Interview | William Whelton & Joseph Houston talk RENT

Earlier this month Hope Mill Theatre celebrated the bittersweet opening – and closing – of its sold-out production of RENT on the same night. The venue had become one of the first venues in England to stage an indoor theatre production since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of theatres back in March.

This new production of the show – initially scheduled for August then moved to Autumn – was due to run at the Grade II-listed former cotton mill from Friday 30th October to Sunday 6th December, following all recommended Covid-secure measures.

The entire run sold out in 48-hours following the announcement of an exciting and diverse young cast, with Hope Mill being granted permission by the rights holders to make up the shortfall in capacity (a result of the necessary social distancing measures) by filming the production and broadcasting it online over four weekends. The filmed version was something that Hope Mill founders William Whelton and Joseph Houston say was crucial in terms of the viability of the production – and even more so when the live run was cut short due to the new national lockdown.

Ahead of the first streamed performance this evening we caught up with William Whelton and Joseph Houston to reflect on the challenges of 2020 and their excitement at bringing RENT to audiences online.


Opening Night: Tell us about RENT and why you wanted to bring it to Hope Mill Theatre and Manchester?
WILL – “RENT is a rock musical loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. The story evolves around a group of struggling artists living in New York City and dealing with issues surrounding the AIDS epidemic, regeneration, drug abuse and homelessness. It is also a celebration of diversity, individuality and creativity at its core. All of these themes are so relevant not only to our current climate but to the city of Manchester and we feel that this show has never felt more poignant and important.”

ON: What about the show makes you think it will be the perfect fit for the venue?
JOE: “It’s always very exciting reimagining musicals for a smaller scale and RENT is no exception. The music in RENT and the relationships between characters are so beautifully told and it really lends itself to a more intimate setting. The show is also set in an old apartment block in New York with exposed brick and feels very bohemian. I think aesthetically Hope Mill fits this setting perfectly.”

ON: The cast is incredibly exciting – and extremely diverse. Why is presenting a diverse cast important to you as producers?
WILL: “It is always so important to us as an organisation to celebrate diversity in all of its forms and we are always very proud of the casts we assemble. Especially for a show like RENT, it was even more important that we put together a cast which celebrates individuality and inclusivity. The cast and wider team that we have assembled is so exciting and all of these amazingly talented unique individuals brought so much heart and hope to this production.”

ON: The director Luke Sheppard directed Spring Awakening at Hope Mill – were you excited to have him back at the venue?
JOE: “We loved working with Luke on our production of Spring Awakening, which was such a success for our venue. After seeing &Juliet when it premiered at the Opera House we knew that Luke was the perfect choice to reimagine RENT for a new age. He brings together the most incredible creative team and always gets the best out of his cast members. His vision and creativity is spectacular and RENT was also a musical which is very close to him and was a real inspiration for him pursuing a career in this industry.”

ON: There must have been times this year when you felt RENT wouldn’t be possible in 2020 – what made you so determined to stage the production this year if you could?
WILL: “The past 6 months have been a roller coaster of emotions for everyone, especially in the arts sector. We postponed RENT from the summer, not knowing if it would be at all possible for us to produce this year, but as more guidance was released around inside performances we started planning on trying to make it possible and safe. RENT has really never felt so relevant to now and this time and in our hearts we knew that it was the right time to tell this story. It was also so important to us to give all of the amazing actors and freelancers involved in this production the opportunity of working and earning in a time when many have been badly affected by the pandemic.”

ON: Just how challenging was it making the production and venue ‘covid-secure’?
JOE: “It has been extremely challenging trying to navigate opening and producing in a covid-secure world. The main issue has been the financial impact on making the venue and process of making and running the show. Obviously we have had zero income since we closed our doors in March and along with high production values and the equipment needed to make the venue fully covid-secure we have had to spend a lot of money that we don’t currently have to spend. However, we were always determined to only progress with the production and opening if we felt we could deliver it in the safest possible way for everyone involved. We have made a significant investment in PPE equipment, safety screens, hand sanitising stations, signage, fogging systems and testing for the team which gave us the confidence to be able to open our doors once again.”

ON: How important was being able to offer a digital streaming version of the show for audiences who are unable to attend for whatever reason?
WILL: “We were operating the run of RENT at 50% capacity, which is only 70 seats per performance. This meant that the production would have had a deficit of around £100,000, which made it completely unviable. Having the extraordinary option to offer an online viewing of the show has allowed us to take our lost capacity and offer it as a digital ticket, and helping us make up lost income. It is also important for us that audiences could not attend or still didn’t feel ready to return to the theatre can still enjoy RENT from the comfort of their own homes. The digital version obviously took on even greater significance when we were forced to close the show early due to the second national lockdown.”

ON: Opening and closing RENT on the same night must have been a bittersweet experience – what was the evening like?
JOE: “We heard the news that we would be entering a second lockdown half an hour before curtain up on our second preview and it was very upsetting for everyone involved. We were so glad that we could at least make it to our official opening and press night on Wednesday 4th November which allowed us to invite press to review the show. The reviews have been incredible and we are so proud of the hard work from everyone involved. The final performance was very emotionally charged but it was really electric and showed Just how special this production is.”

