Making ‘Rent’

Harry Cherkinian, Contributing writer

“I am so excited about this,” says Donna Drake as she slowly pushes open the doors to the Cabot Theater at the Broadway Theater Center in the Third Ward. “We are doing things in this theater that we’ve never done before.”

Once inside, a quick view confirms the New York actor/director’s claims

Drake, the director of the Skylight Opera’s season finale “Rent,” has created a brave new and different world within these walls. She’s brought to life the East Village of New York City circa 1989.

The stage has been converted into a multi-level steel tenement structure with stairs coming up both sides and a connecting bridge. There are crew members everywhere working on the set, testing lights and checking sound.

This “rock opera” has the street cred and the commercial track record to continue the crossover appeal that has drawn audiences of all ages since its debut in 1996. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1986 opera “La Boheme,” “Rent’s” rise to fame and fortune offstage is as much a part of the show’s iconic status as its classically based storyline.

The show’s creator, composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson, took his characters from the community of poor, starving artists who populate “La Boheme,” some of them suffering from tuberculosis. One hundred years later, this group of poor starving artists now deals with the onslaught of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While Puccini’s artists were poets, painters, singers and musicians, Larson’s characters, all with HIV/AIDS, include an exotic dancer, a gay philosophy professor and a gay drag queen, among others.

Literally hours before “Rent” opened off Broadway in January 1996, Larson died suddenly of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. He never lived to the see the enormous success of his work, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award after moving to Broadway for a long run.

“I’m so impressed with the bravery of the Skylight. I have not censored anything (in this production) and the Skylight has supported that,” says Drake, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West side with her female partner of three years. “I’m absolutely fearless. If I make people uncomfortable watching this show, then good. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. “

Drake previously directed “Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Blues in the Night” for Skylight. But she’s been waiting for years to direct “Rent.”

Drake is passionate discussing this show and its messages. She becomes more animated (read: louder) amid the din of the construction in the theater and the “Rent” band rehearsing with music director Jamie Johns above in the Skylight bar. As she emphatically states, “Rent” is still as vital and critical today as it was when it first opened in the mid-1990s.

“People are still living with AIDS and people only politely tolerate gays,” she points out. “It breaks my heart. We need to keep putting it out there.”

The Skylight has partnered with the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW) for “Rent” and will donate proceeds from the May 23 performance to the organization.

Drake knows all too well about the ravages of HIV/AIDS. She’s lost many friends over the years, including the mentor who changed her life, director and choreographer Michael Bennett. Drake was just 19 years old, fresh off the bus from her native Columbia, S.C., when she ended up in a workshop Bennett was conducting about the lives of Broadway dancers. This workshop would become the show that changed theater – and Drake’s life: “A Chorus Line.”

“I learned a lot from Michael,” she recalls. “I learned the basics about the theater, especially truth and integrity, and that has stayed with me.”

Another part of what she’s learned from the legendary director is to share the spotlight, in this case with the Skylight team she’s been working with for the past year: Jason Fassl (lighting designer), Holly Payne (costume designer) and Lisa Schlenker (set designer).

“The four of us are doing our own take” on “Rent,” she says. For example, characters will look different from their original Broadway counterparts, from casting to costumes.

But one aspect of “Rent” that remains the same is the humanity and the emotions of the show, Drake says. “Women, black people, gay people are still minorities. But we’re all the same. We all share the same heart.”