Next month's rent is always due! This is a fact in the daily life of tenants everywhere. It is the daily grind and struggle for survival that Jonathan Larson so poetically immortalised in his pop-culture phenomenon: RENT. The musical is based on the opera La Boheme by Giaccomo Puccini. Many aspects and themes of the original opera are kept in tact including the daily struggle to survive. Some aspects have been changed including the scourge of Tuberculosis being changed to HIV/AIDS.
RENT ran for 5,123 shows in its original twelve year run, opening in 1996 and closing in 2008. At this time, it was one of the longest running shows on Broadway. During this time, it won a swathe of awards including: Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score; Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Book of a Musical; and The Pullitzer Prize for Drama. Sadly, Jonathan Larson never lived to see the success of his work. He died shortly before the show went to premiere. Theatrepeople.com.au recently contacted the director of UMMTA's production of RENT, David Miles for his thoughts on the show.
TP: David, Theatrepeople.com.au is interested to know what approach you undertook for UMMTA's production of RENT? Did you have a specific artistic approach?
DM: My approach was really to try and effectively break down the elements of the show into manageable sections and build it up from there.
In a typical rehearsal, I would ask the cast to read through a scene, then ask them to consider their character’s main objective, obstacle and tactic in that scene. Then we would work on basic blocking, then bringing in some more intention, then trying to marry the two and give the actors some freedom to add their own interpretation and understanding of the character and story.
We conducted a character workshop developing backstories, physicality and the relationships between characters. We were also lucky enough to have two speakers come and speak to the cast from Living Positive Victoria.
TP: Did you model any aspects of the show on the original broadway production?
DM: The set design has taken some inspiration from the broadway production. We have a scaffolding structure, with a platform space which is really beneficial to create a couple of separate spaces, and I think necessary for this show.
TP: What can audiences expect so see and hear during the show?
DM: In departing from the traditional audience setup, we have a trust seating model, which means the show is performed partially in the round. We also have an excellent lighting design, headed by Giancarlo Salamanca (an award winning designer), which has enhanced our set greatly. I thought it is important that the setting for the show is intimate and immersive, which is supported by this configuration. I hope the audience has every opportunity to connect closely with the story as it unfolds.
I am sure every Director says this but we have an energetic and talented cast. They have a great individual and collective energy and when combined with the band, I think audiences will be most impressed with the sound and atmosphere we have created.
TP: RENT is somewhat based on the Giaccomo Puccini opera La Boheme. Did you draw on any aspects of the operatic master when creating your vision for the show?
DM: When I applied to direct RENT I was aware that the story was loosely based on La Bohème but I had not seen yet seen the opera. Watching the opera as research I was quite surprised to see how closely the story of RENT aligned with La Bohème. Additionally, there are a number of references taken from La Bohème, which are quite amusing. For example, Benoît, the landlord, sings about how he likes ‘plump, lively women.
[Although] Not as round as a whale, or a milk cow, or a full moon.’ I thought it was quite amusing how some of these subtle references had been extrapolated in RENT. The most important aspect I took from La Bohème is the tragedy of the story. In La Bohème, Mimì, a seamstress, dies from a deadly illness. Whilst, Mimi does not die in RENT, I thought it was important to convey the sense of grief that consumes the characters as their friends are given a death sentence before their eyes.
TP: [FOLLOW UP] The audience at Theatrepeople.com.au would be interested in understanding the approach to creating the concept you eventually arrived at.
DM: In creating the overall concept for the show, I sat back and thought about what I felt was the core message of the story. I came to the conclusion that it is important to highlight the universal themes of the show – opening up to love, learning to live in the present and the importance of community. These themes are played out with an ongoing sense of connection and disconnection. For me, the most important device to communicate these themes to the audience is portraying realistic relationships and staging real and raw emotion between the characters.
TP: David, the show deals with a number of serious subjects including HIV. Could you elaborate on some of the themes that you felt were important to bring to the fore in the show?
DM: My biggest concern in staging the show is to convey the historical context. Principally, this story is a tribute to the experiences of those who have died from HIV/AIDS and their friends and family.
To assist the cast in understanding the historical context and themes of the show, we were lucky enough to have David Menadue and Craig Burgess from Living Positive Victoria come and speak to the cast about living with HIV/AIDS. Their stories were invaluable in providing a historical perspective on the emergence of AIDS and the AIDS crisis, and what it was like to live with HIV in the past and today.
I was most impressed with what the cast took away from this session. We are indebted to David and Craig for generously giving their time and personal stories. The show would not be what it has become without their contributions.
TP: What inspired you to direct RENT?
DM: I saw RENT for the first time in 1999, the professional Melbourne version, and I absolutely loved it. I have loved the show for the last 14 years, I’ve seen it about ten times, in ten different versions, and every time I see it I love it. I was in a production of RENT five years ago, and for me it is one of those musicals that has a lot of popular appeal and clearly for good reason. The show has universal themes that everyone can relate to. I wanted to direct the show because I love it, I am quite familiar with it, it is a lot of fun and very touching. I have worked in theatre for a while, but mainly as a performer. It is only the last couple of years that I’ve started getting experience on the production team side, and I thought it was a great opportunity that came up to apply to direct. Given it was a good pairing of a company that I love working with and a show that I would love to be involved with again, I jumped at the chance!
TP: As the production has progressed, has your understanding of the plot and subjects of the show deepened? If so, in which ways has this been?
DM: Definitely. I was quite familiar with the show having seen it a number of times and having performed in the show before. However, having now directed RENT, I have a new appreciation for the excellent writing and structure present in the script, and the subtle clues about character and storyline, which adds a rich level of detail to the broader narrative. Additionally, I have a new appreciation for the mental struggle that the characters experience as they grapple with anxiety, depression, loss and grief.
TP: If you could be any character in the show, who would this be and why?
DM: When I was young I always thought it would have been fun to play Angel. Having now gained experience on a few different production teams I know that I am definitely not an Angel! I think I’m probably better suited to the role of Mark. It’s an excellent role and I would love to play it some day down the track.
TP: Opening night is here. The houselights have dimmed and the band begins to play, what thoughts are going through your head?
DM: I am sure I am going to be anxious that everything comes together and works smoothly and harmoniously. Ultimately, I’m planning to remind myself that we have an excellent cast and crew who have put in a solid three months to get this show to where it is and to trust in the hard work. I’m looking forward to taking off my Director hat and enjoying the show!
RENT runs from the 18th of October to the 26th of October at The Open Stage, 757 Swanston Street (near cnr Grattan Street)
$30 Full | $25 Concession | $22 UMMTA Member or Groups 8+
Further Info at www.ummta.org