‘Rent’ Works to Inspire, Inform

Theater department’s newest production will be performed Friday, February 28th at 7 p.m. and Saturday, March 1st at 2 and 7 p.m.


David Andrews

Seniors Ellie Oliver (foreground) and Will Thames (background) practice the song ‘Happy New Year’ at musical rehearsal on January 25th, 2014.

*This story originally appeared in the January issue of The Howler*

This spring, the theater department will be tackling Rent, which follows the lives and struggles of a group of aspiring artists and friends in their Bohemian neighborhood in Manhattan, known as Alphabet City, during the tumultuous 1980’s. Brian du Fresne, Monarch teacher, and artistic director for the show said, “Whatever spectrum you fall on whether it be political, social, religious there are certain things, in this show particularly, that are challenging and eye-opening and are going to raise questions and make people think.”

While ‘Rent’ is at times a lighthearted affair, it delves into deeper, more serious social issues of the time period such as drug abuse and AIDS. 

“Kids find out not only about themselves but how they relate to the world and themes and  topics in this show give students an opportunity to grow within themselves and see themselves in the larger picture. Our protected little bubble of Louisville here is part of a much bigger world.””

At the beginning of the process the department had originally planned to perform the musical ‘Anyone Can Whistle.’ Senior Will Thames, who plays Roger Davis said, “No one was excited for [Anyone Can Whistle]. It’s a good musical in its own right but there was a hunger among all of the Thespians for something modern and something we could all relate.”

Du Fresne upon the requests of cast members set out to choose a different show. Du Fresne said, “four or five kids, leaders of the thespian society, came to me and they gave me some suggestions and Rent was among them.”

Du Fresne ultimately made the decision to perform the school edition of Rent. While there is a professional version of the play available, du Fresne said, “The school edition we are performing presents the material in a smart and intelligent way without having to add so much more of the base, much more aggressive elements from the professional version which are not appropriate for the school environment.”

“My general feeling is not to do school productions. When I first started doing this I told myself, ‘I’m not going to dumb things down for students. I’m not going to hide them from real life.’” du Fresne said.

However, du Fresne continued, “school edition for ‘Rent’ is different than anything I’ve seen before. I’m not about overprotecting the kids, but I am about teaching in a controlled environment and I think that’s something the school edition of ‘Rent’ does really well.”

A crucial part of ‘Rent’ is the personalities involved. From the effervescent Angel to the brooding and artistic Roger Davis to the flirty and confusing character of Maureen Johnson, the cast will be portraying a wide variety of characters. Thames said, “The high school version does a really good job of not censoring the lifestyles of the characters, because, in the end, that’s ‘Rent’”

Alex Mautz plays a pivotal character in the production as Tom Collins. Mautz describes Collins, saying, “He’s an anarchist, he just runs around all crazy.” One of the major plotlines of the musical centers around Collin’s love for a drag queen and street percussionist named Angel. In a time of despair and sadness in Alphabet City, as the neighborhood in New York was known in the 1980’s, Angel is a shining light.

Mautz said, “In one scene, Mimi and Joanne say, ‘I’d die to have a taste of what Angel had.’ She’s just a symbol of hope for the characters.”

Mautz holds no inhibition about portraying the love interest of Angel. “I’m totally comfortable with my sexuality, so I have no problem playing my role. It’s an acting role, it’s a role I got and I’m completely fine with it.” He stops to think for a moment and then continues with conviction, “I have no problem with what people want to choose, whether they’re straight or happen to be gay.”

Du Fresne weighed in as well, saying that he has experienced similar circumstances. “I happen to be gay, and as an actor I’ve played lots of straight men in my acting career.” said du Fresne

Madi Sinsel, a member of the ensemble who said,“I might go all out with the streetwalker thing.” Sinsel said, “They [my parents] have asked me about the musical like ‘What’s the stuff in it?’ and I feel like my parents know what ‘Rent’ is but I’m not sure they’ve seen it so I just say ‘It’s interesting, you’ll find out,” then she continues with a smile and ends, “hopefully you won’t kill me for being in this play.”

Thames plays Roger, a recovering heroin addict and aspiring lead guitarist who is H.I.V positive. In reference to Roger’s sexuality, Thames said, “He [Roger] is heterosexual and that’s actually something pivotal in ‘Rent’. Which is one of the things I love about [Rent], the way that it deals with sexuality being integral to character instead of just being gratuitous for the sake of it.”

While sexuality is a part of the story that Rent tells, Thames sees larger messages in the script.  “For me ‘Rent’ is all about love. The show is all about adversity and coping with death, but more than that it is about how we turn to each other in times of need. In this time period where it seemed like everything was dying off, these people could be there for each other and be each other’s rock.” said Thames.

“One can easily say that [Rent] is about love and acceptance, but it’s much more than that, it’s about tragedy and dealing with something as scary as AIDS. We go through all of these things and make sure that the kids understand why we’re doing them and that the parents are supportive.” said du Fresne.

Du Fresne has taken steps to create an open and communicative classroom for his crew members. “For the first time ever I’ve had every kid who is involved in this production have their parents sign off saying ‘this is what is part of the show and we’d love to have your kids be a part of the production.’”

While the musical did present challenges to the classroom environment du Fresne sees serious redeeming qualities for his students in experiencing the musical. “Kids find out not only about themselves but how they relate to the world and themes and  topics in this show give students an opportunity to grow within themselves and see themselves in the larger picture. Our protected little bubble of Louisville here is part of a much bigger world.”

Universal themes are present in Rent that du Fresne views as crucial to the audience experience, “Everyone has to deal with death, everyone has to deal with people that are sick, everyone has to deal with people who don’t love them anymore, everyone has to deal with people that are different themselves, with people who don’t make as much or ten times more than you make, and how do we bridge these divides.”

“We’re all being changed by [Rent] and our audience is presented with an opportunity either to learn from and grow, or they can choose, which is perfectly legitimate, to think the exact same about particular issues.”

As he finished his sentence du Fresne turned back to his desk, full of notes and rehearsal schedules as if to signal his return to the journey which is ‘Rent’. The jazz band played a lively tune outside of his office window and one could almost feel that the cast would walk right into the room and start belting out ‘La Vie Boheme’.