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From the ITF Main Stage: Rent

The cast of Rent - Rock Ridge Performing Arts
The cast of Rent - Rock Ridge Performing Arts

The International Thespian Festival (ITF) main stage showcases some of the brightest stars in high school theatre. And in 2024, Thespian Troupe 8104 from Rock Ridge Performing Arts (Virginia) will take the stage with Rent: School Edition.

Set in the vibrant yet gritty East Village of New York, Rent chronicles a year in the lives of impoverished young artists and musicians grappling with the shadow of the HIV/AIDS crisis. This groundbreaking musical, loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, weaves a tale of love, artistic expression, and seizing the day.

Claiming the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Rent has ascended beyond the stage to become a cultural touchstone, resonating with audiences of all ages. EdTA chatted with troupe director Anthony Cimino-Johnson to get a peek behind the curtain.

Why this show? What was the spark or idea behind choosing it?

First and foremost, we had the right students at the right time. Not only that, but our incredible administration was supportive of our show choice and the message that resonates throughout about compassion, love, empathy, and kindness. Beyond that, however, I grew up singing Rent in High School, and it spoke to me as a timeless message about finding love and living for every moment.

How did you involve your students in the creative process and decision-making for the show?

As soon as the show title was announced in May of 2023, students were “hired” as designers for the production and we started having design meetings, discussing themes, dramaturgy, and more. We pride ourselves on teaching our students, not just as performers, but as artists and 21st-century global citizens. Therefore, it is critical to incorporate as much student voice into the show as possible. Everything from sets to lights, to sound, was designed and executed by students.

The cast of Rent - Rock Ridge Performing Arts

Has your vision for the show evolved as you’ve prepared it for the ITF stage?

This show has always been grounded in family. Treating this show as an ensemble piece, as opposed to centering on the eight leads, was a critical move to finding the power of the human voice and presence. Preparing for ITF meant we were leaving it all on the stage, with the hope that we would be given the opportunity to continue sharing Jonathan Larson’s message about love for months to come.

Any rehearsal moments or practices that are helping you prep?

I tend to allow the performers to do their own thing come performance time. However, inviting non-binary and BIPOC artists into the space and allowing them to share their stories with our students was critical in empowering them to tell their most authentic stories… [it’s] absolutely changed the evolution of the show.

The cast of Rent - Rock Ridge Performing Arts

How do you balance the educational aspects with the artistic demands of directing a high school production?

By focusing on process. When we focus on process as educators — creating safe and brave spaces for our students while grounding each moment in educational pedagogy — we as artists have the opportunity to bear witness to a beautiful transformation in our students. Every moment of rehearsal is an opportunity to grow.

What do you hope the audience takes away from your show, and why is this important to you?

Visibility, kindness, and love. We see you. You matter. You are important. By leading with compassion, kindness, and love, we are better humans. I hope that by creating a space where all people are seen, regardless of race, gender, gender expression, culture, religion, age, sexuality, etc. . . . [people realize they] matter.

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