By Matthew Early
Anticipation on the Tiffin University (TU) campus is growing by the minute as students, faculty and staff anxiously await the opening night of the famous musical, “RENT,” set to debut the evening of March 17 at the historic Ritz Theater in downtown Tiffin. The TU Creative Arts Institute in tandem with Aly Horn, Managing Director of Creative Arts is producing the show, with Aly taking the helm as director.
Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera, “La Bohème,” the musical “RENT,” by Jonathon Larson is a gripping and ageless story, one that has remained of social and emotional importance to countless audiences 26 years after its original debut. Having first hit stages in 1996, show-goers were immediately captivated by gritty and high-energy numbers, as well as the entertaining character antics. While the show is nothing if not enjoyable, it also shines a critical light on a number of social, political and economic-disparity issues ever-present in the late 1980s, with many persisting to this day. The production bluntly displays the negative impact that bigoted policies and public opinions have on those affected by such problems as the HIV-AIDS crisis, urban housing and food insecurity as well as drug and alcohol addiction. Though these are all tough pills for audience members to swallow, one dominant theme emerges and shines throughout – the importance of self-love and acceptance and the necessity of living one’s life in the now, because tomorrow is never guaranteed. As mentioned in the ending number, “Seasons of Love,” the value of one’s life is not measured in days spent on earth, but in the amount of love given and love received.
Tiffin University recently sat down with three undergraduate students, all of whom actors in the musical to learn more about what this experience has been like for each of them, as well as how they feel to be working on such a necessary, impactful piece.
Jessica Briney, a second-year history education major from Elsinore, California plays the character of Mimi. Carter Bennett, a third-year commercial music major from Trempealeau, Wisconsin plays Roger. Tristen Johnson, a junior commercial music major from Medina, Ohio, plays Mark. All three actors cited that while producing “RENT” has proven a demanding task both personally and professionally, the process has been rewarding in equal parts.
“It’s essentially a rock opera,” said Carter. “Most popular shows consist of scenes with a combination of dialogue and music. ‘RENT,’ however is almost entirely music. The show really pushed me out of my comfort zone in this sense.”
“It has the most music of any show I’ve ever done with about 367 pages to memorize,” echoed Jessica. “It’s also different in the sense that it has such a powerful, emotional message behind it, and it’s an honor to help spread the message of appreciating the time you have with the people you care about.”
“The show is extremely emotional,” Tristen added. “I don’t think I could have handled it before this year, but it’s something I’ve always dreamt of doing. I’ve wanted to play Mark Cohen since I first saw the show as an eighth-grader. When TU first made the announcement, I already knew the plot and Mark’s part very well, so I had to audition. I worked harder than ever before to land the role, and I’m so glad it paid off in the end. Because I’ve seen the show so many times, there’s more room for me to experiment with how my character interacts with others onstage, and I’m always excited to share my ideas with the cast during rehearsals.”
Speaking of the cast – it was clear after sitting down with these three that they (as well as the other actors and crew members) are closer than close. Apparently, while many were good friends to begin with, working together has only made the bond they share stronger, as well as fostered new connections.
“The cast and crew is composed of some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met,” said Jessica. “Our rehearsals will sometimes run past midnight, and everybody will still come back the next day with great attitudes, ready to get the work done to their best of their abilities. I went into this production already best friends and roommates with some of the cast, and by the end of our first month together, we’d all grown super close – everybody was included in the fun, which was great to see.”
“All of my closest friends at TU are involved in the show to some extent,” said Carter. “Between the cast, stage crew, band, tech department, etc., they’re all here, and I’ve met so many new and wonderful people as well. If we didn’t have late-night rehearsals, we would most likely be hanging out during that time anyway!”
“We know we’re a chaotic group,” said Tristen. “It just feels so good to have this much fun and laugh as much as I have with a group of equally entertaining and professional people. Everybody knows there’s a time for goofing around and bonding and a time for giving it our all – that’s why we did a ton of research last semester and opted to return early during winter break to hit the ground running. We all agreed that we wanted this musical to be the best Tiffin’s ever produced.”
Each of the actors also cited that the rehearsals have been especially rewarding now that campus and beyond is returning to some sense of normalcy as pandemic safety precautions begin to ease.
“We were lucky,” said Carter. “The fact that we were allowed to continue putting on shows during a time when many schools just canceled their productions all-together was great. The constant rapid testing and strict safety precautions were quite the obstacles, but it was all definitely worth it. However, now that we’re back to the ‘old way’ of doing things, there is a heightened sense of comradery within the cast, and personalities that may have been hidden behind masks aren’t anymore. It creates a whole new energy at the rehearsals.”
“Since the mask mandate was lifted, there’s been this newfound sense of excitement whenever we walk into the rehearsal space,” said Jessica. “I’ve noticed this in regular classrooms as well, but it’s especially clear in these moments. It’s so freeing, and also helpful to us as actors being able to see everybody’s facial expressions while working together.”
The cast and crew’s Dragon Family wishes them well and hopes they all “break a leg” as they prepare for this Thursday night.
To purchase tickets or find showtimes for a production that is sure to be a smash-hit, please visit www.tiffinmusic.com/rent