The story proper begins with flaming eviction notices descending ominously, beautifully, out of East Village tenement windows as their residents belt out their defiance in the language of rock ‘n roll: “We’re not gonna pay last year’s rent.” I’m sucked in by the familiarity of this scene of unrest — an entire neighborhood taking to the streets to protest a system built to disenfranchise them and to demonstrate their resilience. The verses of the titular song “Rent” outline the challenges this particular community is facing: “How do you connect in an age when strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray?” Narration and dialogue reveal the challenges our eight main characters face: at least five risk eviction at the hands of one, a few are at varying stages in a battle with AIDS, some are addicted to heroin, most are people of color and/or LGBT-identified in the conservative late-1980s United States, and almost all are trying to make their living as artists in New York City. Their world, their existence, seems to be on the edge of collapse.
The chaos and intensity of this in-media-res opening took me by surprise. The preceding overture “Seasons of Love” had lulled me into a dreamy trip back to my theatre-obsessed high school days when I first experienced the show and sang along to this very song in the shower, in the kitchen after school, in the series of shitmobiles I drove around my hometown, in the choir room with a cadre of other musical nerds, on stage in a summer production of the Kenosha Youth Performing Arts Company. Jonathan Larson, the show’s writer and composer, planned it this way. Our eight main characters sing harmonizing strains on a bare stage under spotlights accompanied by a lone piano, lyrics musing on the play between minutiae and emotional highlights that make up a single year in a life, waxing and waning in “seasons of love.” The words fall back into place moments before I hear them, fleshing out the repetitive melody that had occasionally popped into my mind over the last ten years. A quixotic, theatrical mood is conjured and then quickly shattered by the beginning of the year in which this story takes place.
A bit of backstory
I feel a parallel shattering as the mental images that have signified RENT to me for the last ten years fall to pieces. My memories of these songs — which I haven’t listened to much in the years since the Bradford Theater Arts production took my high school by storm in 2008 — are tinged by my memories of the people I first shared these songs with and who I was when they came into my life. The most talented of my beautiful suburban classmates became Mark, Roger, Angel, Collins, Maureen, Joanne, Mimi, and Benny, the starving artists and “yuppie scum” of RENT, and made their yearly pilgrimage to the Nebraska Thespian Festival. In our community on Kenosha, Wisconsin’s north side, parents paid for voice lessons with the best instructor in town, an Educators Credit Union and a new weight room had just been built on our school campus, Kenosha Unified School District paid for juniors and seniors to take AP tests; we lived in a safe, spacious bubble right between Milwaukee and Chicago. A great place to raise kids. The antithesis of the East Village.
Our problems looked very different than the problems of Mark, Roger, Angel, Collins, Maureen, Joanne, Mimi, and Benny, but in the spring of 2008, we walked the halls of Bradford singing snippets of “Today 4 U” and “Take Me or Leave Me,” spitting the sassiest bits of dialogue whenever the opportunity arose. Some of my classmates saw themselves in one character or another, bragging to their friends that “I’m totally a Mark,” and in turn affected the mannerisms, voice, and personality that so resonated with them. In my jealousy of the talented, seemingly well-adjusted and carefree members of the theater in-crowd, I balked at their quickness to claim these streetwise, poor, drug-addled characters as kindred spirits. Of course I loved the songs too, knew all the lyrics, would have done anything to be in that spotlight myself — to get that kind of attention — but that would have been wrong too. A small part of me knew that I couldn’t yet handle that kind of attention, that I didn’t have enough of myself figured out to confidently, convincingly take on a persona so vastly removed from my own. That’s what I was really jealous of: my classmates’ strong personalities and self-possession.
Seeing with fresh eyes
Watching RENT in January 2018, I pick up on the storytelling in the dialogue and the visual poetry in the blocking and cinematography. Mark acknowledges his choice to live in Alphabet City after listening to a voicemail from his mother, bringing up his own suburban origins and his frustration with them; the privilege he had to move to New York City to pursue a career in filmmaking. He sings a beat behind the participants in the HIV/AIDS Life Support group he’s filming for his documentary, “shooting without a script,” and taking a step back to help this group tell their own story. Maureen toes the line of making exploitative art with her elaborate protest performance, decrying Benny’s “Cyberland” project and the consequent displacement of hundreds of homeless people by singing abstract, artsy lyrics in gratuitously decorated runs surrounded by TVs multiplying her lips, zoomed in and larger than life. Is she using her art to stop development on Cyberland, or is this tragedy an opportunity for Maureen to showcase her kooky performance art? The actors and actresses who poured themselves into the Bradford Theatre Arts production of RENT in 2008 and did the emotional labor of bringing these scenes to life almost daily for months of rehearsal would have had their own answers to this question.
