From the Archives: “Making Rent”

Rentt.jpg

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The following essay first appeared

in Open Salon, in October of 2011

 

“How would you like to see Rent,” my friend Kayla recently asked me, “in a barn?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

So we drove two hours, from Pittsburgh to Loretto, Pennsylvania, to visit the Cresson Lake Playhouse. This is the pinnacle of rural community theater: The playhouse is, in fact, built into a converted barn. The parking lot is gravel and grass. Cider and cocoa are sold from what appears to be an old tool shed. By the time we took our seats, the house was packed, and everybody seemed to know each other.

Rent at the Cresson Playhouse was not what you’d call “good.” It was positivelyawesome. The set was dark, stripped-down, and covered in graffiti. The actors belted their rock-arias with appropriate passion and tonal flair. There were hiccups – Roger had a paunch and kept singing flat, and Mimi Marquez was a delicate blonde. Lyrics were lost to faulty microphones. But the good far exceeded the bad: stunning voices, sharp dancing, not-bad acting, and a magnificent Angel. That is, Angel the AIDS-infected drag-queen who repeatedly makes out with her beefy, African-American, anarchist boyfriend.

That Rent was a joy to watch is beside the point. The point is that Rent was produced at all. Earlier this year, the rights to Rent were released to regional theaters, yet Cambria County isn’t the first place you’d expect to find a production. This is the region Pittsburghers derisively dub “Pennsyltucky,” a county that’s mostly white, very well-armed, and almost completely Christian. Public schools close on the first day of hunting season. These towns were founded by farmers and coal-miners, and many have crumbled. Yes, towns like Loretto are unfairly vilified, but this show was a genuine surprise.

To refresh: Rent was composed in 1996 by Jonathan Larson. One of the great tragedies of Broadway history, Larson died of an aortic embolism during Rent’s first preview, so he never saw his many Tony Awards or Pulitzer Prize. The play was a Broadway behemoth, and touring shows traveled the world.

I was 16 when the show debuted, and as a drama club kid who sang tenor in the school choir, Rent was a revelation. Based loosely on Puccini’s La BohèmeRent concerns a bunch of artists squatting in a run-down apartment building. Half are gay, half straight. One is addicted to heroin, most are HIV-positive, and all of them are dead broke. But they’re snarky, eloquent, and creative, and they muddle through their challenges with something like dignity. For a super-liberal Vermont teen, Rent seemed like the future – a sonic scrapbook of bohemian life.

I’ve heard the recording a few hundred times, know much of the libretto, and I saw it (once) in New York. Among true Rent junkies, this is a ho-hum relationship. Some fans have seen the live show dozens of times. They can sing the songs, play them on guitar, and have choreographed dance-moves to the soundtrack. Before there was “Glee,” there was Rent.

But like most period-pieces, Rent has evolved with time. For one, it’s no longer the “end of the millennium,” as one song proclaims. For two, AIDS is no longer the pandemic plague it once was; tests are faster, the people infected live longer, and the full-blown terror has subsided (for good and ill). Third, and most damning: The Rent lifestyle is no longer feasible. Mark, the resident filmmaker, turns down a lucrative TV job because “that show is so sleazy.” Tom, a philosophy professor, loses his job at a university, so he just bums around for awhile. And Angel, the story’s cross-dressing messiah-figure, seems to wander around spreading love and kind words. These were all delightful pastimes in the 1990s, when American feared neither war nor recession. Artists who blew their resources in New York could always take a Greyhound to California and mooch off a dot-com.

These characters are less appealing today. I was stunned, in 2005, when Chris Columbus directed his bizarre film version. What place did Rent have in the Bush Years? The United States was fighting two wars and openly condoned torture. The gay rights movement had reached a cultural plateau. The East Village had traded broke bohemians for well-heeled hipsters, and the stock market was flying a kamikaze mission. So who cared about a bunch of dropout artists? In the world of Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson, what are HIV and homelessness but godly punishments? Is there one shred of Rent that your average Tea Partier would not abhor?

