On Campus: Harper Tackles Injustice, Intolerance with RENT Productions

In advance of RENT's opening at Harper College this weekend, Director and Professor Laura Pulio-Colbert and longtime set director Paul Dambrowski answer a few questions about the show.

Paul Dombrowski met Laura Pulio more than three decades ago, when the two were cast in a Harper College Theatre Ensemble production of “Pippin.” RENT, the musical that would change Broadway with issues of intolerance in a nation gripped by the AIDS epidemic, wasn’t yet written.

Fast-forward to 2011.

Pulio, now Pulio-Colbert, is a Harper professor and directing College productions herself.

Dombrowski is Harper’s longtime set designer and an advocate for gay youth … and the guy, he likes to say, who pestered Pulio into tackling RENT – a musical that nabbed four Tony Awards and became a pop culture phenomenon, and whose message, Dombrowski says, still resonates today.

The cast will take the stage Friday for Harper’s opening RENT production, at 8 p.m. in the College’s Performing Arts Center. Subsequent show times are 8 p.m. Saturdays, November 12 and November 19, 8 p.m. Friday, November 18, and 2 p.m. Sundays, November 13 and November 20.

We asked Pulio-Colbert and Dombrowski to answer a few questions about the show – maybe fill us in on some of its intricacies, standout moments and its thematic staying power.

Q: Give us the two-second plot synopsis.

Pulio-Colbert: Set in the East Village of New York City, RENT is a rock musical based loosely on Puccini's opera La Boheme. It follows a year in the life of a group of friends struggling to make it in the big city in the late 1980s.  How these young bohemians negotiate their dreams, loves and conflicts provides the narrative thread to this groundbreaking musical – one that has become a pop culture phenomenon.  The score includes electric rock, salsa, Motown, bebop and reggae.

Q: Why did you decide to do RENT?

P-C: Paul (Dombrowski) always wanted to do RENT, so he advocated heavily for it. He likes to say he pestered me until I gave in, but the truth is, the story and music move me, and I know it will have the same effect on audiences. The tragic loss of RENT writer Jonathan Larson, who died on the eve of the show’s off-Broadway preview in 1996, is a reminder to all of us to live every day like it is our last.

Q: RENT is set 20 years ago, and tackles issues of injustice and intolerance. How far do you think we’ve come in terms of battling injustice and intolerance in the last two decades? What is RENT really about, and why do you believe its message still resonates with audiences today?

Dombrowski: I think we’ve made some significant progress in the last 20 years. The advances in human rights are definitely noticeable. However, there is still a long way to go. Over the past couple years, attention has been focused on the growing number of teen suicides related to bullying due to sexual orientation. It is important to acknowledge the progress made while, at the same time, taking care to avoid becoming complacent … and to continue pushing forward.

RENT is a story about love, acceptance, tolerance and family. It’s about living your life with dignity, and about people coming together in a time when their community was being torn apart.

Q: What audience do you think this musical speaks to most profoundly? Who will enjoy it most?

P-C: RENT is not a traditional musical. It is a show that forces an audience to think about their own beliefs and behaviors. That said, I recommend it to anyone who is interested in that time period and who welcomes challenges to their own beliefs. It is a contemporary play that resonates with young audiences in particular, but it also includes heavy issues, including homophobia, HIV/AIDS, politics, revolution, sexuality and death. It will certainly challenge the audience.

I would not recommend it to anyone under age 16.

Q: What do you think makes RENT worth seeing?

P-C: The purpose of all theatre is to make audiences think about their own humanity.  RENT is a beautiful reminder to all of us to be appreciative of what we have, to cherish each moment and to love and accept people for who they are.     

Tickets are $15 for general admission. Call 847.925.6100, or visit the Box Office online.

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