Civic Theatre Presents “Rent”

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August 2022

Set in the East Village of New York City, “Rent” is about falling in love, finding your voice and living for today. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Rent” has become a pop cultural phenomenon with songs that rock and a story that resonates with audiences of all ages.

Based loosely on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. How these young bohemians negotiate their dreams, loves and conflicts provides the narrative thread to this groundbreaking musical.

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I sat down with some of the cast and with Civic’s Executive Artistic Director Michael Lasley to discuss why the actors chose to audition for their respective roles at Civic and what they hope the audiences will take away from their performances as well as from this musical itself.                                                                                                                  

Miata McMichel as Joanne Jefferson

Miata McMichel’s first performance at Civic was “The Color Purple,” and she shared her personal experience with the cast and crew, which was one of the reasons why she has come back to perform for Civic and grace the stage with her exceptional talent and authenticity.

“I just love being here [at Civic],” McMichael said. “I immediately grew attached to everyone involved in ‘The Color Purple,’ and I just knew that I had to come back — I didn’t care what show it was. I could have been doing the ABCs, and I would have come back if Michael [Lasley] asked me to.”

Civic Theatre Presents “Rent”

McMichel shared what performing in “Rent” means to her and her advocacy.

“The reason I’m really excited about ‘Rent’ is not because I have a super large attachment to the show but because once I learned more about what the show is about and its history, I feel like it’s really important for me to be a representation here in Carmel, to continue to show up and encourage diversity in this particular area — and because we a had a cousin on my mother’s side who passed away from AIDS in 1996. So, I really want to be a representation for him and the African American LBGTQ community. It’s still a really taboo subject in my community, and I want to be a part of shedding light on that in any way possible.”

Austin Stodghill as Mark Cohen

This will be Austin Stodghill’s first performance at Civic. Stodghill shared that it was an exciting and emotional moment when he got the call that he had clenched the role as Mark Cohen.

Civic Theatre Presents “Rent”

“If fell in love with ‘Rent’ when I joined show choir in high school,” Stodghill shared. “‘Seasons of Love’ was a song that we sang, and I was like, ‘I might look more into this Rent show,’ and I loved it so much. When I heard about the auditions for this, I prepped so hard for it. I’ve seen many shows here before, and it’s always high quality every time. I shed tears when he [Lasley] texted me that I got the part. I was so happy. I hope people see that I have a lot of heart for the role, and I love the message behind the musical itself and how much it brings awareness to a lot of issues in America.”

Austin Hookfin as Tom Collins

This is Austin Hookfin’s first performance at Civic, and he shared with me why the role of Tom Collins is one of his “dream roles” in theater.

“‘Rent’ was one of my first shows that I ever experienced through my sisters back when I was in fifth or sixth grade,” Hookfin recalled. “I remember even as a kid, not knowing much about the world, just getting super emotional with the ‘Support Group’ and ‘Will I?’ songs, where they were talking about the AIDS crisis, it was just so unknown to so many people. They thought they were going to be dead three years ago, and they’re still alive, but they still have to go through so much. The mindset of it really spoke to me as a young kid.”

Civic Theatre Presents “Rent”

Like it was for Stodghill, the moment when Hookfin got the text that he was going to play one of his dream roles — Tom Collins —it was exhilarating.

“Once I got the text, I just kind of froze,” Hookfin said. “I’m just happy to show people my passion and love for this role and my take on it. And just being an ally to the LBGTQ community and being in a cast full of so many beautiful people of color as well, it’s a big deal for me.”

Lukas Robinson as Part of Ensemble

Lukas Robinson’s first show at Civic was “Wait Until Dark.” He is excited to be back as a member of the ensemble in “Rent.”

“‘Wait Until Dark’ sparked my theater joy again,” Robinson said. “I did [theater] all throughout high school and some in middle school. In the past three years, because of COVID-19 and everything, I’ve been out of anything in the arts, and what got me back into it was my uncle Joe Steiner, who does a bunch of shows, messaged me that I should audition for the show ‘Wait Until Dark,’ and I was like, ‘Why not?’ So, I got back in, and it really sparked my love for it [theater], and I’m just going to audition for everything at this point! I forgot how much I loved the community that builds in theater, the wide array of people that are here from so many different parts of life, all going together to create some magic and fun with people. It doesn’t always have to be a great show. It can be a weird show. But as long as somebody enjoys it, it’s a success.”

Director Michael Lasley

I spoke with Lasley with about his efforts, as well as Civic’s, to ensure this theater is representing more people of color, and in the words of Lasley, it “is not only telling the stories of people in Carmel but telling other people’s stories.”

“I feel like we’re making progress, but it’s slower than I’d like for it to be,” Lasley said. “I’ve been working towards the representation in our casts for over 20 years and not just in the chair that I sit in now but as an employee of Civic. We made small end roads, but you have to follow up an opportunity with another opportunity. If you don’t, it will die on the vine. We tell stories — that’s what we do. Our goal is to give the audiences enough of what they want, what they crave — the comfortable things. But we also push it a little bit here and there, or in some cases, we push it a lot. ‘Rent’ is going to be like ripping a Band-Aid off for a lot of our audience members.”

When speaking about the educational element of ‘Rent,’ Lasley said, “We’re looking at this show as a period piece, but it is not a museum piece. AIDS is still with us. There’s been an astounding number of human beings worldwide that have died of AIDS-related complications over the last 40 years. And COVID isn’t going away either. We’re going to have to keep fighting that. So, I think the two things looked at in tandem have some commonalities. Our job is to shine a light in the dark, and our hope is to do some real education and to say, ‘Hey, AIDS is still a real thing, a problem that still needs to be solved.’”