Part I: Seasons of Auditions: The directors, designers, and musical director of Keegan Theatre’s production of RENT give us an inside look.
When announce Keegan Theatre announced its upcoming production of the Tony Award and Pulitzer winning musical RENT, I asked co-directors Mark Rhea and Susan Rhea if I could sit in on the auditions. On August 1st and 2nd, I watched from the top right corner of Church Street Theatre and watched some of the most talented young actors and singers sing their hearts out. True, when you have over 140 people show up in two nights, you are going to shake your head a couple of times, but in this case, there were vey few people who you wanted to say, “You gotta be kidding” or “Have you ever considered taking up the clarinet?”
I have written about many of the young actors who came out for that call in my Scene Stealers articles for DC Theatre Scene and they sent shivers up and down my spine. And I got to see the directors, musical director Aaron Broderick, band leader Mike Kozemchak, choreographer Kurt Boehm, stage managers Rich Ching, and Christina Coakley wrestle with the difficult task of casting from among so many talented actors.
So, here are the show’s directors, musical director and designers talking about their vision, their designs, the auditions, and the cast selection process. In Part 2, coming soon, we will hear from some of the cast.
Joel: Why did you want to mount this production of RENT?
Mark and Susan: When we heard the rights to RENT were being released, it seemed like a no-brainer for a range of reasons: the venue in which we are now resident company is perfect for this show, number one. We both love the show and have a real passion for it as a piece of theatre, number two. We felt that RENT was a great fit for Keegan aesthetically and in its message – and that our direct, raw approach to things (which Keegan adopts in all things) was especially going to be effective for this show, given its beginnings and its subject matter. We really feel that Keegan and RENT are a great match – and that it would of course also give us as a theater company a chance to stretch and challenge ourselves.
Joel: How is your production unique?
Mark and Susan: The production is unique in the same way that every living person is unique. Our cast is ours, simply put, and they’ll bring their own stamp to the characters they play, while staying true to the story and music they’ve been given. Obviously, unlike Broadway or touring productions, this is an INTIMATE venue, so the action and the emotion is up close and in your face. This is so apropos for RENT and serves the story in a totally compelling way.
At Keegan, we’re not ‘concept for concept’s-sake’ people – it’s just not what we’re about. We just try to pare things down to the words on the page, to the story that the playwright was telling, and then we try to tell it in the most raw and honest way we can – using technical elements to support rather than hinder the story, and to in all things honor the playwright. We also wanted to be sure to give a “nod” to the original production where and when we could – not to be cute, but out of respect for the original staging and because we want to be clear that we are attempting to honor that while doing it in our venue, with this special cast and designers and crew.
Joel: What was your vision for the design of the production?
Mark and Susan: I guess see above answer for this one. We did want to make sure that the space was exposed and there was a central dark/cold mood to the set/lights, and have costumes pop out with more of the color.
Joel: How did you finally choose the cast?
Mark and Susan: We hadn’t done an open call in quite a few years, so we had little idea of what to expect. By and large, we were really impressed with the talent that’s out there. We decided to do an open call because, again, we wanted to acknowledge the origins of this production, and also because we felt that there was raw, younger talent out there who would bring JUST the right energy to the stage. In a way, one of the most exciting aspects of this project has been working with actors who are new to us for the most part – it’s good for the company, for the show, and for the audiences. It’s going to be a blast to unleash all this talent onto the Church Street stage.
Auditions were grueling and lengthy and the decision making was painstaking because we wanted to be fair, and we wanted to get it right, and we wanted to really listen and hear each other’s opinions in the casting process. There were several opinions to consider – not just me and Mark (a challenge in itself! Ha!) but, of course, our choreographer and music director had input as well. So it was not an easy process, although a fascinating one, to be sure. You know – you were there for the first two nights of auditions.
Joel: What was the most frustrating and wonderful thing about the auditions?
Mark and Susan: Frustrating would be some of the “no” decisions. It was hard to NOT cast some of the folks who did not get cast, whether because of a relationship we have with them – and/or because they were so talented and perhaps not quite right in the overall picture, etc. Casting can be painful – and at the same time – it’s thrilling. Wonderful would be the realization, on that first day, that we had made the right decisions. What a great feeling! And we believe that each and every person is the right one and in the right place.
