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  • Astrid Leppig and Anna Wood

Drama Department’sElectric Rendition of “Rent”

Image of Closing Night, full cast, Ensemble, and Stage Band (top) and image of Cast A performing (bottom) / Via Avajane Lei

Lights dimmed and curtains rose at the UDC Theater of the Arts, where the School Without Walls theater department performed their adaptation of one of the longest running Broadway musicals, “Rent.” Originally written by Jonathan Larson, the musical highlights the lives of many young adult artists living in New York City during the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s.

The process of creating Rent was difficult, yet rewarding. Many different people around the Walls community contributed to its production. For the staff leading the production of “Rent,” drama teacher Lea Zaslavsky and music teachers Christopher Alberts and Malcolm Willoughby, it was important to listen to the music and fully appreciate the score. After the lengthy casting process, the actors worked one-on-one with Mr. Willoughby for about 3 weeks. They practiced their singing and vocals, while learning and memorizing the lyrics.

Once they had mastered lines and lyrics, they started full-cast rehearsals, figuring out blocking and choreography. Key for the cast was learning their cues, while being accompanied by the music. Two weeks before showtime, the cast focused on tech work. During this time, they prioritized costumes and technical factors.

Finally, the cast was able to spend a week rehearsing at the UDC Theater of the Arts, where the musical was ultimately performed. Ms. Z, the director of “Rent,” described the overall time spent preparing as “a strong two months.”

Behind the scenes, art teacher Jason Bulluck and the set design crew worked on making Ms. Z’s artistic vision a reality. Mr. Bulluck expressed, “I look forward to working on the play each year, I love seeing the community come together.”

Though some aspects of the production came easier than others, casting was one of the hardest parts of the play. Finding people for different roles was difficult, and many parts were recast multiple times. For example, Avajane Lei (‘24) was recast twice before landing the role of Maureen. Although she initially was initially least interested in playing that role, she ended up loving Maureen and described her as “the perfect role” for her.

Another difficulty the production faced was learning to do “Rent” as an opera, a musical where every single line is sung. Ms. Z expressed the difficulty of having high schoolers sing a two-hour show saying, “it was hard to find how we were going to approach rehearsal in a way that we could keep the show the way it is” Through practice, the cast was eventually able to learn how to overcome this challenge.

Unlike many other musicals, “Rent” is a “plotless play,” according to Lei. Instead of having a structured plotline, “Rent” showcases the year in the life of a group of friends.

The play opens in a warehouse loft apartment, in the Alphabet City neighborhood. As the musical progresses, the lives of the friends unfold, tackling themes of love, loss, and community.

Through these themes, the play promotes the messages of having deep love and care for the people around you, while appreciating the time you have with them. Addis Getachew (‘27), a member of the ensemble, described the message as “living in the moment and enjoying what you have.” Ms. Z further described the message of the play. “Friendship can be difficult, it can make you face truths but it also helps you be better and grow together.”

Not only does the play promote the ideas of community and love, it also addresses some very serious issues, namely the AIDS crisis. Alex Benach (‘24) who played Angel in cast B, believes it is important to talk about the lives lost during this time. He stated, “Rent highlights those stories and to say there is still joy to be found in those stories is really important.”

This production of Rent was especially impactful because it may be the last play put on by School Without Walls for some time. With the impending budget cuts, Walls could lose funding for crucial programs, such as the theater department. Lei (‘24) said, “the possibility of the performing arts department being completely demolished is really scary and honestly really sad.”

The theater department is not just a way to put on amazing shows, it is also a place where many find community. Jett Morad-McCoy (‘26) who is part of the ensemble, said, “theater has given me a place where I can just forget about all this stress from schoolwork and have this community.” Another actor, Rowan King (‘25), said, “it’s honestly been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my time at Walls.”

Theater provides a way for students to express and enjoy themselves, and some students fear that it could be very hard without Ms. Z. Benach said, “the abilities she has are not replicable and cannot be taught in other classes.” When talking about Ms. Z, Morad-McCoy said, “she really helped me find my voice at this school.”


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