Danowitz originally planned on having Umoh visit only with her class, but she decided to open it up to the entire school.
Nearly 200 students and staff were on the call at some point.
Umoh talked about the thrills of musical theater, but she also opened up to the students about difficult times. She told them about the pain and embarrassment she felt when she was cut from the Chicago production of “Book of Mormon” after rehearsals and wasn’t given a reason.
She told them about the frustration she felt when she was in “Sister Act,” and she was told that her character should be “sassy.”
She also talked about the anxiety attack she had on stage during a show.
The conversation was open and honest, and Danowitz is certain it’ll have an impact on the lives of her students.
“I think she planted a lot of seeds today,” Danowitz said. “I think that’s something that is really going to be a formative experience for them in a positive way, growing and maybe thinking that they could do this. Because that’s what I’ve been telling them in class: that this woman is amazing and talented, and she’s stunningly beautiful. She is Angelica. And how cool is that?
“And I’m like, ‘You know what, she was a junior high kid at one time. And at some point along the way, she had the seed planted in her head that this was something she could do, that she had passion for it,’ and that’s how it passes on.”