Billy Ensley, the lead director of Theatre Charlotte’s upcoming production of “RENT,” has been performing professionally since he was a child and dove into directing and choreographing about 10 years ago. According to Ensley, taking on the task of directing a powerful work like “RENT” was an easy yes for him.
“Rent revolutionized the American musical,” Ensley says. “It brought in a brand new generation of theater-goers in New York City.”
And, that is exactly what the organizers at Theatre Charlotte are hoping for their Charlotte production. Ensley is hoping that “RENT,” as it has always had a curiously strong attraction in the young community, will draw a diverse audience.
“The ultimate goal for them is to perpetuate the arts…widen their demographic appeal,” he says. “Their mission is to produce outstanding theater opportunities for all people in Charlotte — well, there are a lot of people in Charlotte.”
With higher pre-sales than any other show this season, it seems like they are on the right track.
It has been more than four years since the Queen City played host to a “RENT” production. It last graced the stage here in 2007 at Oven’s Auditorium; it was the first time a smaller neighborhood venue welcomed the show.
Widespread support, anticipation
Theatre Charlotte has not only received support from Charlotte’s tight-knit greater theater community and their enthusiastic fan base, but has also welcomed 17 performers on board to make this production special.
Ensley boasts, “The beauty is that Charlotte does have the talent pool to pull off quality theater. Charlotte is not just about banking and NASCAR… [We have] 17 very talented performers who are very diverse — African-American, white, Latino, Asian. And, they are awfully talented, the best talent in town.”
Calvin Grant, who has performed several roles on Broadway, traveled with national tours, and even sung at the White House, is set to play Tom Collins, a role in which he was also cast on Broadway.
‘Living in hope, not dwelling in fear’
In recent years, society’s understanding of the LGBT community and gay issues has undoubtedly made great strides. A rise in LGBT activism and heightened exposure in the media world has helped increase awareness and promote (albeit, limited) legal progress; yet advancements such as these can often distract us from what’s really important — the heart. “RENT” speaks directly to the heart with the always needed, unchanging reminder of humanity and love.
“It’s about love and dealing with obstacles in our lives and how we, as a resilient animal, come around to realizing that what is important is right now and loving those people close to you and holding them dear,” Ensley says.
“RENT” is often praised for its attention to controversial issues — primarily HIV/AIDS, and featuring complex and meaningful LGBT relationships. But, as Ensley so eloquently explains, the musical appeals to much deeper levels.
“It does deal with AIDS. It does deal with LGBT. But it also deals with heterosexuals,” he says. “It’s about people being people in a society. And, recognizing that there are all types of people that make up our community. It’s about living in hope — not dwelling in fear. It illustrates the power of love and our human connections and how we do that to overcome our greatest fears.”
It is through live-action performance, Ensley believes, through a storytelling of humanity, through a visceral connection of actors and actresses that theater finds its power to change people. Theater can act as a tool of education, allowing the audience to interact with worlds different, more progressive than their own and moving them to react accordingly.
“When you see a show like ‘RENT’ where heterosexuals are friends and best friends of homosexuals…the audience sees these people struggling to live and loving one another and accepting one another for who they really are — that’s an education,” Ensley says. “Theater can teach us things about each other and can make us look at aspects of each other and make us more tolerant.”
With tickets selling rapidly, “RENT” fans need to secure their seats soon. The production will play from May 13-29 with prices varying from $12-24. To purchase your tickets or learn more, visit theatrecharlotte.org. : :
[Ed. Note — The original version of this article incorrectly identified the role played by Calvin Grant. The piece has been updated. We regret the error.]