In Defense of RENT

19 Feb

The other day I heard someone compare RENT to politics, to wit, “If you don’t love RENT when you’re a teenager, you have no heart; if you don’t identify with Benny when you’re an adult, you have no brain.” Just like being a liberal versus being a conservative, apparently continuing to believe in art, love, friendship, and diverse representation in media after the age of 25 makes you an idiot.

People of the internet, I will not have it. If you find yourself identifying so strongly with Benny as an adult, maybe you need to take a step back and look at why your priorities changed.

RENT was huge. RENT was a phenomenon, like unto Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis in scale and cultural reach. Unlike those shows, though, it puts its money where its mouth is. Let’s look at the diversity of the cast—of the eight main characters, three are women, five are people of color, one is Jewish, four are living with HIV—and then there’s Angel, who is either trans* or a drag queen, but either way is a male-born individual who uses female pronouns. The casting breakdown requires actors of color in the roles of Angel, Collins, Joanne, Benny, and Mimi (while leaving Roger, Mark, and Maureen open for interpretation), and specifically calls for further diversity in the chorus. There are three romantic relationships, all of them are interracial, and only one of them is a “traditional” male/female coupling. RENT passes the Bechdel test (which, for instance, Hamilton does not). It passes the Racial Bechdel Test (is there a better name for this?). It passes the Sexuality Bechdel Test (there must be a better name, seriously).

From where I’m sitting as a former suburban teen, RENT helped open the eyes of suburban teens. Along with a lot of other media of our youth, I credit it with our generation’s increased/increasing acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, AIDS awareness, diversity, and representation. Of the dozens of visionary figures cited in La Vie Bohème, only seven are straight white cis men, and of those, Bob Dylan is culturally Jewish, Václav Havel is Eastern European and therefore not historically considered white, and Pee-Wee Herman is Pee-Wee Herman. RENT also said, loudly and repeatedly, that it was ok to prioritize love, friendship, and art over money. It was more than ok—it was important, and good for us, and we were good people even if we weren’t getting an MBA. Music, dance, film, theatre, writing, painting, sculpture—all these things are worth studying, worth practicing, worth time and energy and effort. This is the beginning of the argument for paying professional artists a livable wage.

Is it dated? Of course it is; it came out 20 years ago. Is it perfect? No, of course not. From either an artistic or representative perspective, RENT has problems. Maureen exists so Jonathan Larson could take pot shots at an ex-girlfriend—it pleases me to see the immense popularity of the character as a giant middle finger to men who feel the need to eviscerate women who leave them. Angel veers into moments of walking, talking symbolism. “Contact” is fucking terrible, and cutting it was the best decision they made in the terrifically bad movie. The ending is treacly nonsense. A number of changes that should have been made in previews didn’t get made because the creative team was too devastated by Larson’s tragic death to see clearly.

But RENT is not, as some would have it, a naïve fantasy of bullshit where Benny is secretly the hero fighting against the stupid artists trying to muck up the world even farther. Let’s look at Benny, actually, since you’re all so keen to ally yourselves with him. At the beginning of the musical we learn that he used to live with Roger, April, Mark, Collins, and Maureen, sharing a giant industrial loft in the rougher parts of NYC circa the late 80s. He married into money, bought the building, and magnanimously declared that his friends could remain living there for free. A year later, at 9:00 PM on Christmas Eve, he calls and demands a year’s worth of rent immediately. “Rent, my amigos is due, or I will have to evict you. Be there in a few,” he threatens them. I’m in a two-income household with no kids, good credit, and some savings, and I couldn’t come up with a year’s worth of rent in a few weeks, much less a few hours. Is this legal? Yes, because apparently verbal contracts aren’t legally applicable in real estate (you learn something new every day). Is it sleazy and dickish and horrible? Why yes. Yes it is. At this point Roger and Mark are the only people still living in the apartment, though there are plenty of others in the building. They are broke. Roger is HIV positive, is a recovering drug addict who has just come back “from half a year of withdrawal,” and is clearly suffering severe depression from when “his girlfriend, April, left a note saying ‘we’ve got AIDS’ before slitting her wrist in the bathroom.”

Can we talk about AIDS? Nowadays, if you live in a first world country and have the money and/or insurance, HIV is not a death sentence. It is possible, with the correct medicinal cocktail, to have an undetectable viral load. It is entirely feasible to contract HIV, live for decades and die of old age. In the late 80s, when RENT is set, that was most assuredly not the case. Where we live now, we’re fortunate enough that AIDS is more like contagious diabetes–dangerous, expensive, a giant pain in the ass, but survivable. In the 80s and 90s, it was more like getting attacked by a polar bear. You could manage for a while, but you were going to die, slowly and painfully and probably alone. I draw your attention to the refrain at the Life Support meeting, repeated over and over:

Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?

