Arts editor and Head of News at NSR Julia McGee-Russell interviews producer Ellie Stephenson and Musical Director Alex Guthrie about their upcoming production of Rent with the Newcastle University Theatre Society (NUTS).
Julia: What do your roles involve?
Ellie: The producer is like a director but for backstage, so in charge of all the backstage people – the costume, the set, the props, the stage management. We get them all together and organise them and the budget. I work very closely with Sam the director to get his vision to come to life onstage within the parameters of what we can do.
Alex: So I do rehearsals with the cast to teach them the songs, the vocal harmonies. I do the band rehearsals as well, so both the band and the cast which is quite a big task. But it’s a lot of fun! It’s really fun to see both of those things come together.
What do you love about the show?
E: I always joke that I should be in Rent. In the sense that I am an art student, my clothes are very – looking for costume ideas I was like well, my wardrobe is pretty similar. The story has such a powerful impact. It’s not just a show with nice songs, it resonates with a lot of people. The amount of times I’ve cried in rehearsals!
Would you agree with that as well Alex?
A: For me it’s been very different from everything I’ve done. All the musicals I’ve done before have been like Oliver and Fiddler on the Roof and South Pacific and The King and I, all very classic orchestral bands, so this is the first pop rock musical I’ve done. I think this is the most modern one I’ve ever done. It’s also the longest and the most music heavy.
Why does rent resonate with you guys specifically? What about it makes it impactful for you both?
E: I like the LGBT representation in the show, and having those kinds of relationships seen is really nice. It doesn’t usually happen in theatre as much as it should do, so to have two of the principal couples be gay, I really like to have that representation shown.
A: In a way, it’s very clearly of its time as well in the sense that it’s very 90s. People were still getting to grips with the slightest bit of LGBT representation, so it definitely shows that it’s mid-90s. There’s a bit of uncertainty about it but it’s still very affirming.
E: Definitely, because it’s set just on the turn of 1989 to 1990 so it’s during the AIDS crisis when people had a big stigma against gay people. The show is a like a FU to those people, it’s saying they are unapologetic about their relationships. There’s a moment in the show where two girls kiss and they turn to a guy who looks at them and put up their middle fingers up to go ‘so what? We’re together, leave us alone, we’re having a good time.’ That kind of power is very inspiring.
One of the criticisms I’ve heard is that it includes LGBT issues but it’s from a white male perspective. Do you agree with that, and if so what would you change or update?
A: It’s a fair criticism ... I liken it in some ways to Friends the sitcom. For the time it was so progressive, they were unashamedly representing gay people and all kinds of ‘non-conventional’ families. We look back fondly at it, but there are still plenty of issues of people not being represented. I think you can celebrate the value it has for representation while also criticising the lack it has.
Would you agree with that as well, Ellie?
E: I would, yeah. In an intro part, where one of the characters is dumped by his girlfriend and his girlfriend has found a new woman to be with, and it’s like ‘she’s got a new man? No, she’s called Joanne’ and it’s the butt of a joke. That’s a bit where I thought ‘should it be a joke that she’s with a woman?’ Things like that could be updated or changed, but that’s the only one I can think of. Joanne is also very butch, stereotypically lesbian. There’s a whole section where her parent’s call her and say ‘make sure you don’t wear Dr Martens to this fancy dinner, make sure you wear a bra’, so that’s another thing that I would change. Obviously at the time it was written it was very forward to have this sort of thing on such a big platform for such a wide audience –
And for it to be so popular as well
A: Exactly, it’s a similar thing with Friends. I think it woke a lot of people up to the fact that these people exist and they’re just like us. If we were to write Rent in 2019 we would want much more trans representation, and to have a more intersectional perspective. To have more people of colour, more fair representation of all genders, to level it out a bit because as you said it is sort of a white male perspective.
E: It’s a step forward to something better, in comparison to other musicals that don’t even try to address it.
Although I would say that the whole ‘it’s better than nothing’ thing, when there’s no representation and people are like ‘well at least it’s something’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good enough.
A: Yeah, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to keep pushing.
E: Now, putting on this show, we’re displaying this perspective so people watch it and go ‘yes. There should be more things like this.’ And maybe they will tell people and more things like this will be written. Hopefully there will be a ripple effect and it’ll inspire people either in their work or in their everyday interactions. It’s been really good working with Sam because the way he’s been staging and choreographing is very different to the original Broadway show. He’s not just copied and pasted it, which he could’ve easily done and it would have been fine, but he’s changed it up and it’s really interesting and new.
What advice do you have for aspiring producers and musical directors?
E: You have to be very good at listening to what people want and adapting that. Getting stuck in, whether it’s just being a stage hand or doing the set, just do a little role to just dip your toe in, and from there it opens doors and you work closely with your producer. You can ask them what you do for a role, and find out more that way, and work your way up. I think it’s brilliant.
What about musical director advice, Alex?
A: Play music. Just play, play, play, say yes to lots of things – stuff that you’re comfortable with of course. It does pay to say yes to something that scares you a little bit but that you feel motivated to do. Definitely be very organised. Also when you’re given a position of authority you do need to be able to command respect and attention from a room, which has been a learning curve for me. It’s about preserving that line between professionalism and personal relationships.
The Newcastle University Theatre Society production of Rent is being show at Northern Stage, March 1st at 7.45pm, and 2nd at 1.30pm and 7.45pm.