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Students open up during rehearsals for Rent

Running at Etobicoke School of the Arts until April 1

A few of the cast members of the Etobicoke School of the Arts' production of Rent, running until April 1. Credit: Andrea Houston

For many students at Etobicoke’s School of the Arts, Rent is more than just another musical; being part of the production has been an emotional journey of self-discovery.

Luke, 17, plays Angel, the musical’s drag queen. Hesitant and shy, Luke says playing Angel has been very moving. After lacing up his shiny white knee-high six-inch heels, he stomps up the stairs. By the time he reaches the stage, his transformation is complete.

“It’s been quite an experience to step into these shoes,” Luke tells Xtra. He asks that his real name not be used because he’s not out to his family yet. “I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. Once I just started crying.”

The students have an incredible support network. Musical theatre teacher, director and producer Paul Aikens and musical director David Ambrose are both openly gay. “They have been amazing. I’m closeted at home, so it’s great to have people to talk to.”

An Xtra reporter spent the day at the school March 24 watching one of the last rehearsals. The production runs until April 1.

The all-student cast of 90 warms up onstage while Aikens shouts out instructions. Moments later, a chorus of voices belts out “Seasons of Love.”

Some of the students were already familiar with Rent when rehearsals began, but for most it was completely new material.

Jack Ettlinger, 17, says he found the subject matter challenging. That’s why Aikens had the students create their own It Gets Better videos based on themes in the musical, such as HIV/AIDS, sex, coming out, drug addiction, bullying and homophobia. “It’s some pretty heavy stuff,” Aikens says. “Five kids came out during [the process] to me. Other kids shared stuff they hadn’t told anyone before.”

Aikens reports that the student-made videos are currently being looped on video screens around the school. He says the musical was a great way to get the students talking about gay, lesbian and trans issues in an open and honest way.

“The issues are very mature,” says 17-year-old Jessica Nesbitt, who plays Joanne. “If you ask people what they know about AIDS, it’s only basic stuff and stereotypes. They think it’s only in the gay community or they don’t know anyone that has AIDS, so they think it can’t affect them.”

Nesbitt recalls group discussions filled with hugs and tears.

“Then you watch Rent and see these problems affect all people, so it becomes more real,” she says. “Sometimes you forget these issues really affect people. I think talking about these things was very therapeutic for people.”

Based loosely on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Rent is a rock opera based on a year in the life of a group of young bohemians struggling to survive in New York’s East Village.

“It was a huge bonding experience,” says Alicia Ault, 17, who also plays Joanne.

For tickets, call the school at 416-394-6910 or email esamusical@live.ca.