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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Conversations and laughs with the gracious cast of 'Rent'

By Tatiana Craine

I got a chance to meet the cast members at an exclusive event held after the Orpheum Theatre’s opening night production of “Rent.” I talked to a few of the cast members, all of whom were genial, cheerful and wholeheartedly pleased with the night’s performance. Everyone was enthused about the electricity felt between the cast and the audience. The high energy coming from both sides of the stage was astounding; I had never seen such a warm and passionate welcome from an audience like I did during the show that evening. I had the tremendous fortune to talk to Adam Pascal about his performance and career. Pascal’s showmanship and gracious attitude made for hilarious conversation (and lead to a friendly hug that I’ll never forget). I also had a few minutes with a few of the performers for some quick interviews.I first met one of the touring production’s standout performers, Justin Johnston. He reprised his role as Angel, the feisty character that held the characters together as friends. His performance during the evening was dazzling, his cross-dressing percussionist making a great impression upon the audience. His rendition of “Today 4 U” had everyone roaring in approval. Johnston executed expert dance moves and percussionist skills while donning an animal-print trimmed Santa dress and platform-pumps. His transformation throughout the show simultaneously lit up and broke the audience’s heart. That evening, Johnston was getting over a slight cold, which was indiscernible from the vivacious performance he had given only hours before. He was sweet and affable, offering advice and laughs as we talked.

Tatiana Craine: When did you get into acting?

Justin Johnston: Thriller. [Laughs.] Pretty much since I was one years old, dancing and singing, I knew I had to be on stage.

TC: How has “Rent” changed your life?

JJ: Wow. Hm. Well, I’m not feeling the recession. [Laughs.] See, I’ve been doing “Rent” for a long time, so it’s hard to say exactly how it’s changed lately. Unilaterally, I think there’s been a fundamental change [in me]. I’ve got a Ph.D. in “Rent” now because I was 18 or 19 when I joined the cast for the first time. I’ve done other tours and I was on Broadway for a time, too. I really feel like I grew up with the show.

TC: Any advice for budding actors?

JJ: Don’t do drugs! [Laughs.] No, I’m just kidding. I think everything that I have to say about this is going to be cliché! But really, it’s the best advice around. Don’t give up. Do as much as you can no matter what it is-acting, singing, dancing, performing music, art, writing. You just have to go for it. You really never know how it will snowball into something bigger.

I also had the luck to talk to one of the show’s original performers, Gwen Stewart. That evening, she reprised her role as the soloist during “Seasons of Love.” She also performed as Mrs. Jefferson, the woman with bags, and a few other characters. Her performance was stellar during the entire show, the strength of her voice projecting far into the audience. During “Seasons of Love,” Stewart got to showcase her amazing vocal talents during her famous solo. Stewart was warm and amiable, giving sage words of advice about theater and life during our conversation.

Tatiana Craine: How has “Rent” changed your life?

Gwen Stewart: “Rent” has enhanced my life in so many, many ways. I’ve been doing “Rent” for years now. I love “Rent.” There’s a great meaning and depth to the show, which you don’t find in a lot of other shows that just entertain you. “Rent” entertains and teaches. It opens up hearts and minds without being preachy. From my experience, the audiences have left the theater a little better than they were when they stepped into it, and that’s what matters. I’m going to put it out there-“Rent” fans are the best on the planet. I have so much love for them. They make touring worthwhile, because [touring is] hard. There’s this energy, this electricity in the theater with “Rent” fans everywhere.

TC: How did you start out in the theater?

GS: It was a total fluke. Did you know I have a business degree? My plans were to go into corporate America and stay there happily for the rest of my life. Then one year, we were having one of those holiday parties and people around the office were trying to find other people with talent. Anyways, one of my colleagues discovered that I could sing, and she asked if I did it professionally. I said no, and eventually she convinced me to try out an audition. She told me, “Oh, you’d definitely get the job.” And she actually bet me that if I didn’t get it, she’d take me out to dinner-in her mind it was a win-win situation for me. Now, I didn’t know anything about the theater or the [entertainment] business or anything like that. I actually don’t think I’d seen a Broadway show [at that point in time]. I didn’t even know how to read sheet music, but the part I was trying out for was a gospel role, so I just went and sang a gospel song a cappella. I was asked to join the company in an off-off- off-off- off-off- off-off-Broadway production. Then from there it was just a matter of getting another audition and another. I realized I had to make a choice. I could either have security at my job in corporate America, or I could go for something that I truly loved.

TC: Any advice for budding actors?

GS: The best advice I can think of is to get as much education as you can. I never did the whole theater school thing, so I always felt like I had a few handicaps. And though I know I could learn to play instruments and whatnot now, it seems a little late in the game to unlearn everything just to pick it up a different way. I’m very grateful to continue working, though. What really matters is that you’ve got to believe this is what you’re supposed to do. If you’re in it for the money or the fame or whatever, that’s not going to get you anywhere-those are the wrong reasons to be in it. But if you really, truly believe it’s where you’re meant to be, then you’ve got to go for it… and hope a lot of good luck comes your way. [Laughs.]

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