Youth Theatre Tackles Adult Content With “Rent”
The California Youth Conservatory Theatre is tackling a very adult subject with its current production of Rent, playing through July 5 at the Lyceum Theatre in San Diego. A rock musical based loosely on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, Rent tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to create in New York’s Lower East Side, exploring their diverse sexuality, fighting drug addictions and surviving in the shadow of AIDS. At its core, it is a story of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
So why would a youth theatre stage such a mature show? CYC’s Artistic Director and Company Founder, Shaun Evans, is quick to answer that question. Because it’s relevant, he said, on multiple levels.
“On a practical level, a lot of people like it,” Evans said, adding, “and no youth theater has ever done it before. We like to do things that are bold, daring and first.” That philosophy is part of the theatre company’s purpose. “CYC Theatre strives to produce challenging, inclusively diverse projects in addition to traditional musical theatre,” reads an excerpt from its mission statement.
Evans, who is also director of the show, even goes a step further and said there is a “spiritual” reason to have the youth group produce Rent. With all the advances in HIV/AIDS prevention, sexual education and medical treatments, the number of cases is on the increase, not on the decrease. “It’s frightening to know the number of cases is on the rise in kids under 17, which is the age group I work with,” Evans explained.
(The County of San Diego Public Health Services shows an infection increase in the youth population in the past five years, growing from 3.3 percent to 4.9 percent of all new HIV cases.)
Still, the performing cast had to work hard to make their current production honest. “Most of them auditioned because they were Rent fans. Very few of them had personal connection to the material.” Evens said some of the cast members are gay (like a few of their characters), but no one is living with HIV or had lost a friend to AIDS.
CYC brought in a few people who could relate to the show, including people who are HIV positive. The theatre also brought in a guest artist to conduct an exclusive, week-long workshop: original Broadway cast member Rodney Hicks (he originated the role of Benny).
“Now, (the cast) feels like they are all part of something grand, beyond just having a part in a musical,” Evans said.
And their production is grand. It is the first youth theatre in the world to produce the full-score version of Rent. CYC had considered doing the high school version of the show (with edits and revisions to adapt the show to a younger audience), but opted to stage the full, unedited production instead.
“I happen to be on the phone with the licensing company (to discuss another show) when the rights for the full version of Rent became available,” Evans said. Within a few days, CYC had the green light. “That is a big deal for us, to be the first youth company to ever do it.
“Not a single thing that was cut,” he continued. “It’s the full-blown edition.” With that in mind, the show still carries a warning: Rent contains strong language and mature content. For mature audiences.
Presented by the California Youth Conservatory
Through July 5
Tickets: $24-30 with discounts for students, military and seniors
Performed at the Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Place (in Horton Plaza)
Box Office: 619-544-1000