Behind The Scenes | Eastern North Carolina Now

Publisher's note: The author of this post, Crystal Baity, is a contributor to ECU News Services.

Set, costume design come together on 'Rent' stage

ECU students in the School of Theatre and Design are pictured below as they prepare for this week's production of RENT. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)
 When East Carolina University's production of "Rent" opens Nov. 19, the audience will return to the 1980s thanks to the backstage work of Rebecca Johnson and Delta Smith.

 Johnson is an ECU senior and set designer for the musical. Smith is costume designer and an ECU alumna who returned this fall to teach costume design, costume construction and makeup in the School of Theatre and Dance.

"Their research has been meticulous, to capture the essence of this time period," said director John Shearin. "It was the mid-to-late 80s, which was the most mysterious and darkest part of the AIDS scare, before we knew what was going on."

 Based loosely on Puccini's "La Bohème," "Rent" follows a year in the life of a group of struggling young artists and musicians in New York during the early days of HIV/AIDS. The story, based on the book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, won a Tony Award for best musical and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

"It's about people living with, not dying from disease," Shearin said. "People are trying to grab ahold of life with the little time they have left and live it to the maximum."

 Johnson's set is a juxtaposition of the panic of the early AIDS epidemic tempered with hope. "It has a bohemian feel, there's a lot of graffiti and posters on the back wall, a lot of layers, which represents the layers in the characters' lives," she said.

 While it's unusual for a student to be named set designer for a main stage production, Shearin said Johnson was ready for the challenge.

 Johnson is also co-paint charge, which means she has overseen and helped with all the painting on the set too. Johnson said she couldn't have done it without her professors and other students like co-paint charge Tanya Acosta. At least 80 students have worked on the paint, carpentry and lighting crew at some point in the process, she said.

"You learn how to work with a group and be part of a team to make it (the show) happen," Johnson said.

"It's a tremendous responsibility, especially for a student," Shearin said. "Her work on this production has been superb. She's captured what I hoped we would achieve in her setting."

 The same is true of Smith's costumes, he said.

 Smith's sketches for the characters in "Rent" hang on a wall of the costume shop in the Messick basement, which is filled with the tools of the trade: dress forms, eight domestic sewing machines, three sergers, a washer and dryer, dye vat, industrial irons and steamers. A storage room holds racks of clothing organized by size, color and time period.

Spools of thread are among the many tools of the trade available for use in the costume shop in Messick.
"Rent" is Smith's first show as costume professor at her alma mater. She graduated from ECU in 2006 before attending graduate school at Ohio University, earning her master's in December.

 How crumpled would Roger, who has been homebound for a year after learning he is HIV-positive, and his clothes be? Or how would a stripper who has a drug addiction and AIDS be dressed?

"All that comes into play as you figure out what they wear," Smith said. "For this show, a lot of characters were developed on the fly."

 About 20 students are working on the show: six in the wardrobe crew, eight on construction and three costume design majors along with costume shop supervisor Rebekah Rose.

 Smith has embraced the balancing act of designing for a performance while teaching. "Here, non-actors have to act, and actors have to do everything. You get a good appreciation for what the others do," she said.

 Students have opportunities to work in hair and makeup, design and build, sew, dye or distress wardrobes. "We build a lot of beautiful things," Smith said.

 And if during the show there was a wardrobe malfunction, Smith stresses the importance of staying calm.

"It certainly does happen," Smith said, although the audience usually doesn't know. "It's important to not let yourself get panicked. I tell my costume design students, we have a lot to do backstage but they (the actors) have to go on stage. We need to be calm for them."

 Thursday's opening will feature 24 actors, just a little larger than the Broadway production, Shearin said.

"My goal is that people understand and sympathize with these characters," he said. "People who know the show will love it. For people who've never seen it, it's more about these human beings than a musical."

 The ECU/Loessin Playhouse and School of Theatre and Dance will present "Rent" at 8 p.m. Nov. 19-24 in McGinnis Theater. There also is a 2 p.m. show on Sunday, Nov. 22. Tickets are $17.50 for the public and $10 for students and youth and can be purchased at The show runs two hours and 45 minutes including intermission.

ECU alumna Delta Smith is costume designer for the production. Smith teaches costume design, costume construction and makeup in the School of Theatre and Dance.

ECU senior Rebecca Johnson is set designer for the 2015 production of 'Rent.' Performances run Nov. 19 — 24. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

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