Roger is going to die, very soon. Under the multiple handicaps of poverty and the lingering scars of drug addiction, as well as the self-sabotage not uncommon in the sort of severe depression that keeps a person from leaving their home for a full 12 months, he has a few years left to him, maybe, and how many of those will be good years, as opposed to years racked with the disease that ravages your body after HIV leaves it defenseless? He’s in his early to mid 20s, and his imminent death looms over him every second of every day.He is probably also the one who gave April the virus, given the mechanics of the way the virus passes between heterosexual partners, so he’s drowning in guilt for that too.

Knowing this, Benny shows up on Christmas Eve and demands his friends pay him a full year’s rent immediately, lest they be evicted. That night, after they refuse his demands, he has the power shut off and locks them out of their apartment. In the middle of the winter. In New York City. After promising them they could stay for free in the building he owns. This would be a dick move for anyone, much less a guy whose friend who is literally dying.

Does Benny have his good qualities? Of course, just as Angel has his faults. Benny pays for Mimi to get the inpatient rehab she desperately needs, and he pays for Angel’s funeral when Collins can’t. He also has vision for Cyber Arts, and the cleaning up of the neighborhood. “Do you really want a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop every night?” he asks in the lead up to La Vie Boheme. Nobody wants that, of course, and I hear that a lot as justification for his actions when he clears the tent city next to the building.

Riddle me this: where do the homeless people there go when they are forcibly removed from their makeshift shelters in the dead of winter?

I’ll wait.

Homelessness is not solved by shoving homeless people into a different neighborhood anymore than you’ve cleaned your room if you hide all your stuff under the bed. It’s true, as Benny says, that “Any owner of that lot next door has a right to do with it as he pleases.” When Collins replies “Happy birthday Jesus,” you’ll note that Benny shuts down and starts yelling. He’s defensive and angry—because he knows Collins is right. He knows he’s not solving anything. He’s not finishing his vegetables, he’s just moving them around his plate and then asking for dessert. And so do you. Benny is not shy about using his money to do good on a personal scale, but he either can’t or won’t see the big picture here.

Benny has turned into the kind of person we all bitch about—the guy who comes in to a neighborhood, tears everything down, and builds condos nobody can afford, with zero regard for the people who are already living there. Benny has lost his way. He has a ton of money and influence, and rather than try to really improve the city in which he lives and the lives of others there, he is kicking out people who have no recourse, no money, and literally nowhere to go. If you love that character so much, I have great news—he’s everywhere! Check out any major US city! He’s buying homeless people one-way bus tickets to other cities, putting spikes on the ground in doorways, removing benches, locking public restrooms, and arresting people who give out food in city parks! He’s even “remodeling” Manuel’s Tavern! Benny’s tactics for cleaning up the neighborhood are short-sighted. They are harmful. They are bad.

Mark and Roger get a lot of criticism for the way they live, for their insistence on making art that is legitimate and fulfilling and true to them rather than, in Mark’s case, keeping a shitty job at a tabloid shilling such journalistic excellence as “vampire welfare queens who are compulsive bowlers.” If you’ve never had a job that made you feel sleazy, or like you were making the world an objectively worse place, or just bad, I don’t know what to say to you except “congratulations,” and maybe also “screw you, you lucky shit.” Roger, as we covered, is actively dying. Mark isn’t, but he deeply loves several people who are, and two who do. He is just as aware of his mortality as they are, and wracked with survivor’s guilt, and in light of that, his priorities make perfect sense. If you were staring at a clock ticking down your remaining time on earth, wouldn’t it change your behavior?

You don’t have to like RENT. You don’t have to like anything. But you don’t have to stop liking RENT because you are older now than you were when you first loved it. You can see Benny’s point without agreeing with his tactics. You can shake your head at Mark for disregarding his family’s concern, or roll your eyes at Maureen’s theatrics, or whatever you want, but nowhere is it written that being an adult means we have to stop prioritizing love, friendship, compassion, activism, art, caring for people other than ourselves and our immediate circle.

And finally, let me leave you with some of the closing lines of Act 1, which are still some of the most important in my life.

Revolution, justice
Screaming for solutions,
Forcing changes,
Risk, and danger
Making noise and making pleas!
To faggots, lezzies, dykes
Crossdressers, too!
To me!
To me!
To me!
To you, and you, and you, you, and you!
To people living with, living with,
living with
Not dying from disease!
Let he among us without sin
Be the first to condemn!
La Vie Boheme!

