Three Beloiters join local RENT production
For three Beloit seniors, the past few months have been a season of love.
Beloit seniors Jeremy Duval, Cam Meiers, and Graham Olen will take the stage on Friday, Sept. 30 as cast members of Jonathan Larson’s hit Broadway rock musical, RENT, at the Janesville Performing Arts Center.
RENT tells the stories of friends living in New York in the early days of the HIV crisis. Director Stephanie Hormig’s production has received local media attention for being the show’s first all-LGBTQ+ cast. That was by design — and although the production has received hateful comments online, the cast received encouraging messages from a few actors from the original 1994 Broadway show and 2005 movie adaptation.
The Beloiter trio — who attended some rehearsals remotely while living far from campus for the summer — almost didn’t audition, fearing they lacked the experience to be cast in any major roles. Olen and Meiers had acted in Beloit productions in the past, but didn’t have extensive experience performing in a musical. Duval co-leads campus a capella group Bits & Pieces, but never had much of a speaking role in a play.
“This is the first show where I have a character with a name,” says Duval, a double major in sociology and creative writing, who plays Tom Collins in the show. “I’ve always wanted to do theatre, but was not super confident. Now that I’m doing it, it’s definitely giving me more confidence to go out and look for community productions.”
Hormig aimed to attract queer community members of all ages, which was a huge draw for Olen.
“It’s important to have queer community in real life because a lot of times it’s much easier to just find it online,” says Olen, who is also a sociology and creative writing double major and plays Mark Cohen. “It’s good to be around people who understand, especially in a theatre environment. We’re always very good about boundaries and making sure everyone feels comfortable.”
In spite of online criticism for the production’s all-LGBTQ+ cast, Hormig stood by the decision. On a whim, she emailed former cast members with the hopes that their support would give cast members a morale boost. When she received video messages from Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played Angel on Broadway and in the film, and Tracie Thoms, who played Joanne in the film, she and the rest of the cast were stunned.
“Both of them basically said that this is the exact time to be doing a show like this,” Olen says. “This show has always meant to piss people off. And you’re part of the RENT cast family now.” On camera, Heredia pulled out his acoustic guitar and sang “Seasons of Love,” which is a tradition for RENT casts’ first rehearsal. “Everyone was crying,” Olen says.
“It really cemented that this is more than just us putting on a play,” says Duval. In addition to raising funds for Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit, this cast of RENT will also bring in other local groups for talks before the show. A connection within the cast will bring an ASL interpreter for one of the shows.
Olen, Duval, and Meiers are excited to search for new community productions in the future after their experiences in RENT. Their advice for students who want to get involved but have never done theatre before? Just do it.
“To students looking for opportunity and not knowing where to go: lead your own way,” says Olen.
Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit and the Rock County LGBTQ+ Committee sponsored the small show with a reported budget of $3,000. (Ticket sales have already broken even.)
RENT performances are at the Janesville Performing Arts Center at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 30 and Saturday, Oct. 1, with a 1 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 2. Campus theatre organization Beloit Interactive Theatre Experience (BITE) has purchased 10 tickets to give to students on a first-come, first-serve basis, and will provide transportation to JPAC for those students.