Joel: What made the actors you cast – the perfect choice for these roles: Edward Daniels (Benny), Parker Drown (Angel), Emily Levey (Mimi), John Loughney (Mark), Katie McManus (JoAnne), Juan Carlos Sanchez (Roger), and Weslie Woodley (Maureen)?
Mark and Susan: We don’t see that this is so black and white, and so this is difficult to answer. I can say we love our cast and know we made the right decision on every level. It’s just a gut feeling we had for each person in the show – including our fabulous ensemble. In many ways, casting the right mix for our ensemble was as important as casting the principals. Honestly, we could have cast this show a few different ways and out of the respect for the actors who didn’t get cast, we prefer not to break it down and explain each reason for casting specific actors. Casting the show wasn’t so much “individual” as it was the “whole” – if that helps explain our thoughts here
Joel: How do you co-direct a show and not kill each other?
Mark and Susan: While we have worked in a director/assistant director relationship before, we haven’t yet directed a mainstage production at Keegan as co-directors, so it was an interesting process indeed. While I’m not always sure we succeeded, I know that we tried to be conscious not to talk at the same time, or to give actors conflicting opinions. Depending on what we were working on in a given moment or rehearsal, we’d try to alternate who took the “lead” in terms of communicating with the cast. The other person would have to hold his or her tongue until a good moment to pipe up came along, or until we could bend each other’s ear to see what the other was thinking.
I think we also have very different but complementary strengths, too, so we tried to remember that it was okay to defer to each other based on those strengths. Easy all the time? No way! But I can’t even count how many nights we’d arrive home after rehearsal, collapse exhausted onto the sofa, and then just look at each other and burst into a smile. The whole thing – this amazing and joyful cast, the work being done on and offstage by the actors and artistic team, our own excitement about and love for the project – has been a source of so much pride and joy in our lives that it’s hard to remember the crunchy parts sometimes.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Church Street Theatre after watching RENT?
Mark and Susan: This one is simple: Act up, fight AIDS! We want them to be moved by the story and characters, and to be so moved in fact that they are compelled to act. That’s the reason that we’re partnering with some local health organizations to raise funds and awareness – RENT cannot stand alone. RENT must be produced with an eye to action – as well as tolerance and all the other beautiful themes of the script. People should walk out of the theater going: What can I do to help? Not because we preached at them, but because we moved them.
Joel: Why did you want to work on this production?
Aaron: RENT is such a fun show, filled with so much good music.
Joel: What challenges did you face?
Aaron: The biggest challenge was trying to make all of the story lines make sense while being musical at the same time The set designer and the directors chose to put the band in its current location- in the back of the stage, hidden at stage right. Balancing the sound in a new space was a challenging process, but it turned out well in the end. My orchestra has 6 musicians: 2 guitars, bass, drums, and 2 keys.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave Church Street Theatre?
Aaron: I hope audience members walk out of the theatre humming the music while feeling a sense of humanity and empathy.
Joel: Why did you want to work on this production?
Kurt: Amy McWilliams introduced me to Mark and Susan and from that moment, I knew I had to be a part of this production. Just as in RENT, it is our relationships that help shape all of our lives. My relationship with these two beautiful Bohemians is amazing! That being coupled with my love of RENT made this a perfect fit.
Black, White, Gay, Straight, Bi-sexual, etc. are just a few labels that Larson made a statement on. Our society has so many limitations because of the obsession with defining every human being and containing them in a box. To me, RENT means freedom. RENT defines the true Bohemian who understands what acceptance is all about. More importantly, RENT reminds me to measure my life in love. Working on this show has rejuvenated my ability to live for today, in the moment.
Joel: Talk about your choreography for RENT.
Kurt: In high school, my theatre friends were all “RENT HEADS” (myself included). With that being said, there are many elements in the choreography that stay true to the original concept. Beyond that, I added my own flair and twist on the show. The biggest challenge for the artistic team was making sure every single detail remained organic. Myself, Mark, Susan, and Aaron just kept passing the ball until we got it right. This stunning cast certainly made our job much easier.
