By Cady Inabinett, Managing editor of content
Montevallo’s Theatre Department is bringing famed musical “Rent” to its stages this month—with eight individual showings occurring over two weeks at the Michael and Sue Meadows Black Box Theatre.
“Rent,” created by Johnathon Larson, follows a group of young bohemian artists in New York’s East Village neighborhood of Alphabet City during the AIDS epidemic. The musical garnered much critical acclaim while on Broadway, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Musical.
UM theatre professor and director of UM’s production of “Rent,” Dr. David Callaghan, is no stranger to the show—he directed a production of it 10 years ago. However, he felt it was time to direct it again in order to let more theatre students engage with the musical.
“It’s really great material for actors to experience as one of our best contemporary musicals,” he said. “I wanted another generation of UM Theatre majors to have that experience.”
Callaghan also felt that the timing was apt for both the cast and crew and audiences to grapple with the show’s themes, saying, “I think the play makes us think about some ‘deep tissue’ questions in life and how we use the time given us, which seemed especially resonant to share with an audience after the pandemic and lockdown.”
Rehearsing for “Rent” has been, “emotional at times, but also joyous and a lot of fun,” according to Callaghan, who highlighted the emotional depth needed by actors working on the play.
“This play demands a lot of vulnerability from actors and the students have really committed to the project. And that always teaches us something in any life endeavor,” he said.
As emotionally demanding as “Rent” is, it’s equally so in terms of technique according to Callaghan who said, “It’s also a demanding show in terms of acting, singing and physical stamina—so a great challenge for student actors to meet!”
Callaghan also felt a personal draw to directing “Rent.”
“I worked with a famous experimental company called The Living Theatre in ‘Alphabet City’ around the time of the events of RENT, and saw hundreds of performances in East Village theatres in the 90s,” he said. “I was also working in casting offices when RENT was in previews and heard about Jonathan Larson’s shocking death the next day.”
He added, “The world of RENT had great influence on me as a young artist.”
Callaghan was not daunted by “Rent’s” status as a beloved musical. Instead, he expressed excitement about getting to work on a production of the play that’s unique to UM’s Theatre Department.
“Although we were very aware of what is iconic in the play and want to honor that for our audiences, while also hopefully making it our own in the production too. We all definitely have a sense of obligation to serving Jonathan Larson and his brilliant vision of this material,” he said.
Callaghan pointed towards the musical’s venue, the Michael and Sue Meadows Black Box Theatre in the Center for the Arts, as one of the factors that makes UM’s production unique, saying, “We’re doing RENT in our smaller, black box space with an immersive set design by guest designer Marc Quattlebaum.”
“62 seats per night and from the first moment on, you know you’re experiencing something different with our RENT,” he added.
Acting in this production of “Rent” has been a unique experience as well for Stephen Haymond, who is playing Mark Cohen—a struggling documentary filmmaker and narrator of the show.
Haymond described the role and the show as unlike any other production he’s worked on, highlighting the show’s staging in a black box theatre as part of its appeal.
“Our director, Dr. C, has kind of this set up in there that’s kind of unconventional and there’s like a fire escape and a balcony and it’s, you know, kind of turning the black box into a block of New York City in the 90s,” he said.
Haymond added, “It’s really cool, I’ve never really been in a show in a black box theatre in general or had a set like that, so it’s just all very, like, intimate.”
This sense of intimacy helps connect the audience to show according to Haymond, who said the cast is often “inches away from the audience” during the show. He said this closeness helps ground and emphasize the grittiness and realism of the script.
“Even though the music can kind of seem fantastical and over-the-top sometimes, there is really like this strong center of realism at the center of it,” he said.
As an actor, dealing with this emotional material has been exciting for Haymond who said, “The show kind of builds to these more emotional moments where the characters are just going through it,” adding he’s “never really had the opportunity to engage with that before in a show and so I’ve enjoyed it personally just from an acting perspective and it hasn’t necessarily been easy but I’ve enjoyed it.”
He added that, while the show deals with a lot of dark themes, it, “really is just about, like, the light of life and, like, about finding the good in life regardless of how bad it can feel or how bad things seem.”
“Rent” opens April 19, with showings nightly at 7:30 p.m. from April 19 through April 22 and April 25 through April 26. Additionally, there will be two afternoon showings at 2:00 p.m. on April 22 and 23. Tickets can be purchased online at https://montevallotickets.universitytickets.com/.
Cady Inabinett is the editor in chief of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in English and double-minoring in political science and peace and justice studies. She enjoys reading, watching movies, caring for houseplants and generally just being pretentious in her free time.