Viva La Vie Boheme!

What I Owe

6 Jan

Sixth grade was a rough year for lots of people, and I’m not an exception. Nobody realized it at the time, but looking back I recognize the signs of my anxiety disorder–overwhelming dread, obsessive counting, forgetfulness, crippling inability to focus or make decisions, the total destruction of my fingertips. I still deal with this, but as an adult I understand what’s going on, and as a child I was just panicky and stressed all the time. It doesn’t help that I wasn’t just not popular–I was unpopular, in that I was the subject of active, organized, widespread teasing and bullying. That wasn’t new, but I was getting older, and I was starting to care more. That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots, because there were. I distinctly remember three: band, the couple of friends I had at school, and Robin McKinley.

Robin McKinley came into my life because my 10-year-old morality was sketchy at best: I picked up The Hero and the Crown from the shelf that my social studies teacher reserved for her homeroom students’ library books. I don’t know if I intended to give it back, but I do know that I never did, and the guy who had checked it out had to pay for it. I’m not sorry. He was a jerk. Anyway, I read that book over and over and over, until I could recite passages (I still can). I would finish it only to start again immediately, and I carried it with me everywhere like a talisman against evil. Or crushing lonliness. My memories of 6th grade can only be categorized in two ways: Being Miserable, or Reading The Hero and the Crown. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this book saved my life. Over the last two decades I have returned to it, and her other books, more times than I can count, in times of joy as well as sorrow, and each time I’ve read one of her books I’ve found all the perspective, validation, inspiration, entertainment, hope, comfort, and motherfucking great storytelling I could want.

Her partner of 23 years, Peter Dickinson, recently passed away. She was silent on social media for several months before reporting his second stroke; the next time we heard from her was today, when she posted the eulogy she delivered at his memorial service. It is heartfelt and well-crafted.

I’ve never met Robin McKinley, but she has been with me through some of the most difficult periods of my life, beginning in sixth grade and extending into my early 30s (so far). Her books shaped the woman and writer I am in too many ways to name. I owe her an unpayable debt, and I adore her. She is going through the unimaginable and I have nothing to offer her except empty words from a person she has never met.

She didn’t write her books for me, but they were a gift to me anyway. I’m going to go buy some more of Peter’s books, and I’m going to plant a tree for him, and for her, and I’m going to keep crying. And then I’m going to work on my novel, ok, because sometimes all you can do is take the gift someone gave you and try to give a gift to someone else.

The Faire is Over

15 Sep now leaving spain

I’m going on hiatus. This season of CRF will be my last faire season.

I don’t know how long this hiatus will go on. I’ve sworn to wait the entirety of 2016 before I make any decisions, and in the meantime I am trying to focus on the here and now and get healthy.

The last fiveish years have been really difficult. At some point in late 2013 I wrote “I am burned the fuck out” in a post I never finished, and that feeling never went away; it only got worse. I began seeing a therapist after finishing Scarborough this year, and I’ve been diagnosed with depression and general anxiety disorder. I need a break from travel, stage fright, homesickness, post-show depression, worrying about money, being sick, and the physical and emotional demands of performance, the venue, and juggling two or three jobs. I’ve got a full time job that is enjoyable enough and pays well enough to keep at for the foreseeable future. mr. biscuit and I are working on getting our debt paid off, and I’m working on getting healthy.

I attended my first renaissance festival in the fall of 1992 or 1993. My friend’s family took me and my sister. The next 7 or 8 years my family went to the Georgia Renaissance Festival for a weekend every year. I loved it. I would cry when it was time to leave at the end of the day. In 2004, as a college sophomore, I auditioned for and got hired to be on the cast. It was a dream come true, and this is what I said about opening day (courtesy my livejournal):

“Ren Fest was the absolute shit, I’m tired beyond all reason, my poor breasts are sunburned, and I haven’t stopped smiling in about 3 hours.”

I spent six years on the cast of the Georgia Renaissance Festival, and for the most part they were excellent years. How many things happened there? I can’t even begin to tell you. I met mr. biscuit, and any number of my closest friends. I discovered within myself a talent and affinity for this very particular type of performance. I made a lot of people smile. And I had a shit load of fun. Leaving was one of the hardest decisions I had made up to that point, but I left to pursue other opportunities. When I told the entertainment director that I would not be returning for the coming season, I already had plans to go after the Scarborough Renaissance Festival. I got in. And after years of trying, I got into the Carolina Renaissance Festival. And I did really well. I met more dear friends, and developed a funny, tight, high-energy, educational, empowering act that can be as intimate or broad as the situation warrants. And I made money, and I had the time of my life, and I learned how to sew.

