Before every rehearsal and every performance, the cast and crew stand in a circle. They hold hands, close their eyes, inhale deeply, and exhale fully. “I am light,” they say. “I am love. I am here. I am light. I am love. I am here.” They repeat it over and over, until everyone feels ready to take the stage in the Live Arts Teen Theater Ensemble’s production of Rent.
That affirmation is intended to keep the cast and crew grounded and present, moving them forward into a richly emotional performance with energy and positivity “so that they can accomplish what they need to accomplish,” says director Ti Ames. And with this particular production of Rent, there is much to accomplish.
Rent is one of the most successful pieces of American musical theater to date. With music, lyrics, and book written by Jonathan Larson, the play was first produced in 1994, and in 1996 began a 12-year Broadway run. The musical (often classified a “rock opera”) nabbed four Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, and in 2005 was made into a feature film.
Even if you haven’t seen Rent, chances are you’ve heard someone, somewhere, singing “Seasons of Love” (and had it stuck in your head for the rest of the day). But for those who are unfamiliar with the musical, Rent is about a group of bohemian friends living in Manhattan’s East Village at the start of the 1990s, during the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Cast member Greyson Taylor has heard arguments that, 25 years after its debut, “Rent is dying, or that Rent isn’t important anymore,” that the stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community the musical explores are no longer accurate, or that the HIV/AIDS crisis is behind us, or that the tale of bohemians trying to make art and pay their rent in a gentrifying Alphabet City is a tired one. But the arguments for Rent’s irrelevance are misguided says Taylor, because, at its core, “Rent is about love. And Rent’s about family,” two universal and eternal aspects of the human experience.
None of the adolescent cast, nor its 24-year-old director, were born when Rent first hit the stage. Yet, in the musical, they’ve found a place to tell their own stories, of many backgrounds, races (actors of color make up more than half of the cast), genders, and sexualities, all experiencing the ups and downs of life together.
A production like Rent “can fall into the trap of being presented in the same way over and over again,” notes Taylor, but “when someone like Ti steps in and creates a completely new way to tell the story, it’s a whole lot easier for people to stop and listen.”
Ames’ artistic choices make this production unique. At the start of the play, the book dictates that “two thugs” should chase after the character of Tom Collins, and in this production the “two thugs” are two white cops. The character of Angel Dumott Schunard (Taylor’s role), typically staged as a drag queen, is here gender fluid.
Ames has actor Camden Luck playing the famously problematic Maureen Johnson as a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) who inappropriately touches the afro of her girlfriend, Joanne Jefferson—something that happens to Mo Jackson, the actor playing Joanne, all the time in real life.
In this production, the characters of Mark Cohen (played by Jakobh McHone) and Roger Davis (played by Thad Lane), dap whenever they see one another, an intentionally chosen gesture that Ames hopes will help normalize platonic affection between two young black men. And April, Roger’s dead girlfriend usually only mentioned by name, is instead an on-stage character whose actions are unexpectedly (at least, to Roger) mirrored by another character.
Ames incorporates Africana elements, such as call-and-response, constant breaking of the fourth wall, and the presence of ancestral spirits. This has been particularly interesting for Taylor, because for his character, Angel, it means that when (spoiler alert) Angel dies, Angel isn’t really gone. “She’s still just as much a part of everyone’s lives,” continuing to help them believe in love, he says. “That’s probably what hit me the most.”
“I am so proud of these kids,” says Ames, who has been constantly moved by the ways in which the actors have plumbed their own emotional depths to bring the characters to life in a way that forces close examination of both difficult issues like racism, homophobia, and loss, as well as joyous experiences like friendship, falling in love, and sharing a first kiss. They’ve taken risks, they’ve pushed themselves. They build each other up. They’ve learned to take breaks when they’re feeling overwhelmed, and to be wholly present with one another on the stage. Plus, “they can sing their little butts off,” says Ames with equal amounts affection and respect.
This is technically the Rent: School Edition, but the cast would be loath to have their production passed off as “just a teen show.”
“Everyone in this show is well-equipped…capable of displaying the massive amounts of emotion that come behind this show,” says McHone, who is so committed to Rent and his castmates that he drives an hour and a half each way, from his hometown outside of Harrisonburg, to be in this production.
Taylor wants “everyone to leave the theater with a heightened sense of awareness” of the work yet to be done around the many themes addressed in Rent.
It’s what the cast has done, adds McHone, and these are lessons the cast expects to take with them even when the stage lights go down.
That, and the fact that they are light. They are love. They are here.
The Live Arts Teen Theater Ensemble brings love and light to its production of Rent, on stage through July 28.