“’Rent,’ is no kiddie play,” said Cat Austin, artistic director of the Youth Winter Performance Workshop. The ensemble of 15 talented young people, ranging in age from 12 to 21, has been in rehearsal for the “The School Edition” of the Tony Award-winning musical at least three times a week since November.
The story is loosely based on Puccini’s “La Boheme” and is about young love in the bohemian setting of New York’s Alphabet City in the 1980s. While tuberculosis plagued 1800s Paris, AIDS forces the characters in “Rent” to look at themselves, their dreams, what they are doing with a their lives, and how they treat each other.
“This show is an emotional ride for the audience and also for a teenager living it for four months,” Austin said. “It deals with death and physical addiction, deep subjects for these kids.”
Austin is committed to helping teens navigate their own lives with all of the serious issues that confront them on a daily basis. She established the Experiential Theatre Company (ETC) in 2002 in response to the Columbine High School tragedy. She felt compelled to create a venue where teenagers were encouraged to express their deepest feelings in a healthy, productive way. Through acting, kids have a place where they can bring their emotions, their anger and rage, and channel it through the characters they portray. They can be as abusive, or as big and exuberant as they want to be and they don’t have to worry about people making fun of them. They can act it out on stage, where it’s appropriate and useful.
“The bigger the better,” said Austin. “Bring it on! There is a place for it. Maybe, just maybe, they won’t have to go out and do all of this stuff to the people they love.”
“The kids know ‘Rent’ and wanted to do it,” she continued. “I have to listen to them, to what they want, because, with teenagers, we often, as a society, discount their knowledge and their intuition about what’s good for them. I’ve always come at that age group from a different perspective.”
“I have,” she said, “something to learn from them.”
For the ambitious production Austin enlisted the help of actor/singer/director, Robert Dornaus, who you may have been lucky enough to see perform the role of the Emcee in last summer’s smash hit, “Cabaret,” which Austin directed. Dornaus came aboard ‘Rent” as Stage Director for the Youth Winter Workshop with a working knowledge of the production, as he once played Mark. He has studied acting and singing as long as he can remember, and directed “Fiddler on the Roof” with The Young Artists’ Conservatory of Music co-production with Solano Youth Theatre.
“I got to know his heart during ‘Cabaret.’ He has a lot to offer. I couldn’t let him get away,” said Austin.
She has also hired vocal coach, Hillary Wicht. Austin has known of her work for years and is impressed with Wicht’s strong technical skills. “She really knows her chops and knows how to pull it out of people,” said Austin. The young performers have had individual sessions with her and get her support at some of the rehearsals.
Austin is enjoying her new role as Artistic Director. “We have a great way of relating to and enhancing each other. I’m able to hold the container and put focus on the big picture and trust other people to contribute.”
“The magical thing is that all of our technical expertise seems to be working together. It’s miraculous that we all see the value in what the others have to bring, so the kids get an amazing cross section of information that doesn’t have any boundaries,” Austin said.
Some of the themes are beyond the kids, Dornaus admited. “My job as director is to break down the themes to life experiences the kids have had, that they can relate to.”
An actor won’t necessarily understand all roles, but it’s his job to do the work to understand and to bridge the gap between what he knows as himself and what the character experiences.
“They know what they’re portraying and it brings up stuff for them. It’s part of what’s on our plates, part of what Rob and I continually ask them,” Austin explained. “To look deep within themselves, to bring emotional life to their character. It’s not pretending.”
What is it in the actor’s life that he can relate to that would cause his character to walk onto the stage that way? “We depend on them to bring their all to the rehearsals, the lowest emotional moments of their lives and the highest, to the stage to tell the story they are telling.”
The young actors all have lives, Austin said. They play sports. They have a lot of homework and they all have a lot of pressure on them from school. “We also forget, as adults, that every single day each one of those kids goes through the eye of the needle when they walk onto their school campus. There is so much toxicity. There’s good intention and distraction, and we don’t think about how much they have to deal with all the time. And yet, they still show up at a rehearsal and they give it their all.”
Tessa Hope Morgan, who plays Maureen is home schooled and a seasoned actress at 14. She grew up with “Rent.” Her mother worked on the movie, and she has a deep emotional connection with it, having spent time on the set and having met the actors. It’s what got her involved with musical theatre.
Playing the feisty, in-your-face character is a bit of a stretch for her, since Morgan is a lover, not a fighter, she said, but she is able to play off of her Joanne, Hanna Maillard, who she calls, “a very strong actress.”
“It’s a wonderful experience,” Morgan said. “I love doing adult theatre, but it’s very cool having people my own age working on a project — other kids my own age with the same passion.”
For Dornaus, the emotional depth of the play is a real challenge for the young actors, but “they’re begging for that, for you to pull them out of themselves and encourage them to greatness.” He’s watched the young actors transform and blossom, and is proud to be a part of process that could lead almost anywhere.
“These kids are the future of the American theatre.”
The school edition of “Rent,” with young actors in all roles of the Tony-winning rock musical, comes to Andrews Hall February 20-23, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. $14-$22. Not recommended for persons younger than 14. Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St. 938.4626. Svbo.org.