Southold High School to stage ‘sensitive’ production of ‘Rent’

Southold High School Rent

The Southold High School Drama Club is preparing to stage a production of the popular musical “Rent” this spring, but the version you’ll see on the school stage will likely feel different than the one you might have seen on Broadway.

Southold Superintendent David Gamberg said Tuesday that the school will produce the “school edition” of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, which tones down some of the adult elements of the script. The play follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians, some of whom are gay, struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, according to a description of “Rent: School Edition.”

Mr. Gamberg said he expects that the production will appeal to the entire Southold community.

“What we did was we looked at the school script and we asked the teachers involved in it to really take a good look at it to make sure it’s fitting for the community,” Mr. Gamberg said. “It has a very strong and powerful message that we think is going to be very positive, but again this is based on the idea that we want to make sure that it’s very sensitive to the community as a whole. The three teachers involved are very responsible for that.”

Mr. Gamberg said it’s too early to say for sure what types of additional modifications the school might make for its production, but he did say the play was given the green light and will likely be performed in March.

Plans for the school performance led a pair of Southold residents to contact The Suffolk Times with concerns over the school’s handling of gay characters in the play. An anonymous letter writer said the play was inappropriate since it could “put students in the position to have to play gay/lesbian or drug addicted [characters.]”  One parent said her child believed the district was making changes that might offend gay students, including a decision to cast a female to play the role of the drag queen Angel, which is traditionally played by a male actor in school, community and professional productions.

When asked about a female student being cast to play Angel, Mr. Gamberg, who said he didn’t know if any casting decisions had been finalized yet, said, “I think that goes in line with being sensitive and making sure it’s appropriate for school. I don’t think it’s going to be written and spoken in a way that’s going to be seen as inappropriate. That’s the kind of sensitivity that [teachers are] looking at.”

The superintendent said he also received the letter from the concerned resident who felt the play is inappropriate for a school production and he said he believed that person would be OK with the finished product.

“I do not think that what was forecast or portrayed in that letter will in any way match the reality of the student experience or the audience experience,” he said. “[Students] will be very comfortable in whatever role that they do take.”

Mr. Gamberg said that more than 60 students auditioned for the eight-member cast, which he believes could be a school record. He said that speaks to the quality of the drama program at the school.

The decision by a school district in Trumbull, Conn. to cancel its upcoming production of “Rent” made national headlines this month. After a heavy backlash from the community, the school announced this week that the play is back on, according to the New York Times.

Mr. Gamberg said he was aware of the Trumbull controversy, but that it had no impact on Southold’s decision to schedule the play this spring.

“That came about after the go-ahead was made,” he said.

The teachers involved in the production did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

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