Esperanza began as a Spanish pirate who was in England trying to track down King Henry VIII in revenge for the death of her mother. She evolved into a Recruitment Officer for the Spanish Army, building an army on English soil. This is how the costume looked my first year:

Esperanza v 1

And this is how the costume looks now:

Esperanza final version

Things that have not changed: my penchant for making ridiculous faces.

In between, we had this:

Esperanza v 2

And this:

esperanza v 3

And this:


And this:


And this:


And somewhere along the line I wore myself out.

I don’t know where I’m going from here. My goal is to get healthy—to manage my allergies/asthma, my IBS, my increasingly difficult periods, and my anxiety and depression to a better degree than I am currently managing. I just want to have more good days than bad days. We want to get to a better financial place, to pay off our credit card and student loans so that we can take care of our aging cats and get a new car when we need to and afford to move again when our lease is up, and rebuild our retirement savings after the huge hit they’ve taken in the last few years, and maybe save to buy a place. We want to continue the progress we’ve made towards making our living space pleasant, beautiful, and well-organized(ish). I want to celebrate Halloween and Easter in a way that doesn’t mean working.

This decision was mine and mine alone. I consulted my most trusted advisors over and over again, but ultimately the only person I have to thank/blame is myself. It’s hard to walk away from something I worked to get for years. In pursuit of this dream I spent years going all over the country on my own dime to try and convince entertainment directors to hire me. I cried and struggled and swore and panicked and learned to sew, and eventually I succeeded, and then…I stopped. I know I made the right decision—when I sent the emails to my entertainment directors, I felt a huge sense of relief. But if there is one thing that art students hear over and over again, it’s “don’t give up;” it’s hard to feel like I’m not giving up.

Then again, maybe I am. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. I love this work, but the things that go with it—travel, shitty working conditions, illness, iffy income, anxiety, homesickness—are just so hard to manage. Maybe I’m just not cut out for those things. Maybe the joy of the work—and there is so much joy in it for me, so that I sometimes feel like I’m going to explode from it—is not enough to carry me through the attendant trials and tribulations. Maybe I’ll never do this again.

Then again, maybe it is, and maybe I will.

I don’t know.

And I’m ok with that.

now leaving spain

Liveblogging Reign: A Poll (subtitled WHAT DO I DO)

29 Nov

So the other day I realized I had forgotten to liveblog Reign for something like a million years, and I was like:

ariel is crying

TRUTH: I am like four episodes behind. That’s ~ten hours of my life because I have to watch each episode twice to catch all the Subtle Nuances and locate appropriate gifs. Do I carry on?

Liveblogging Reign – Episodes 2 & 3 + Character Breakdown

6 Nov

Liveblogging the two most recent episodes of this show was full of hardship and despair. While the pilot remains free from various trustworthy sources including Hulu, one must needs pay cash money to access further episodes. I wrestled with my carefully crafted self-image for quite a long time before I finally signed up for a free seven day trial of Hulu Plus, which should get me through episodes two AND three, at which point I will have to seriously re-examine my priorities. EDIT BEFORE FINALLY POSTING: I failed to re-examine my priorities in time and instead am now paying for Hulu Plus. So….I am paying for this show. Somewhere in my life I made a wrong choice.

In addition to all this, mr. biscuit recently came home with the new Tomb Raider game. So while you read this post, remember that while I could have been following the adventures of Lara “Fuck You I’m Awesome” Croft, I was watching Reign.


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Liveblogging Reign

18 Oct

I don’t know why, but I watched the premiere episode of Reign. You know, the show on the CW where the Dauphin of France is running around without pants on and Mary Queen of Scots is wearing sleeveless gowns and sparkly headbands? Yes, that Reign. I watched it. And then I liveblogged it.  For you.

I gave up on the costumes almost immediately, because it was really just dynamiting fish in a barrel and I only have so much outrage in my body. Let’s just talk about the plot, and the acting, and the…the everything. On a scale of One to Ten, I rate it a Hot Mess.

Let’s watch it!

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DragonCon wrap up. FINALLY.

10 Oct

DragonCon is over.

DragonCon was over like a month+ ago? I KNOW THAT. I was busy…I don’t know, doing something, probably. Working. Watching the BBC on DVD. Getting ready for the opening of the Carolina Renaissance Festival. I AM A BUSY PERSON, DON’T JUDGE ME.

Where do I even start with this wrap up? I guess with a quick review: our costumes went SUPER well.


Glad you dig it, Mr. Seal

We did almost all of our costuming on Sunday, which made for an exhausting but exhilarating day, and also meant I had an excuse to shower twice.

It was AMAZEBALLS. Allow me to show you more…

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