ON: RENT has been a long time in the planning, especially given the situation this year. What was it like finally getting to see the show and the cast come to the stage?
WILL: “Working towards opening our doors and staging RENT is what really got us through the last year and gave us the hope and drive to push on, when times became very difficult. I know that this feeling echoed with the whole team involved and it was a beacon of light in a dark time for the arts. I knew that the show had the recipe to be exceptional from the amazing creative team to the cast and it really lived up to expectations and then some. The whole experience of the show, the design, the band, the performances, it was worth only 5 performances to feel that energy and watch.”

ON: Now it has been filmed, what can you tell us about the filmed version of RENT and what can audiences expect?
JOE: “This production was created for the stage and to be experienced live and although in the current climate that can’t be, we have worked so hard to film the show for online, whilst trying to keep that live theatrical experience. Having seen some of the initial footage, the film company have managed to capture the whole essence, heart and overall look of what was experienced live in the venue. It really is the next best thing!”

ON: Hope Mill has recently celebrated its 5th birthday – looking back what have been the highlights during this time?
JOE: “We can’t believe we have reached 5 years since opening Hope Mill Theatre, it’s incredible. There have been so many highlights since opening our doors, from winning awards to transferring shows. But believe it or not the biggest highlight has got to be working on RENT, yes it’s been tough and difficult to navigate and there is the constant fear that anything could happen and it all comes crashing down, but the level of positivity, hard work, passion and hope that has come from everyone involved is truly why we do what we do and what gives us the drive to keep going.”

ON: What next for Hope Mill in 2021?
WILL: “Once again we will work hard towards opening our doors and welcome back audiences. We won’t be opening this year, however, we have our queer arts festival: Turn On Fest launching again in January 2021 and we also have an incredible programme lined up and of course we will he doing everything within our power to bring back RENT.”

• Online streamed performances of RENT are available on selected dates from Friday 27th Nov until Sunday 20th December.

More information and online tickets can be found www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk

RENT

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

When Hope Mill Theatre announced their summer revival of RENT back in January the buzz about the show quickly engulfed social media; this felt like the most perfect choice for the boundary-pushing, award-winning theatre. Punchy, loud, proud and fuelled by hope, RENT was swiftly propelled into many a ‘must-see list’; billed as the show we all needed in our lives, then…well we all know what happened next.

While the pandemic closed theatres across the country, devastating the Arts, Hope Mill Theatre never lost faith that their much-anticipated production would play to audiences this year. Safeguards were made to film the production should the worst-case scenario of a second lockdown happen and so unbelievably we find ourselves at the show’s official opening which heartbreakingly is also its closing.

The exposed brickwork and anti-Reagan graffiti of David Woodhead’s set transports us to Manhattan’s East Village where a group of young, penniless bohemians strive to live, love and create underneath the looming shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As the devastation and desperation increases so does their sense of family and the ultimate need to make a lasting mark on the world before their lights are extinguished.

Director Luke Sheppard and his team of creatives have truly embraced this piece resulting in a bold, dynamic and meticulously crafted production. The love bursts from each character while their palpable desperation combined with a spirit of defiance is as heart-breaking as it is heart-warming. There is an undeniable sense of urgency; these are stories that need to be told, experiences that need to be shared and a love that needs to be felt.

The cast sit around the stage throughout, feeling and experiencing the heartache, pain and joy of each other’s stories. Touch is infrequent, marked by a fizz of electricity as Howard Hudson’s light design flickers in reaction, making those infrequent yet delicious moments all the more powerful.

Tom Francis makes an incredible stage debut as Roger, his strong swagger is ripped away as his fear of dying takes hold, cradled collectively by the soothing ensemble of resolute voices. Blake Patrick Anderson’s Mark has a quirky sweetness, hiding behind his camcorder in a bid to save him from connecting too deeply thus exposing him to ultimate loneliness while ex-housemate Benny (Ahmed Hamad) plays a strong enemy to the bohemian life he once embraced.

Mimi’s (Maiya Quansah-Breed) strutting and sass is replaced by a heart-breaking vulnerability while Maureen (Millie O’Connell) and Joanne’s (Jocasta Almgill) fractious relationship bubbles and simmers throughout. Deeply entwined in the story is the moving relationship between HIV positive Angel (Alex Thomas-Smith) and older lover Collins (Dom Hartley-Harris) their purity and commitment to each other brings heartening joy to the piece while Hartley-Harris’ delivery of I’ll Cover You – Reprise is gut-wrenchingly brilliant.

RENT is truly an ensemble piece and is at it’s most powerful when this talented cast together with outstanding featured ensemble members Kayla Carter, Allie Daniel, Isaac Hesketh and Bethany Terry unite to deliver Larson’s anthemic score. From the iconic Seasons of Love to the stirring No Day But Today the sheer brilliance of this production envelopes you entirely. Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography adds an edgy punch while Musical Supervisor Katy Richardson ensures the pounding score will long echo after the curtain comes down

While 2020 has been a year of unprecedented heartbreak and bitter disappointments this incredible piece stands proud, shouting from the rooftop for all to hear, not only is RENT viable it is vital; it’s pounding energy combined with gut-wrenching optimism confirming to all that the show most definitely MUST go on.

Rent is available to view online on selected dates from Friday 27th November until Sunday 20th December booking is essential tickets available via https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/rent-online