“Santa Fe” was all about the ensemble supporting the story in the song. The dance goes from the reality of a life on the street and pops into the dream of what could be. To me, the original felt like dancing for the sake of dancing. At Keegan, we wanted more.
“What You Own” is staged in a way that keeps the distance between Mark and Roger. Our set provided the perfect opportunity to keep the characters apart until the final moment when Roger returns home.
“Out Tonight” and “Today for U” keep the original concept in mind and play to the strengths of the beautiful Emily Levey and delightful Parker Drown.
Another example is how we respected the “one line” for “Seasons of Love” but waited until the perfect time later in the song.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them ?
Kurt: With all of my heart, I hope this production leaves audiences striving for Freedom, Acceptance, and Love. My hope is that we all appreciate those that truly matter in our time on this earth. My prayer is that we all see God’s grace in our daily lives and that we in turn strive to live for TODAY! We have come so far in this war on AIDS. Many battles have been won but our job is not done. We CANNOT forget to ACT UP AND FIGHT AIDS!
Joel: What does RENT mean to you, and why did you want to work on this production?
George: The play, the storyline, has very little to do with my personal life. I am an artist trying to make a name in the business. I have struggled twenty-five years with a life-threatening disease, PSC (Primary Sclorosing Cholengitis – an auto-immune disease of the liver, for which I needed and received a liver transplant in 1995 to survive) No, no direct tie-ins to the RENT storyline that I can see. (I never thought about it until I wrote this.)
But that had no bearing on working on this play, though. Really. What I bring to the show, and all the 30-plus shows I have done with Keegan, is a problem-solver mentality with a strong visual artist/sculptor and structural building background. But I really love the problem-solving aspects of set design.
My design process with Keegan is to first listen to the Director’s thoughts, concepts, and desires. I learn nothing while I am talking, so I listen. We then brainstorm ideas and “what-ifs” to come to an understanding of the scope of the project. I scan the script, usually ignoring most of the dialogue sections, and concentrate on mentions of location, time, settings, sounds and smells, and translate what I feel into mental images. Having an intimate familiarity with the Church Street space, its assets and liabilities, and the inventory of set parts and materials Keegan has in storage, I see the completed set in my mind. When I attend the first read-through I bring along the basic set design model, done in white foamcor.
Building it in 3-D before we start the acting process allows the Director to actually see how, or if, their blocking ideas will work. We make adjustments as needed – the set design is a work in progress. Once the actors are involved, the design process becomes a problem-solving process.
Joel: Talk about the biggest challenge you faced with the RENT set.
George: I avoid looking at previous designers’ works to see their style of the production. I really, really dislike using such design tools because they interfere with the free flow if images created about the play. Is this an original concept? Or something gleaned from the tape? If I don’t see a prior design, then anything I create is an original design. All the design information I needed and used was in the script. The loft space, multiple levels, no heat, indoor/outdoor locations, 15 or more actors DANCING on the structure.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after seeomg RENT?
George: I would hope the audience isn’t ‘watching’ the play in progress, but rather feeling like they are on location where it is happening. At Church Street Theatre, with its limited scenic transformation capabilities and open stage, the set designer gets the first “Wow!” For ten minutes or so before the play begins – the viewer can study the static set design. This is where I think of the set as a sculptural installation. It has to have balanced composition, textures, variety of line, and all the other elements that go into a visual artistic creation. (Then the actors get onstage and “block” the view- old joke) Once the play begins, the set becomes another cast member, pushing the story along to its conclusion. If all goes well, it won’t add any lines of its own to the evening.
When the RENT audience exits into the night, they should go with a song stuck in their mind; “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes. . .”
Joel: Why did you want to work on this production?
Kelly: To be honest, I am not a “RENT-head”. In fact, while I knew about the basic storyline and characters, I’d never seen the show before this production. What made me say yes – in the face of my staggering ignorance of this amazing show – was the amount of passion Mark and Susan have about it. Every show Keegan performs means something special to the artistic team, and especially to the director/s, but I’ve known them long enough to know that when they are as excited about a show as they are for RENT, it’s going to be something extraordinary. Once I’d seen the movie and heard the music – I was completely hooked, and knew I definitely wanted to be a part of making it happen for Keegan.
