The young starving artists finding their way in lower Manhattan’s East Village aren’t just struggling to come up with their rent money and keep the electricity from getting disconnected. They’re fighting to stay focused on their art while caring for a family of friends battling the ravages of drug use and HIV.
To bring these characters to life in the musical “Rent” today means taking into consideration a host of other challenges faced by young people today — racial discrimination, gender identity, the threat of deportation, fears of a diminished future. To capture today’s struggles, it’s important to get the perspectives of young people living them, so expect to hear plenty of fresh voices on stage when Live Arts opens its new production of “Rent” Friday evening.
The characters at the heart of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” and Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” long before it, were young, after all. And they were hungry, literally and spiritually. Art keeps them from coming apart in a relentless world, but the tribe they form for themselves provides a priceless safety net.
Each member of the multiracial cast is younger than 21; their director is 24. In addition to working on helping them nail their portrayals, Ti Ames is teaching them skills to keep caring for themselves long after they strike the set.
“We spend a lot of time on character development and what you have in common,” Ames said. “They can feel alone and anxious, but when they’re with their friends, it’s the happiest they’ll ever be.”
Self-care for actors goes beyond sleep and hydration. The director gives actors room to decompress and compose themselves so the show can go on when its subject matter and intense character relationships start to get heavy.
“I highly encourage them to remember how important it is to take care of themselves throughout the show,” said Ames. “To love yourself, no matter what, and also holding yourself accountable.”
The more the actors learn about their characters, and the more they empathize with them, the harder it can be to disengage after rehearsal.
“You can relate to it in a lot of ways,” the director said of the musical, adding that she reminds the cast not to wear their characters home. “At the end of the day, please put it down. It will be here in the morning for you to put down and pick up.”
The cast features Jakobh McHone as Mark Cohen, Riley Gonzalez as Mimi Marquez, Thad Lane as Roger Davis, Jacob Bagoly as Tom Collins, Greyson Taylor as Angel Dummott Schunard, Camden Luck as Maureen Johnson, Mo Jackson as Joanne Jefferson and Joshua St. Hill as Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III.
The ensemble includes Elizabeth Buluma, Gabriel Duval, Kat Fard, Qiming Fu, Abi Lainez, Khadijah Williams, Becca Lourie, Ryann Sheehy, Logan Tudor, Katie Wall and Bee Waters.
The actors and singers range in age from 15 to 20, and they’re all dedicated. “We’ve got two kids who drive all the way from Harrisonburg,” Ames said.
Together, they’re following Ames’ mission “to tell the story in the most authentic way possible,” the director said. “We’ve modernized it. There are ICE songs in there. They are taking selfies.”
Ames also is giving the singers room to bring in their own cultural flavor to the songs in the Tony Award-winning musical, so expect fresh takes on some of the songs you remember.
“I’m not shy about adding a riff here or a riff there,” Ames said. “It’s going to be a little bit different, but it’s still ‘Rent.’’’
The director’s advice for the audience?
“I would tell them to buckle up,” Ames said. “I think people sometimes can sugarcoat theater for young adults. They’ve definitely been having fun, but they’re learning a lot.
“They are having so much fun, and I’m excited for folks to see how much fun ‘Rent’ can be.”
The band, led by Julian Brass on electric guitar, includes Abby Smith on piano, Kai Landers on bass, Thomas Castleman on drums and Ben Brantley on second guitar.
The larger Live Arts team is creating a realistic stage environment for the young characters’ explorations and heartaches.
Scott Dunn is producer, Laura Brunk is assistant producer, Chris Kelly is production stage manager, Parker Nelson is assistant stage manager and stand-in, Kristin Baltes is music and vocal director, Jonathan Karns is choreographer and Ryann Sheehy is dance captain.
Mathew Kornegay is scenic designer, Kathleen Mueller is sound designer, Jackson Key is lighting designer, Ethan Miller is assistant lighting designer, Bruce Young is costume designer and Anna Taylor is assistant costume designer. Indigo Witt and Emma English are co-designers of hair and makeup.
Morgan Hall is properties designer, Gail Esterman is assistant props designer, Deborah Arenstein is set dresser, Daryl O’Connor is scenic charge, Olive Gallmeyer is dramaturg, Delia Keaveny is dresser, Marietta Feigert and Jackie Lichtman are lightboard operators, Ella Anthony and Isaac Russell are soundboard operators and Sofia Colby is follow spot operator.
The production is teaching its participants valuable lessons about helping themselves so they can help others. One of the most important lessons is keeping a sense of perspective — remembering that life remains beautiful amid the chaos, that the future is worth the fight, and that community can help provide the shelter and courage to get it all done.
The world can be a terrifying place sometimes, “but there’s so much more to life out there than us what the media tells us,” Ames said. “Part of my teaching and directing these kids is my own self-work. There’s so much light here. There’s so much love here.”