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The University Star

The Student News Site of Texas State University

The University Star

The Student News Site of Texas State University

The University Star

“Collage of memories”: RENT brings to TXST closure and connection

Carlene Ottah
Tyler Wesley (left), actor for Roger Davis, and Riley Thornton (right), actor for Mark Cohen, rehearse a scene for “RENT”, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, at the Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre.

Based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” “RENT” follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished and artistic friends in Manhattan’s East River, focusing on their dreams, losses and love stories with a gritty, bohemian setting in New York City in the late 1980s, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

Jonathan Larson created the musical with many other artists while working for the New York Theatre Workshop.

Trad Burns, the lighting and scenic designer for “RENT,” worked with Larson on the original musical. The 1990s East Village neighborhood became his artistic home and the inspiration for the set. Working on the production, Burns said the group became close.

“I thought it was very important to have this place that we all called home, and this musical is about found family,” Burns said. “I wanted to bring that moment of the early 1990s to life, which is when the musical takes place.”

Larson died the night before the show’s premiere due to an undiagnosed condition, so he never saw it with an audience. Due to the emotional connection Burns had with the musical, he purposefully stayed away from “RENT” after its opening night on Broadway. Trad, now a professor for the Department of Theatre and Dance, said working on the Texas State version of “RENT” provided closure for an early part of his life.

“It’s not an exact duplicate, but it’s a collage of memories,” Burns said. “I think one of the things for me on this project that’s been the most satisfying is getting to remember a time of my life that was really incredible and formative.”

While each show of “RENT” is different, Burns said what is happening in the world around everyone influences what the crew puts on stage. Riley Thornton, musical theater sophomore, plays Mark Cohen, an aspiring filmmaker wanting to be a part of the bohemian lifestyle. He said he hopes the audience takes away the message of loving people for their differences from “RENT.”

“It’s such a strong, current theme, especially right now in the world,” Thornton said. “It’s so powerful that hating people for their differences is so detrimental to society. Loving people for their differences is the key to so many problem-solving answers.”

Burns also wanted to show what it felt like to live in a big city, especially one not considered safe, and how various artists flocked to it and turned it into a bright and colorful mecca. To make the set feel more like home, he had pictures from the 1990s replicated of the murals around the neighborhood he lived in onto the set.

“When [people] visit New York, you see this big overwhelming city, and it’s hard for people to imagine it being a home,” Burns said. “I wanted to showcase how artists could make anything, even when it’s terrible and dirty, feel like home.”

The connection to this period extends past the audience and applies to those working on the show. Cameron Thomas, a musical theater junior with a choreography focus, plays Joanne Jefferson, a passionate lawyer trying to improve the world. As “RENT” is one of her favorite musicals, Thomas said she learned the importance of knowing her character and their world.

“‘[RENT]’ is a show that has so much new lines and so many layers and so much complexity that you’ll miss if you don’t dig deep into the research and know the history behind these characters and who they really are,” Thomas said.

“RENT” runs at 7:30 p.m. from November 14–19 and at 2 p.m. on November 18–19 at the Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre.

To purchase tickets for RENT visit https://txstatepresents.universitytickets.com/.

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