Rent School Edition - December 06 - December 08, 2018

Highlander Theatre Company at Somerville High School



By Valerie Farley ('19)



Hi there! I’m so glad you came to our production of RENT, and I’m equally glad you’ve found my program note! As Assistant Director and Dramaturg for this production, I have watched this show come together and I could not be more proud to be a part of it. I could not have asked for a better show as my final musical production at Somerville High School.


My role as Dramaturg this year has led me to a better understanding of how we are shaped by our history and culture. Dramaturgy is understanding the world your show is set in, what the show references, and how the world of the show shapes the perspectives of its characters. It also involves making sure that the show is historically accurate. In the case of a period piece like RENT (my apologies to everyone I’m making feel old) understanding the context of a show is so important because it informs every choice we make as collaborators.


RENT follows a group of young adults: friends, artists, landlords, who lived in New York City between the years 1989-1990. The United States was nearly a decade into its AIDS crisis, and a culture of fear pervaded American society. Discrimination towards those living with AIDS was rampant, and exacerbated existing prejudices and cruelties towards the poor, people struggling with addiction, and the LGBTQ+ community. RENT also depicts the widespread homelessness in NYC during the 80s and 90s and the impact of gentrification on communities.


Art and media reflect the time in which they are created, and RENT is no different. There are certainly places where RENT does not age well. For example, the script refers to Maureen as a lesbian, but she has dated men and women so may be more accurately referred to as bisexual. She is traditionally portrayed as promiscuous and has canonically cheated on multiple partners, which perpetuates the false stereotype that bisexual people are disloyal to their partners because they cannot “pick a side”. Similarly, some of the terms and pronouns that are used to describe Angel in official descriptions are not words that are acceptable today. In our production, we have approached both of these issues in a way that attempts to minimize their harm while remaining true to the show. We de-emphasized Maureen’s promiscuity and instead focused on the harmful effects that intense jealousy can have on a relationship. Additionally, we explored drag culture in our characterization of Angel and let that inform pronoun usage, among other things.


The conversations around these issues reinforce some of the ways RENT remains relevant today. RENT was and is a revolutionary production. It opened theatre up to new audiences in a way that had never been done before. It tells the stories of people who have been underrepresented in theatre, and calls attention to things we still handle poorly or disregard as a society. I have heard numerous people compare government inaction during the AIDS crisis to government inaction on gun violence, the popular solution to homelessness is still to remove the homeless from public spaces, rather than to provide shelter or aid, and communities around the country are undergoing gentrification today, including right here in Somerville. There are still stories we are leaving out of the mainstream. For these reasons, it is important to consider the world of a show, because it might be remarkably similar to our own. I hope I’ve inspired some of you to look at the things we enjoy with a critical eye too sometimes.


Thank you for taking the time to read my note, and please enjoy the show!

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