(Caroline Butterwick’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/7; Photo: Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, who died in 1996. Photograph: AP. )
Using an ensemble cast of deaf and hearing actors, director Lilac Yosiphon aims to explore the isolation felt by the deaf community during the Aids crisis in the 1980s
A new version of Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent is to explore the isolation and prejudice faced by deaf and hearing communities during the 1980s HIV/Aids crisis. Scenes from Rent – A Staged Performance will run at Curve in Leicester next month as part of the theatre’s New Work festival showcasing Midlands artists.
For its director, Lilac Yosiphon, Rent’s context lends itself to new consideration from a deaf perspective. One of the challenges during the HIV/Aids crisis in New York, she said, was the lack of access to information. “The deaf queer community had even less access to information because it wasn’t available in American Sign Language,” said Yosiphon. “This suggested to me that there is a way to look at the characters [and ask]: what would the world of Rent look and feel like if the community included deaf and hearing characters, rather than only hearing characters?”
Larson’s musical was inspired by the opera La Bohème and set among an artistic community in New York’s East Village. It became an off-Broadway hit and opened on Broadway in April 1996, three months after his death from an aortic dissection at the age of 35. Rent won four Tony awards and the Pulitzer prize, all given posthumously.
The new production focuses on specific sections from the musical, bringing together key songs, including Seasons of Love and La Vie Bohème. It will be bilingual, performed in British Sign Language (BSL) and spoken English. “Language holds power, and we are changing the power dynamics within the play and its creation process, from English being the dominant language with BSL being added on, to working bilingually with BSL leading the process and artistic choices,” said Yosiphon, who is also artistic director of the ensemble Althea theatre. She highlighted how BSL as a language has been oppressed, with deaf people instead encouraged to use their voice or lip-read, affecting access to everything from healthcare to education.