Behind the scenes: Students Elizabeth Knarr and Chris Sackes talk about the making of Rent

Elizabeth Knarr is the director of Rent, her 19th production at Stanford. She is a Stanford student double majoring in theater and political science. Stanford News Service interviewed her and Chris Sackes, a senior in symbolic systems and actor in the musical.

What is your history with Rent or La bohème, the opera that inspired it?

Knarr: While I have never worked on a production of Rent prior to this one, my history with Rent is rather a long one. I first heard the song “Seasons of Love” when I was in the fifth grade, when a friend of mine played it for me at recess one day. While I didn’t know what the music was from or what it meant, I knew even then that it was powerful and moving, and that I wanted to know more about it. Unfortunately for my fifth-grade self, my parents were not too keen on me learning more about Rent at that age, and so it would be several more years until I was exposed to the show properly.

When I was in middle school or early on in high school, I saw the movie for the first time, and since then, Rent has been a part of me and my life in ways that I cannot always even explain. The music and the story are powerful and driving, and they speak to me on good days and bad, because they encapsulate the full emotional spectrum of human life.

Since high school, I have used listening to the Rent soundtrack as a catharsis of sorts. My history with La bohème is much more limited. I had no exposure to Puccini’s opera until I was selected to be the director of Ram’s Head’s production of Rent. This November, I saw a production of La bohème at the Fox Theater in Spokane, Washington, in order to help me prepare for the show. It’s a beautiful piece.

Sackes: My history with Rent begins in sixth grade when a friend would talk about [the song] “La Vie bohème” and how it was from this really cool musical that she loved. She would talk about it all the time and how great it was, and then in eighth grade, when the film version came out, she made sure to have a party at her house and made all of us [her friends] watch it. It’s a little more meaningful now, because that friend is going through a rough time at the moment, so I’m keeping her in my thoughts through the process.

Describe an aha moment you experienced during this project.

Knarr: An aha surprise I had during this project was the first time I saw the automated platforms move on stage and under lights. I always knew that the automated platforms would be dynamic, but I had no idea just how drastically they would transform the stage into a different space until I saw it for the first time. I am unbelievably thrilled to be working with so many talented technical staff on this show, and the students who have poured their hearts and souls into the technical side of this show have done incredible work. I didn’t know I could be so moved by a set piece until I saw this one. In all my time doing productions at Stanford, I have never been so thrilled with a set as I am with this one.

Sackes: I think one aha moment was when I finally saw the different character elements of the story come together. It was during our second rehearsal with the band, and I was pretty focused on one song, “Goodbye Love.” Two characters, Mark and Roger, get into a fight and start to talk about each other’s flaws. The aha moment itself came when Roger says “poor baby” in a harsh response to Mark “complaining” that he’s the one of his friends who doesn’t have AIDS and won’t die from the disease. The entire show, Roger is portrayed as this closed off, angsty teen. He doesn’t let people in, and once he begins to, he’s willing to let anything they do give him a reason to back out of the friendship and place the blame on them.

What is it about Rent that feels most relevant today, 2016, and what seems dated?

Knarr: The theme of Rent that continues to speak to me most today is the story of artists struggling to make a living. The concept of “selling out” and abandoning your calling is a difficult one for me, and many of my fellow artists here at Stanford, to wrap our minds around, and the passion and drive and talent of artists trying to make ends meet in New York City is something that continues to exist in our world today. What does not continue to exist in our world today is the AIDS epidemic of 1989 New York. I believe our distance from it is the very reason we should continue to produce Rent. An entire generation of people were lost in the AIDS epidemic, and they are no longer around to share their stories with us. While Rent can never replace the lives lost during that time, it can attempt to continue to tell their stories, and ensure that the world never forgets that moment in history.

Sackes: There are so many relevant themes from Rent that apply to contemporary life. I think that dealing with loss is so incredibly difficult for our generation, especially people in their teens/early twenties. The losses of friends and family members are still so significant and should not so easily be forgotten. We all have difficulty dealing with loss, but I think that the characters in Rent have such a spectrum of ways in dealing with loss that it becomes a relatable show for many.

How does working on this production fit into your career plans – or not – after you graduate this year?

Knarr: This production actually does not fit into my near-future career plans at all. I have a job lined up at the Boston Consulting Group next year. I do hope to one day go to business school, and after receiving my MBA plan to start my own theater company, but in the near future I’m moving into business and away from theater.

Chris, you’re also a senior, but this is your first production at Stanford and you play Tom Collins. What prompted you to get involved?

Sackes: This is indeed my first production at Stanford. It’s actually my first production ever. Stanford kind of introduced me to the world of theater, and I really saw the power of the stage and how moving a story told in such a fashion could be.