Shadia: RENT, besides being one of my favorite musicals, is also an absolutely beautiful story about friendship, love, loss, and the changes of life. The first time I ever saw RENT, which was a fantastic birthday gift from a friend, I drove home after the show and started thinking about how short and precious life is. Sounds clichéd, but in these fast times, I feel people forget to take a breath and appreciate what they have around them. I loved the character of Angel and I think people gravitate to that character because everyone wants to be that way. Everyone wants to be the guy that can overcome all their adversities, love life and above all, live everyday fearlessly, like there is no tomorrow.
When I had first heard that we were doing RENT, I cant even describe the sheer joy that overcame me. I had always dreamed of working on RENT one day and I started to realize that could become a reality. I even contemplated begging Mark Rhea to let me work on costumes 🙂 I had, however, at the time, just got done working on three productions with Keegan (One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, False Romance and Of Mice and Men), and was exhausted, so when Mark approached me about doing the costumes for RENT, I had to really think about the challenge that lay ahead of me. The two things that made me change my mind were (1) I was told that Kelly Peacock was coming on board also and was excited at the chance to get to work with her, and knew having another person would help greatly and (2) I knew I would regret it FOREVER if I didn’t do it. It has been an absolute honor and pleasure to work on this production!
Joel: Tell us about your costume design.
Kelly: Iconic shows, such as RENT, always bring with them the obvious challenge: do you recreate the “original” in exacting detail, completely depart from the expected and make a new path, or try to balance the two? Each option has its own challenges – purists expect one look, while every production wants its own personal “stamp”. We decided in the end to take a lot of inspiration from the actors themselves. We asked them to analyze their characters and bring their thoughts and ideas on a look that fit Katie’s idea of Joanne, or Juan’s of Roger. While we ended up with a few interpretation challenges, we feel this resulted in a more complete melding of the actors into their respective roles (as well as some unique twists on some of the characters).
The other major challenge for this show was simply its logistic issues. There are a LOT of costume pieces making their way around a very intimate space, with little if any room offstage for the actors to change without being seen. Also, with as many people as there are onstage at any given time, maintaining visual balance during the many different scenes was sometimes difficult. But seeing the show now makes all the discarded design plans worth it – I’d like to hope we captured a good snapshot of Bohemia in all its colors, glitz, and sometimes ragged and rundown glory.
Shadia: I believe one of the biggest challenges, which did have an impact on our design scheme for this show, was the fact that RENT is so iconic.We had discussed certain images in the original Broadway production and whether or not to keep them. An additional thing we had to think of were the fans. One thing we had all decided on for the costumes was that we did not want our production to be an exact visual replica of the original; but rather, pay homage to the original, while still maintaining our individuality and respecting the fans who adore this production. We kept many elements of the original, but played around with them. For example, we didn’t want to put Mimi (Emily Levey) in the same blue hot pants and leopard print boots, but we still wanted that same image. So we took artistic liberty and changed a few things here and there. The same applies to many characters throughout the production.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them?
Kelly: It’s not exactly news that Washington is a button-down, conservative city. I’d love for people to come away from RENT with a sense of acceptance of others as well as an awareness of their own inner Bohemia – in that each person has inside them a capacity to open themselves up to life, and love, and music, and art, or anything else that inspires
them to be more than just a sum of the daily grind to get ahead.
Shadia: We have such an amazingly talented cast and crew and I am absolutely excited for people to come see our show. I hope people will not only enjoy our show, but I hope it will touch everyone in one way or another. Whether they want to jump up and dance, become involved in their communities, connect with an old friend or tell someone they love them. I hope people will learn to adapt a more Angel aspect on life…no matter how many lemons life throws at you, even if their rotten, make lemonade out of it and make sure it is the best damn lemonade ever!! 🙂
RENT plays through January 17th at Keegan Theatre at The Church Street Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.