The truth is that I had all the opportunities in the world to sing and act, but I was too scared of failure, too busy comparing myself to my peers to tap into my own creativity. I made the callback audition for the 2008 season and stood in line with the other girls preparing to perform 32 bars of “Out Tonight” with a posture chair from the orchestra room as our only prop. I missed the memo that we were supposed to dress in character and wore my best church skirt with a cardigan sweater, standing out like a sore thumb amidst the ripped denim, leather, dark makeup, and fingerless gloves. Even if I wasn’t already mentally defeated, I probably wouldn’t have made the cut. Instead, I got a small speaking role in Brigadoon and the lead role in a straight play at the Racine Theater Guild — outside the Bradford bubble. I wasn’t singing and dancing, but my face was on the poster. My family and my close friends came to see it, but I didn’t appreciate the experience the way I would have had with a lead role in a BTA production. I was so preoccupied with the ultimately vain fantasy of being a musical theater star that I made myself incapable of creating worthwhile art. For all the judging I did of those kids trying on different personas and flaunting their talent, I was the poser.
Watching RENT in 2018, I sit where I’ve always felt most comfortable as an artist: with my notebook in front of me. As a person who’s spent the last five years of my life trying in earnest to make my own art and engage with the art of others, navigating the ways our creations exist and function in the world, I find myself empathizing with these characters’ struggles in ways I wasn’t able to at eighteen — problems I’ve grappled with in different ways and have just begun to learn concepts for. In school, we learn to share the spotlight, appreciate others’ truths, and support their causes. What we’re not required to do, what we rarely have the time or resources to do even outside of academia, is trust our fellow artists enough to be completely honest. I found no bohemian camaraderie in high school and little in grad school, yes, because of the competition, but also because I was still figuring out how to be honest with myself. I still don’t see myself in one particular character or another, but now I realize that I do love the characters of RENT because I see the people I’ve loved in them. And now I’m prepared for the messages RENT has for me as an artist.
“La vie boheme,” et la mort
Immediately after a small riot breaks out at Maureen’s performance and some of the protesters are taken away by the police, the artists gather at a restaurant to regroup after the brawl and celebrate their success at creating a PR catastrophe for Cyberland. Benny is there dining with his business partner and father-in-law. He ends his reprimand of the mischievous gang of artists with the declaration that “This is Calcutta. Bohemia is dead.” In response, the artists stage a tongue-in-cheek funeral for “the late, great daughter of Mother Earth,” “La Vie Boheme.” Reflecting on Benny’s line, I think about the time one of my grad school professors asked our poetics class if we thought bohemia was still a thing the way he knew it in the 70s and 80s: an ideological and sometimes spatial enclave for artists outside of mainstream society. As graduate students, even artsy ones pursuing MFAs, we were probably not the right people to be asking. We faltered and looked to each other for answers, uncomfortable using this flowery title, but not entirely sure why it had fallen into disuse. The scrappy yet spirited, fabulously choreographed, achingly ironic song and dance “La Vie Boheme” provides an articulate disavowal of the misguided ideal that bohemia represents. The cast gleefully burns the effigy of a singular utopian artistic counterculture while celebrating the people who make up their “actual reality:” the works their art was built on, their idols, their beliefs, their diseases, their baggage, their dildos and all.
RENT’s other truth is that love is ugly sometimes, and an artistic community based on authenticity and trust allows people from all walks of life to coexist without being beautiful. Social justice, political correctness, and a generalized idea of respect are always at the fore in creative circles, but even these well-intentioned principles can create a hierarchy in an environment where we are preoccupied with judgement, constantly measuring and comparing performance. Trust between artists is the missing link that renders elitism, idealism, and the competition they breed completely unnecessary. Rehashing the clearly biased memories I have of my high school classmates, I realize that how they handled themselves and the material was far beyond my ability to judge at the time and definitely not worth the effort at this point. They had to do the difficult work of portraying these complex characters, from their most desperate moments to their most fabulous, but RENT measures this in love, not narcissism.
What’s really worth celebrating is the optimism of a community using art to defend its children in good faith, where the only safe space is the one you make. And often, negotiating that space is hard work. We all (should) feel pressure to do something with our art and I’m definitely not saying we should stop calling out artists for being bigoted, ignorant, or otherwise toxic, but we can be proud of our fellow artists for all the things they’re not “selling out,” take a moment to appreciate what they’ve done without pushing it to be something more. This, only if we can trust that they’re doing their best to create the truest, most righteous work they can, at nobody’s expense but their own. The moment that bohemia dies is the moment we refuse elitism and idealism in our creative circles, but the ghost of bohemia appears when artists trust each other — and themselves — to be honest and original.
Kelsey Hoff is a poet and writer in Chicago. She received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago in 2017 and her poems have been published on poets.org and in Columbia Poetry Review, Literature Emitting Diodes, Redheaded Stepchild, and Hobo Camp Review.