The musical “RENT” is known for its focus on diversity, along with its emphasis on other themes such as race, class and sexuality. Any rendition of “RENT” is forced to take these sensitive subjects into account, and the Tufts’ Department of Drama and Dance’s upcoming production is no different.
Yet “RENT” at Tufts has sparked controversy as students and professors have questioned the casting process, which veered from the musical’s tradition of selecting actors who are racially and ethnically diverse.
Professor of Drama and Dance Barbara Wallace Grossman, director of “RENT,” explained she kept the importance of these themes in mind in casting.
“I certainly went into the process hoping we would have a diverse cast – as you look at the Broadway cast, you look at the film, and the cast is a rainbow – I certainly hoped that our cast would be similar,” she said.
Grossman, however, explained that the deciding factor in the casting of this show was often students’ vocal ability.
“With ‘RENT,’ it’s a complex show,” Grossman said. “There are a few lines [that] are spoken, but it’s pretty much all music – so we need people who can sing, and we need people who can sing rock.”
Senior Andrew Rogers, the music director for “RENT,” explained that he frequently decided whether someone had the vocal talent for a part.
“If Barbara said, ‘Hey, I really liked how this person was acting,’ then I’d say – if they had some sort of potential – ‘Let’s give them a call back,'” Rogers said. “But if I said there was no chance that they could learn the music, it was a done deal. So I had that kind of say, but it was still a collaborative decision.”
Roughly one-third of the individuals who auditioned for “RENT” were from the “diverse communities” on campus, Grossman said.
“The cast that we have reflects the demographics of our audition pool,” Grossman said, who noted that one-third of the final cast is also from “diverse communities.” “Our auditions were open to anybody and everybody in the Tufts community.”
Rogers explained the difficulties of casting a racially and ethnically diverse cast from the Tufts audition pool.
“It was hard because, in a professional audition, they would limit each part to a certain race,” he said. “If a part was written to an Asian character, they would limit the audition pool to only Asians. But we realized that we don’t have the liberty, or even want, to restrict each part to the specific thing it was written for.”
Grossman added that the roles, as written in “RENT,” do not reference any specific racial or ethic identities.
“The character descriptions do not specify race or ethnicity at all,” Grossman said. “They talk about sexual identification, they talk about gender – but nowhere in those character descriptions is there mention about race or ethnicity.”
During the casting process, Rogers said he and Grossman searched for different kinds of diversity.
“We decided that diversity was going to be based on voice type,” Rogers said. “It was going to be based on acting ability and background – all these different things, and that’s how we went about finding diversity, and I think that was the fairest way to do it … I think we ended up with a really good cast because of it.”
On their website, the department explained their plans concerning diversity within the show: “We hope that our production of ‘RENT,’ re-considered twenty years after its original presentation, will invite audiences to turn their attention to the millions of definitions and possibilities inherent in the word ‘diversity.'”
However, some members of the Tufts community disagreed with the Department of Drama and Dance’s approach to diversity in the “RENT” production.
“It’s interesting that they’re framing diversity as turning from the one to the many,” Assistant Professor of Music Stephan Pennington said, responding to the department’s statement about diversity in “RENT.” “But I think that we should be thinking about diversity in terms of power. This is where we get problems about, ‘Oh there’s lots of people, so everything is fine.’ Well, but what are the power dynamics?”
“It sounds like, ‘We’re not actually very diverse, so we want to make you feel bad for thinking of diversity in terms of race – when really, it’s all these other things,” he continued. “It seems defensive.”
Racial diversity is not the only casting issue that has surfaced within the Tufts theater community. In an op-ed published in the Daily on Sept. 23, 2013, senior Avery Stern wrote that the audition process within the theater community has been relatively closed-off to new students.
“A good director, student or otherwise, should recognize that a liberal arts college like Tufts is a place for exploration,” Stern wrote. “But how can we foster an environment for experimentation when one of the most popular student groups slams its doors on unfamiliar faces?”
Grossman said she could name six students in “RENT” that had been in some kind of faculty or student production before this semester’s production. Responding to the op-ed, and the idea of predetermined casting, Grossman emphasized she could only speak for herself.
“I go into every audition process with an open mind,” she said. “I will cast anyone as long as that person meets my specifications that I set at the outset.”
Junior Genesis Garcia, an American studies major who is currently studying abroad in Spain, explained her understanding of openness within the Department of Drama and Dance.
“I don’t think the drama department is accessible, in general, and particularly for students of color,” Garcia, a member of the cast of “Welcome to Arroyo’s,” (2013), told the Daily in an email.
“First of all, most students do not know there are plays to audition for or plays to go to see unless you have a friend involved in the drama community, or you are coming to Tufts knowing you want to do drama,” she wrote. “The drama department is particularly inaccessible to students of color because there are barely any works done by playwrights of color. ‘Welcome to Arroyo’s,’ the [department’s] fall show last semester, was the first play to premiere at Tufts that was written by a U.S.-born Latino writer.”
Both Pennington and Garcia expressed the importance of overall institutional and community change concerning increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the audition pool.
Pennington lauded the Department of Drama and Dance for its more recent staff additions like Assistant Professor of Drama and Dance Noe Montez, who directed “Welcome to Arroyo’s.”
“The drama department has got new people, many of whom I think are really awesome,” he said. “They’re trying and they’re working hard. They did ‘For Colored Girls’ and ‘Welcome to Arroyos’ … you have to be active in trying for a more egalitarian process … and part of this is hiring new people.”
But should students be cast according to their race within theatrical roles? Pennington thought so.
“I think it’s important to try to cast those characters that are listed that way because there are so few roles listed for characters of color,” he said.
Pennington, however, also underscored the importance of exploring casting options for traditionally white, male roles.
“Cast a Latina woman as Hamlet,” he said. “Let’s go, let’s do it. It’s really important to step back and to really open up minds in casting and think about – maybe the lead doesn’t have to be a man.”
Garcia had three ideas to make the department more accessible for minority students.
“One: Hire more drama professors of color,” she wrote. “Two: Have more plays that represent a diverse cast, and make it a goal to stay true to that cast. Three: The drama department needs to, in a sense, declare a commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
Although Pennington and Garcia emphasize the need for change within the Department of Drama and Dance, they agree with Grossman and Rogers that the “RENT” cast has worked hard to stay true to the spirit of the musical about young, struggling artists in New York City’s Lower East Side.
“Each of [the actors] got cast because each of them was the best for the role, and I could not be prouder of this group of people and how much they’re giving to the process and the production,” Grossman said.
Pennington echoed her sentiment.
“It’s important not to attack people and let the system off the hook, when it’s the system that configures how we react,” Pennington said. “But I also think dialogue is good. Let’s have a dialogue, so that we can have a transformative moment.”