EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (FOX 9) - The music thumping from a dance studio at PIM Arts High School is the pulse driving a diverse ensemble of actors who need almost no spark to perform. All they need is an opportunity. In this summer’s performance of RENT, they have one.
"They come in hungry," said Rob Thompson, who helped assemble the cast. "They want to work every single day."
The cast and crew are with a unique performing group called the Emerging Professionals Ensemble (EPE). The ensemble started in 2017 as a project to fill a creative theater space for young performers between the ages of 16 and 24.
"We’re not community theater, we aren’t an educational theater program, and we aren’t necessarily professional," said Rachel Brady, who founded the EPE with Thompson. "We see it as really fulfilling a need for performers in the Twin Cities that are young, that are professionally minded, and to get an experience that sort of bridges the gap between educational theater and professional theater, get them really prepared to work in the industry and work in professional theater in the Twin Cities."
One of the RENT cast members is Sophie La Fave, who is playing the character Maureen Johnson.
"She is a zany performance artist," said La Fave of the script’s Maureen. "And she was just in a relationship with Mark, one of the main characters in the show. And then she leaves him for a woman, Joanne."
As a junior studying musical theater at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, La Fave has now performed three times with the EPE and sees it as a competitive advantage to starting her career.
"You’re meeting people who are in every different theater company, and you can talk to them about what it’s like, find out auditions, and who they got into that theater company program," said La Fave.
It’s the same for John Brownell, who is playing the character of Tom Collins. Brownell describes Collins as a graduate student who likes to party and brings a lot of lighthearted moments to the show.
Brownell was first introduced to the EPE by Rachel Brady when he was still in high school. A performer at heart, he’s also gifted in computational skills and pursued engineering and architecture before switching majors to theater at the University of Minnesota.
"I think that what I found through just studying through those different majors is that one of the things that really stuck to me about just the theater community is just how connected everyone is," said Brownell.
In many ways, the musical RENT reflects where this year’s EPE is in their lives. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical by Johnathon Larson is about a group of struggling young artists trying to survive in Lower Manhattan’s East Village during the emergence of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. At its core, the play is about social justice and the connections between the characters. Even though the play is now 30 years old, the themes of Larson’s script still connect with this current cast of young performers.
"I think that there’s really an interesting relationship between RENT, you know, from thirty years ago can touch on such poignant topics from that time and still have a lot of resonance to today," said Brownell.
Collectively, they’re all diving into the rehearsals and putting their own touches on Larson’s work to make it come alive for a new audience.
"They’re just really, really killing it," said Thompson of the ensemble. "The sixteen ensemble members that we have, the company here that’s performing RENT, is probably some of the strongest that we’ve had in this program."
Thompson describes them as the future of Twin Cities theater, and the space the ensemble creates for this kind of professional development is intentional.
"These are the up-and-coming professionals here in town that people should see and should be ready to acknowledge," explained Thompson. "I mean, these are the performers that are working here are the ones that are going to be, you know, at the Guthrie, at Theater Latte Da in the next three to five years."
The EPE will perform RENT at the PIM Arts High School from July 20th through the 29th. Tickets are available online here.
"Something will probably make you cry," said La Fave of the play. "It makes me cry, and we haven’t even fully staged it."
Her fellow cast member Brownell feels just strongly about the power of the play. "For anyone coming to see the show, really come in with an open mind and be ready to have your socks blown off," said Brownell