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Re-enacting life’s lessons - The Reality of RENT and the Magic of Disney

In a recent interview I was asked if I was not concerned that local theatre audiences, who notoriously neglect ‘serious’ theatre in favour of the more light-hearted fare, will be put off by the themes and content of my previous musical theatre production, RENT.

Hazel Feldman’s decision to produce Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical RENT in South Africa was indeed a brave choice. Certainly every musical theatre actor in the country who had the opportunity to be a part of this show flocked to the auditions. Those who made the cut will forever be grateful to Hazel for bringing this production here and allowing us to be a part of a really soul fulfilling piece of theatre. Despite its lack of commercial appeal, the producers, cast and creative team all believed it to be a significant and important production that all South Africans would be able to embrace. Unfortunately the lack of audience attendance led to shorter runs than we anticipated and as a result, a really small group of people actually felt the impact of RENT. This left me thinking long and hard about what South African audiences expect from musical theatre productions. Essentially, art is subjective. Therefore any audience member’s reaction to a piece of art is influenced by his or her personal tastes, feelings and opinions. This is what makes live theatre particularly exciting. How boring if a theatre production had exactly the same impact on every audience member. Some want this theatre experience to be a simple one. They attend a performance in the hope that it will allow them to escape the stress and harsh realities they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. They want to leave behind the complexities of a grueling and demanding day at the office. All they wish for is to sit back, relax, laugh, and get lost in the world of entertainment, far removed from the real world. For them it is not complicated, it’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake. For other audience members it has a completely different significance all together. They relish the opportunity to understand and make sense of the complexities in their lives through art forms like the theatre. They embrace the thought provoking ideas and subject matter expressed in certain productions in the hope that it may help them understand, share and make relevant the very real issues they face as human beings in a world we so often struggle to comprehend. It can be a cathartic experience. This I believe is partly the insight Jonathan Larson intended to share with us. Whether the subject matter in RENT had an impact on audiences booking for the show or not, it is safe to say that South Africans showed little interest in attending this particular production. Added to which, some critics gave bad press to the production before they had even seen it. Others lambasted it as being outdated and indulgent. Those critics intent on finding fault with RENT were quick to point out its two essential shortcomings. Two issues that I will agree to an extent, make a production of RENT problematic for a South African audience. Firstly, RENT is a truly American piece of theatre, in fact it is a truly New York piece of theatre. Many of its references pertain to a culture that we as South Africans find difficult to comprehend and contextualise. Secondly, a point which most critics fail to take into account, RENT like Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, is a period piece. It is set in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Many of the ‘controversial’ issues it raises are perhaps not controversial anymore, and are thus perceived as being dated or irrelevant as they do not necessarily relate to the current climate within our country today. As an example, the perception around HIV/AIDS in 80’s America compared to the knowledge surrounding it today and the way in which very many South Africans are dealing with this disease right now in our country is dramatically different. This prompted some audience members and critics to say: “Well then why not South Africanise the piece? Make it more relevant, update the issues, talk about anti-retrovirals as opposed to AZT.” Again, RENT is a period piece, and needs to be performed, perceived and understood within the context that it was written. Perhaps if Jonathan Larson were alive today he may well have “updated” his show. But for now, RENT is set in the very specific time, and very specific place that Larson wrote it. Some South African critics saw these two elements as RENT’s essential weakness in getting its messages across to our audiences. What I fail to understand though, is how they missed the bigger picture. What is essentially for me the most important impact RENT has on an audience is its universal, timeless messages about the human condition. It is this aspect of RENT that touched those South Africans who saw the show. Drawing many of it’s sources, characters and plot from Puccini’s beloved opera La Boheme, Jonathan Larson's RENT is at its core, a piece about the love, hope, dreams and afflictions we all experience as human beings. It is also about our ability to share our problems with others in the same predicament. It’s about building