Indeed, some sentiments are hard to swallow, even by lefty Vermonters who once loved the show. In the song “What You Own,” Mark sings lines like “leave your conscience at the tone.” Such gripers can’t survive in the 21st Century. Roger, the sulky musician, is hardly a character at all – he’s just a sad dude with a guitar. Rock-stars and filmmakers are no longer reliable for sturdy liberal sentiments, and most of Rent’s themes can be boiled down to a few bumper stickers. The play would never be created today, much less garner a Pulitzer Prize. By the time Trey Parker parodied Rent in Team America: World Police (calling it Lease), the show had long lost its context. The era of Rent is nearly as distant to us as Saturday Night Fever.

Still, Rent will probably survive, as it should. As I sat in the audience of the Cresson Lake Playhouse, I wondered how this down-home crowd would respond to same-sex kisses, simulated sex, abusive cops, and crass hobos. Would folks walk out, furious that Obama socialists had infected their town? All my fears dissipated by intermission. Deep down, Rent is about more than bohemian life. It’s about love in a time of dying, unconditional friendship through poverty and decay. Take away the grungy outfits and endless pop-culture references, and Rent is still La Bohème – a story of youth and perseverance. As the cast bowed and reprised “Seasons of Love,” the Thursday-night crowd stood and clapped along. Guys in baseball caps and old women in sweaters smiled and wept. If Rent can find a home in a Cambria County barn, it can find a home anywhere. And that can only help.

Advertisements

And Then I Wrote a TV Pilot

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 11.13.39 PM.jpg

Last week, I finished writing a TV pilot. The story is a paranormal mystery. The protagonist is a snarky young woman with intense curiosity. The landscape is misty; the tone is macabre. And if this script became a TV series, I would devour every episode, twice.

The pilot is adapted from my podcast, The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne, a pulp fiction series that started as a hobby and has ballooned into a franchise of recordings and books. Not long ago, my friend Bill Holman—actor, cinematographer, Renaissance man—urged me to turn the podcast into a TV series. The writing reminded him of BBC’s Sherlock. (He was the third person to say so). With its gritty historical setting and fantastical twists, the stories begged to be broadcast.

The prospect of a pilot already excited me. Then, at the behest of my publisher, I put together a “book trailer” for the latest Elizabeth Crowne novel, which added fuel to the flames:

More than ever, I could see the stories. I could imagine recognizable actors in the roles I had devised. The prose-y descriptions of the podcast felt so easy to translate into “action,” and, in turn, into visuals on a living room screen.

I hesitated for two reasons: First, I know the odds are long. Every bar-back and bell-hop in SoCal has a hard drive full of original pilots, and few of them are ever even read, much less optioned. The last thing a Hollywood producer wants to see is a script from an East Coast playwright, especially a playwright who hasn’t written a play in years.

Then there’s my odd relationship with television: I grew up in a very rural town, and I didn’t really understand what cable was until I was a teenager. I didn’t own a TV set for much of my adult life. When I started writing about television for MSN.com, I did most of my research at friends’ houses (which gave us an excuse to hang out), or I rented entire seasons of Lost and Big Love from Blockbuster. When Netflix started streaming, I discovered the joys of binging—but even now, I’m choosy. The sight of a TV switched on during daylight hours makes me physically ill.

Yet I’ve also come to embrace the “New Golden Age of Television,” as the critics boldly describe it. A two-hour movie now feels quaint by comparison, when the narrative canvas can stretch for years and years. The untamed possibilities of Netflix Originals and Amazon Studios now seem infinite. For screenwriters, this era is a gold rush: Producers are hurling money at new dramas and comedies, desperate to keep up with viewers’ bottomless appetites. The odds are still long, but they don’t feel as long as they used to.

