The Educational Side of Rent

The musical opens in Philly next month - with a cast of teens for a good cause

Rent is a musical that has reached audiences around the world with its message of acceptance. In Philadelphia, the “Rent School Project” – an educational theatre program – is looking for much-needed funds for its “11520 Minutes Campaign” which has helped produce a local run of the musical to open at The Rotunda Dec. 4 through Dec. 23.

“We are in need of some finishing funds for this extraordinary educational theater project,” says Rich Wexler, the program’s director. He helped create this project through the masters program at Drexel University for Elementary Education and Special Education. “We have been working with a talented cast of 12 – ages 16 to 23.”

In an era when many arts programs are being cut at schools, participating in Rent – a contemporary rock musical based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme is an opportunity for city teens from a variety of backgrounds to learn about the inner workings of musical theatre – everything from performance and wardrobe to set design and sound. And thanks to the musical’s story line, the experience also addresses sometimes tough subjects like HIV and AIDS, drug use, homosexuality, gentrification and love.

“The cast helped create their own characters through improvisation and writing exercises, and worked on team building exercises,” explains Wexler.

Quite a few people from the community and the theatre industry have also participated in the program already.

Val Sowell from Philadelphia FIGHT has started a discussion about living with AIDS. And Marquis L Cole, a member of the Broadway cast of Rent for two years, visited the cast and spoke with them about his career – he answered questions about the show and his experience.

Harmony Thompson, the show’s musical director, has also been instrumental in teaching the teens about the musical elements of the show, working with the cast on vocal warm ups and other creative exercises. And Andrew Repasky Mcelhinney, a local filmmaker and curator, has been delving into the creative process with the kids.

The Rotunda has also been partner in the program, making “Rent School Project” the venue’s after-school program. “I personally have spent close to $1,000 and have worked on this project for a year,” admits Wexler. “We believe in paying artists, teachers and musicians, and need to pay each of the people that worked for us.”

He says the group’s already raised about $1,200, but they still need $1,800 more to cover current production costs this week. That amounts to 180 people donating $10 each.

“We have already changed the lives of the cast, and wish to give that same experience to the audience,” says Wexler. “Rent gives a voice to the voiceless. This is a very rare show to feature minorities as it’s main characters. It is one of only a few musicals to have openly gay characters.”

As of 2009, it’s estimated that there are 33.3 million people worldwide who are HIV-positive. Not only does the musical provide a compelling portrait of characters living with the disease, but the musical also become a unique educational initiative – one that Wexler says will have a lasting impact. “We are giving 33 percent of our profits to the cast in the form of scholarships to help them reach their dreams as a performer,” he says.

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