a community and helping each other through shared problems. RENT broke boundaries by exploring controversial social issues in a way that no musical had done since Hair. It also broke traditional musical theatre boundaries in the way that it was staged. This gritty staging, edgy, somewhat Brechtian performance style and hard hitting content helped increase its popularity amongst a new generation of young theatre goers to whom openly expressing one’s thoughts, opinions, sexuality and lifestyle was no big deal. They were excited by the prospect of exploring controversial themes and ideas and discussing them amongst their peers. Again, a way to unite through shared homogeneity. Of RENT it was said: "RENT speaks to Generation X the way that the musical Hair spoke to the baby boomers or those who grew up in the 1960s”, calling it "a rock opera for our time, a Hair for the 90s." What most strikes me as important about RENT is not the relevance today of it’s perceptions around issues like Aids, drug addiction, homelessness or homosexuality, but the fact that we get to watch human nature playing itself out within its character’s given circumstances. We get to witness, understand and comprehend how and why the characters behave the way they do. Ultimately, we are watching the human condition unfold before our eyes. The power of RENT lies in it’s celebration of who we are as human beings, and how we deal with the universal challenges we have faced since the beginning of time, and will continue to face long into the future. Perhaps its because I’m an actor, but I for one am more interested in this kind of thought provoking musical theatre – so called food for thought. Of course a high quality of entertainment, singing and dancing is expected of a musical, but that’s just par for the course. I believe a strong book acted with integrity and an emphasis on understanding what makes the audience relate to the piece and its characters is just as important regardless of how “light-weight” the piece may be considered. So I come back to my initial question. Is a show like RENT what South African audiences want to see? I believe those who gave it a chance were both thoroughly entertained but also surprised at how moved and enlightened they were by its message, and ultimately how ‘feel good’ the RENT experience essentially is. Those who do not wish to cogitate over a musical like they would the more “serious” art forms, are not necessarily wrong, but are denying themselves an opportunity to experience the crux of what theatre has been doing since the beginning of man’s existence on this planet, to re-enact the lessons we as humans have learned about ourselves. As Franz Kafka said: “Melting the ice within, of awakening dormant cells, of making us more fully alive, more fully human, at once more individual and more connected to each other". Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is currently playing at the Monetcasino Teatro in Johannesburg before moving to Artscape in Cape Town and then a possible Asian tour. Produced by both Pieter Toerien and Hazel Feldman, I have the privilege of playing the role of the Beast, alongside Talia Kodesh’s beautiful Belle. In true Disney fashion the show is a spectacle of magic, lavish costumes, pyrotechnics, magnificent sets, sparkling lighting and one of Alan Menken’s most beautiful musical scores. At its heart lies a classic love story, a ‘tale as old as time.’ To come back to the crux of this newsletter, those who enjoy theatre for the pure release of getting away from a taxing day at work will enjoy the pure spectacle and laugh a minute comedy that abounds in the show. Those who expect a little more from their theatre experience will be pleased to know that I was initially concerned that the show would essentially be a glorified pantomime, especially since it was based on an animated feature. My fears were quickly dispelled however by our UK director Jacqueline Dunnley-Wendt who focused on directing this beautiful story with truth and integrity. Ensuring that at all times we were engaging our emotions and connecting with the human spirit that lay at the core of all the characters and ‘objects’, ultimately making the heart of the story shine. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is the perfect family show. It reminds us all of the little “truths” and morals that were instilled in us as children, and are still so appropriate to the little ones today. The theatre medium can be an incredible thing! ‘Don’t judge a person by his or her appearance’, ‘Beauty lies within’, ‘We all want to be accepted for who we are’ – are just a few of the wonderful truths that emanate out of this glorious Disney production. Belle falls for this ugly, tormented creature because ultimately she has an extraordinary insight into what truly lies deep within his soul. Before the audience’s eyes the redeeming power of love unfolds. It’s been a while since I have updated this site, my apologies, but you will notice quite a few additions in the galleries, the news updates, reviews and previous show sections. If you see one show this Christmas season, make sure it’s Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’, you’ll be blown away! Till then Merry Christmas and an awesome start to 2009! All the best, Anton

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