What fan of the singular show Hamilton: An American Musical wouldn’t love to have its writer and star Lin Manuel Miranda over for drinks and four hours of talking about Hamilton? One enthusiast, Gillian Pensavalle, has done just that with her podcast, The Hamilcast. During the two years she has been producing it (Episode 100 will be released on January 8th), Pensavalle has had guests on ranging from its creator (Miranda), to original cast members (Christopher Jackson, Seth Stewart, etc.), to creative team members (e.g. Associate Musical Director, Ian Weinberger) sharing their insights, anecdotes, and answering listener questions.
Based on this good fortune, one might assume that the host is the luckiest gal in the greatest city in the world. As she shared in our discussion, however, she has been through her own mental health related problems during adolescence. With treatment and through sheer force of passion, personality, and plain old hard work, Pensavalle has persevered and created the definitive podcast about the definitive musical of the 21st century.
How did having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) impact your school experience?
I was not diagnosed until I was 18 years old, so my school experience was difficult. The adults in my life knew that I was smart and social but that I was unsuccessful taking tests. Then I went to college at Fordham University and I got really bad grades. They put me on what they called “academic suspension”. That summer was a really bad summer. That’s when I started going to doctors and that’s when I first was diagnosed. I remember the Dean told me that academic suspension meant that I had to go to a school of their choosing, follow their schedule and get their grades for one year and then I could come back. She told me that since no one had ever done that, that I was expelled. I said, “Wait a minute, no one’s ever done that? Well then I’m going to do it.” They put me in the University of Scranton for a year. I nailed Scranton because by that time, I had been diagnosed and had received treatment. I came back to Fordham and continued to work my butt off. When I graduated, that Dean personally shouted me out when she handed me my diploma.
How did that experience impact your self-concept?
I had pulled back from my friends at Fordham while I was at Scranton, there was a lot of embarrassment, confusion, frustration, and sadness. I fell back into my social scene when I returned to Fordham and by the time senior year rolled around, I was able to relax a little bit. After I graduated, that was a really hard, too, because school had been such a struggle and a driving force. I felt lost without the obvious and important goal of meeting their grade expectations.
And you were also without the structure of school for the first time, which can be really challenging for individuals with ADHD.
Yes, I was on this medication that had completely saved and changed my life. I wanted and needed to work on something.
Do you think there are advantages to having ADHD?
I had never thought of it this way but it sparks multi-tasking. For example, right now I’m editing a Hamilcast episode and I’m also taking notes on it and I have my website open because I had to fix something on there. I am constantly doing many things at once and then it’s up to me to navigate it to focus on the thing that needs to get done.
What was the genesis of The Hamilcast?
I wanted to start a podcast about Hamilton, which I hadn’t even seen yet, on a Tuesday and by Saturday, the first two episodes were up. My best friend Ashley, who has known me since I was 12 years old, has seen me through everything. She said to me, “You’re just the kind of person that when you set your mind to something, you just make it happen.” I didn’t know if that was because I had this experience of seeing things through in college. To me, it didn’t matter that no one had ever come back from academic suspension. To me, it didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen the show yet. To me, those were just things that I would figure out.
Can you talk about the relationship you have with your listeners?
I think about what Lin said when he was here about the intimacy of podcasts, this feeling of being alone together. The first week there were emails from all over the world. Whether it’s someone in Missouri or in Singapore, they don’t have people they can talk to about this. These are listeners, why wouldn’t I engage with that?
I take this podcast super seriously. As I have grown as an editor and resources have come to me, I have wanted to utilize those to make this the best podcast for you. It’s a labor of love but it’s really more love than labor.
You have been able to create that same kind of immediacy and connection between yourself and your audience as exists in the theater between the actors and the audience.
That has grown as the podcast has grown. At first, I really wasn’t aware of the listeners, I think in my own self-deprecating way because I thought, “Who the hell is going to want to listen to me and my friends talk about this?”
I can’t believe how much it has grown. Like that Patreon Peep group [an online Facebook group of people who financially support the podcast], which is this absolutely gorgeous corner of the internet where can people can talk about relatives’ surgeries, health issues, personal experiences, whatever is going on in their lives. I encouraged people to share whatever they want, this is a safe space, we are here for it.
But don’t try to mess with this thing because now it is much, much bigger than this living room. I’m very protective of this podcast. My experience with bullies goes back to elementary school, so I can spot them from a mile away. I will be the lone wolf, I will do what I have to do to protect it and the listeners.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to “make the thing” but may be apprehensive about it?
Make it. Make the thing. It’s not easy diving into the deep end and treading water until you figure it out. It’s hard and you learn a lot. There are people out there who share your interest. Find the Facebook group, find the community, find the hashtag, whatever. If jumping into the deep end isn’t your thing, then find a group that has people who will slowly walk in from the stairs into the pool and will walk into the deep end with you. And don’t be afraid to not see it through. If your heart’s not in it, maybe that thing that you jumped into will lead you to something else.
Was fear of failure at all in your head?
No. What would be failure, I stopped podcasting? There wasn’t really a definitive goal. Obviously, having had Lin on is great. But I can’t tell you how many people said, “Well, you’re stopping now, right?” While of course he was a goal, there’s no end point for me.
“This is not a moment, it’s a movement.”
One hundred percent. So I guess the idea of failure never sunk in.
Now that you are arriving at 100 episodes, what have been some highlights of doing the podcast?
Lin, I mean that’s a given. The interaction that I’m getting from people involved in the show. Being able to see the show from the sound booth [with sound engineer, Anna-Lee Craig, A2/Assistant Sound]. That was a dream come true that I never knew I had. The Patreon Peep group. Meeting people at BroadwayCon last year.
It all really comes down to the interactions with the listeners and hearing what they have to say, those are the real highlights for me. The community that has developed and continues to grow everyday. I stopped looking at the numbers, such as the downloads, a long time ago. The growth of it, a true “Look at where you are, look at where you started” moment, I have those all the time and it’s insane.
Pensavalle’s experience of being undiagnosed in childhood is typical for females with ADHD, whose symptoms are often rationalized as “chattiness” and compensated for with other social and emotional strengths. Proper diagnosis and treatment can make a significant difference in an individual’s experience of self-efficacy and academic success, like it did for Pensavalle. If you would like to find out more about ADHD diagnosis and treatment, you can visit the National Alliance for Mental Illness – ADHD Resource Page.
To find out more about the podcast and listen to episodes (including her thrilling interview with Lin Manuel Miranda), visit The Hamilcast.