RENT, Jonathan Larsen’s iconic rock opera is set to open on the University of Illinois campus. The Illini Union Board’s spring musical production tells the story of a year in the life of a group of bohemians struggling in modern day (or at least 1990s) East Village, New York. The year that follows portrays love, loss, AIDS, and contemporary narratives in one moving story. Director Topher Williamson shares his insight about what it means to take on a show with a life of its own.
Smile Politely: What intrigued you about the show? Why did you want to direct it?
Topher Williamson: I have been wanting to direct for a while now. Just to get the experience of being able to have a vision and see it come to culmination. And to interact with performers and artists in different capacities than as an actor and as a writer. This opportunity came and I was thrilled, especially because it was the show RENT. It’s very beautiful and has a lot of connections to a lot of people. It provided a lot of challenges that I was excited for, one being that I never directed a musical before. Also that it was such a familiar show to a lot of people. Combating the familiarity in the iconic moments with what is honest and genuine, is specific to our production.
SP: Can you tell me more about what makes your production different?
Williamson: An overarching theme that we consistently go back to in our production is hope. We always try to go back to where the hope lies in this show. Something that we discovered is that each character and each person in this show, no matter how big or small the role, is either serving to provide hope to other people or is in a hopeless situation and is searching for hope. That’s something that is consistently driving all these characters. One song, “Will I?,” is just three sentences over and over. The lyrics at that moment are so profound in a way that it reflects the humanity of every single person in the show and in the world. I think that desire will make our show different. And whenever we don’t know what to do, whenever we are unsure about the scene, what to block or what to say, we always go back to “Where’s the hope?” That foundation and that vision has made our production different.
SP: How do you hope to impact the audience? What taste do you want the audience to leave with?
Williamson: I’m really excited to engage them with understanding humanity a little better. To see people whose circumstances are much more drastic than theirs. Most people that come won’t be suffering from AIDS, won’t be homeless, in a destitute situation. But there’s something relatable to each person. I hope that the audience can relate to these humans, these characters, and they can find something they can latch onto. A common desire, a common primal urge that they have, and then seeing the arch of their story and seeing how they handle life and how they pursue what they want.
SP: What is working best about your production?
Williamson: What has worked so well, honestly, is the people. Our ensemble is incredible. Everyone in the cast really brings a lot of energy, really brings a lot of attention, and is able to bring something unique to this production. They catch on really fast, they memorize really fast, they’re really eager to learn. And I think it’s their ability to want to give and to be generous with what they have. We’ve been very intentional with having multiple rehearsals when we put the librettos aside, we don’t block anything, we don’t sing anything, we just talk as people and share each other’s stories. We sit in a circle and talk for hours about who we are. We started at the end of February, early March. It’s been a lot of intentional sharing of our lives, a lot of opening up and being vulnerable, being intimate, and pursuing authenticity. It’s really colored how we interact with each other, as a production, and as a whole cast. It’s about genuine bonding and genuine connections with each other, inside and outside rehearsal. It has heightened how we connect and how we relate as performers and as people.
SP: How do you hope these tactics shine through the performance?
Williamson: As an artist, one of the main — if not the main — pursuits that I have is authenticity. It’s consistently colored all of the work that I want to go back to. In being as honest as possible and creating a situation that is as honest as possible. And with these performers and this production staff, it’s having honest interactions and understanding the humans that they’re working with in a more honest way. So that when they’re put into the circumstances of the show, it’s about how these people understand each other. It allows a lot more freedom for real interactions to occur. I kinda view the actor or any artist, really, as a piece of fabric that is dyed by the character that they embody. At the end of the day, the fabric is still there, under the dye. It’s changed a bit, but it’s still fabric. Of our performers, it’s not Idina Menzel, it’s not Adam Pascal, it’s not iconic Broadway performers, but they’re incredible human beings with incredible talent, who are bringing themselves to the role. We’re not trying to emulate what these other people have done, it’s engaging with this text and these characters and dying yourself with them a little bit. Taking on a little bit of their character, but still being you and what you have to bring, your own choices, your own interactions, your own reality, your own background and marrying yourself with the character.
Illini Union Board’s RENT will begin its very limited run on Friday, April 4th, with an additional performance on Saturday, April 5th. Both shows begin at 8pm at Lincoln Hall on the university campus. Tickets are $15 in advance online or at the Quad Shop in the Illini Union, or $18 at the door.
The cast includes some campus theatre favorites, including: David Naber as Roger Davis, Danielle Strickland as Joanne Jefferson, Janjay Knowlden as Tom Collins, and Terrance Rogers playing Benny Coffin III. The production also features the up and coming talents of Trevor Moore as Mark Cohen, Michelle Kenny as Mimi Marquez, Austin Durflinger as Angel Dumott Schunard, and Katherine Woodruff as Maureen Johnson. You’re invited to share your story and search for hope with this promising student production of RENT.