My pilot is an experiment—a clunky, oily hotrod, assembled from spare parts, waiting in the garage to be taken for a spin—but dear lord, was it fun to write. From everything I hear, Hollywood is a cold and caustic place, and industry people get cynical fast. Yet more than one screenwriting coach has said it: Write what you love. Believe in what you’re doing. Such sentimental advice has always startled me, coming from such world-weary writers. I’ve composed countless scripts over the years, mostly for stage, sometimes for screen. But nothing has seemed quite so worth believing in.

A Complicated Sky

IMG_6494 (1).jpg

“Are you going to miss anything about Arizona?” a friend asked recently.

We were sitting on a patio, at a bar, on one of my last nights in Phoenix. I had lived in Arizona for two momentous years. I would miss a lot of things—people, mostly, but also hiking trails, sitting outside, well-paved asphalt, and all the cacti. I would miss the easygoing attitude and indifferent dress code. I would miss dust storms and real Mexican food. I would miss the life-changing opportunities the city had leant me.

“Anything you won’t miss?” asked my friend, helpfully adding: “The heat?”

“I don’t mind the heat,” I said, although the summer heat wave hadn’t yet descended on the Valley of the Sun, so I was still full of pro-summer bravado. “One thing I won’t miss—the sky.”

Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward”

51xzCSF5OLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

In 2014, I was performing in a Costa Rican production of The Glass Menagerie. During a rehearsal, I was standing backstage and decided to introduce myself to Caroline.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a writer,” Caroline said, in her elegant English accent.

“Oh,” I said, thinking she meant blogger or diarist. “What do you write?”

Then Caroline threw me a curve-ball: In the 1980s, she co-authored a bone-rattling account of the Profumo Affair, which, in Great Britain, you might compare to the Watergate Scandal, except that there were a lot of sex parties involved. Caroline’s account, How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward, was a total coup: Few people involved in the Profumo Affair had ever spoken openly about it. The book was a bestseller. It blew the scandal wide open. Years later, the book would inform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Junkette”

31UKFHgIfxL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI was an enthusiastic Sarah Shotland fan the moment I met her. But then again, pretty much everybody is.

Sarah made a splash in Pittsburgh when she dreamed up Words Without Walls, a writing program for people in prison. You can read my interview with Sarah about this groundbreaking program over at Pittsburgh Magazine.

But Sarah is so much more than Words Without Walls. She’s plainspoken and hilarious. She speaks with the subtlest Southern twang. We spent many nights yukking it up on her porch in Friendship.

We met in Chatham’s MFA program, but we really bonded over theater. Sarah is an accomplished playwright and has worked for theater companies around the world. She has spent time in Spain and China, Texas and New Orleans. Chatham’s MFA program attracts many students in their mid-twenties, so Sarah and I felt a little older, a little more road-tested. We are similarly laid-back, and similarly diehard about our labors of love. No matter how much time passes, we pick up our conversation where we left off. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Talking Tico”

Talking-Tico-Misadventures-of-a-Gringo-in-and-Around-Costa-Rica-Book-Cover-Joe-Baur.jpg

Joe Baur is my doppelgänger. Or maybe I’m his. On paper, we’re practically interchangeable.

Joe arrived in Costa Rica shortly after I did, to study at the University for Peace. When I learned of his arrival, I looked up the usual sites—Facebook, LinkedIn—and was shocked to discover our similarities.

Joe grew up in Cleveland, while I spent most of my adult life in Pittsburgh. Like me, he’s a writer, videographer, photographer, podcaster, and traveler. He has produced sketch comedy, as have I. We both have Germanic surnames and personal interest in our Central European heritage. We are both avid cyclists and abhor automotive dependency, and we both refused to drive for many years. We were both avid contributors to The Tico Times, especially the travel section. We have both written for a range of publications about craft beer. We are both recreational runners and chronicled our first races in the tropics. We both married to our longtime girlfriends in streamlined weddings shortly before we became expats. We both moved out of our longtime homes and lived with our in-laws for a short period before the big move. We resided in Costa Rica for similar stretches of time, and our casas were located 10 miles away from each other, roughly on the same road. Facially, we could probably pass for cousins or even brothers, especially in Latin America. Continue reading