The stage is set.
Christmas, the Lower East Side. A filmmaker tries to get over his lesbian ex-girlfriend. His roommate’s girlfriend has committed suicide after learning she has AIDS. Outside, a transsexual named Angel rescues a fellow named Tom Collins after a mugging, and upstairs, Mimi, an S&M dancer, is shivering in the cold. Puccini meets Manhattan.
— Excerpted from entertainment-link.com
Who would you cast in a reproduction of “Rent,” the mega 1990s Broadway hit? If you said a group of Kansas City area teens as a benefit for an HIV/AID awareness organization, give yourself a round of applause.
Puccini Meets Johnson County
The content matter in “Rent,” the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning rock adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” is deep: sex, gender identification and HIV/AIDS, among other subjects. Yet the play, presented this past June at Blue Valley High School was an all-teen production from start to finish.
Beginning as an idea between Blue Valley Southwest senior Hersh Ellis and Bishop Miege senior Bridget Woulfe—both involved in theatre since childhood—it soon blossomed into an ensemble of about 30 talented teens from nine high schools in both Kansas and Missouri.
“Bridget and I had been talking about doing an entirely student-run show for awhile,” Hersh says, “then she said something about ‘Rent,’ which is one of my favorite shows.”
From directing (by Hersh) to acting, choreography, stage management, musical direction and sound, set and lighting design, the production came together without adult involvement.
“Everyone had to be a part of just about everything,” Hersh explains. “Actors and band members used to only being on stage, for example, had to learn how to build a set, string up lights, or learn some task they weren’t completely used to doing. So we all had an opportunity to expand our abilities.”
Five Minutes ‘til Curtain
The R-rated content of the original production sparked debate among the teens about whether to cut sensitive material from the script. However, they soon realized doing so wouldn’t be a true representation of the story.
“Unfortunately life’s ups and downs aren’t always G-rated,” Hersh says. “So we had to find a way of handling some of the material without making the audience feel uncomfortable.”
At first, Hersh’s mother was a bit apprehensive about the mature subject matter.
“Most of the kids involved were 17 or older. But there were one or two, like my 15-year-old daughter Shayna (who portrayed several characters) that were younger,” says Mindi Ellis. “Then it became obvious that the overriding theme of the show was to live life as if there is no day but today, which is an inspiring message for all of us.”
Isabella Hampton, 16, who portrayed several characters including Mimi, the S&M dancer’s mother, and the “Seasons of Love” soloist, has been a “Rent” fan since 6th grade.
“When I was younger I didn’t understand the story, but could understand the relationship between the characters,” she recalls. “But now that I am older and acted in it, I could empathize with them more and get into the feelings of the play.”
Art Imitates Life
The decision to donate proceeds from the production to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was as natural as some of the teen actors’ abilities onstage. The two organizations—founded in the late 1980s—work in tandem to raise money to support AIDS initiatives and AIDS service organizations nationwide.
In the end, the teens donated money as well as “sweat equity” to bring the production to life.
“It was very inspiring to watch this group of teens,” Mindi says, “most of whom worked all day and came straight to rehearsal in the evening.
“So often, we don’t give enough credit to teenagers, but they did everything possible to make it happen. They really put their hearts into it. I feel like they are all my kids, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
To learn more about Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, visit broadwaycares.org.