“It was electric. It was RENT like we’d never experienced it before.” – Joseph Houston on the rollercoaster story of Hope Mill’s RENT

At Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Wednesday 4th November was both the opening and closing night of their hugely anticipated, sold-out production of RENT. Just days into performances, the announcement of the second national lockdown forcefully closed our nation’s theatres once again. But this time, Hope Mill had a contingency. Capturing the production for online release, the theatre ensured that even as our cultural venues shutter once more – the show goes on-line.

Hope Mill Theatre was the dream project of partners (“in life and work”) Joseph Houston and William Whelton. Opening its doors in 2015, the Ancoats fringe theatre quickly established itself as a powerhouse in the world of musical theatre, with highly acclaimed productions including Pippin, Spring Awakening and Rags cementing Hope Mill as one of the most successful and exciting small theatres in the country.

Something of a match made in heaven for musical theatre diehards, Hope Mill’s revival of RENT was undoubtedly their most ambitious and anticipated production to date, making its untimely, early closure all the more shattering for both the theatre and audiences alike.

I spoke to Hope Mill co-founder, Joseph Houston, about RENT’s rollercoaster story amidst the Coronavirus pandemic.

RENT at Hope Mill Theatre © Pamela Raith

RENT was a passion project for Houston and Whelton, “in the planning for almost two years.” Houston elaborates how “it’s a show that’s always meant a lot to us, and a show we’ve always seen happening here at Hope Mill.”

RENT tells the story of a group of young artists at the end of the millennium, struggling to survive and create a life in the thriving days of Manhattan’s bohemian Alphabet City, all amidst the looming shadow of the AIDS epidemic. Premiering in 1996, RENT quickly became one of the most notorious and celebrated works in the American theatre canon. Jonathan Larson’s pertinent punk-story captured the cultural zeitgeist of 1990s New York, punctuated by his rock score representing a new, revolutionary moment in theatre history.

Work on the production really took off towards the end of 2019, with the team enlisting acclaimed young director Luke Sheppard, who directed their hugely successful production of Spring Awakening in 2018, to helm the new revival.

Houston and Whelton proposed the project to Sheppard after watching the dress rehearsal of West End smash-hit & Juliet, then playing its pre-London run at Manchester’s Opera House.

& Juliet represented everything we wanted our production of RENT to be. We wanted to try and make it fresh and young and vibrant and appeal to new audiences, but not losing its heart, message, setting or feel. & Juliet just really solidified that, actually, Luke would just do a brilliant job with the show.”

Millie O’Connell, Alex Thomas-Smith, Maiya Quansah-Breed, Tom Francis, Jocasta Almgill and Blake Patrick Anderson. © Dujonna Gift-Simms

By February 2020, the show’s creative team was set, the cast was assembled, and tickets were selling fast for a hugely anticipated run that summer: “then of course, we entered our first period of lockdown.”

In the uncertain first few months of the lockdown, Houston and the team were still hopeful that the production could fulfil its expected summer run, mentioning how “there was very little guidance at the time, very little clarity.” Of course, as the dates fast approached, it became clear that it wasn’t realistic,” and so work began to reschedule the show for the autumn.

“We ended up moving RENT to October – opening on the 30th October – and that was before we had any guidance on indoor performances, or even outdoor performances. But I think in our heads, we thought, look, the show has pretty much started, the ball was well and truly rolling – it would be such a shame if we were able to open and we didn’t have anything to open with.”

Of course, in the landscape of a pandemic, the realities of staging a fully realised musical changes significantly. Hope Mill had to drastically rethink and reimagine the technicalities and process, including cutting the capacity of the theatre by half; socially distanced rehearsals; bubbling the twelve-strong cast in one household and a myriad of other changes in line with the ‘new normal’.

Houston recalls, “we decided very early on, we’re not going to move forward with this unless we do it properly. It’s done completely safely – it has the right investment. That meant everything from bubbling the cast in one household, finding a house, testing and so on. There was a lot.”

“Actually, up until the week that rehearsals were meant to start, we hadn’t even fully green-lit it. We had spent a whole year planning – but because there’s so much changing, and so much shifting – there was no way we could say ‘yeah, we’ll do this’, because we didn’t know if we actually could.”

Tom Francis and Blake Patrick Anderson in RENT at Hope Mill Theatre © Pamela Raith

In the weeks leading up to the productions premiere, the show once again fell into uncertainty with the arrival of local lockdowns. Rumours began circulating around the city that Manchester was being placed into ‘tier three’ lockdown, with the implications that meant for theatre still completely unknown. A heated and well-documented back and forth between leaders in Manchester and London raged on, but for Hope Mill, it meant that their production hung in the balance.

“I mean, fair play to Andy Burnham for trying to fight for the North. But what was difficult was, it went on for a good ten days, and there was just so much uncertainty about what it meant for us, theatres, and other venues. You’re in your last week of rehearsals, the show’s created, everyone’s excited, but this cloud is hanging over.”

Exactly one week before the theatre’s reopening, tier three arrived, and it was confirmed, to the relief of Manchester’s arts scene, that live performances remained unaffected. The show could go on, and Hope Mill’s RENT made its long-awaited premiere on the 30th October. Houston speaks of the relief from that announcement, describing how “when we got clarity that, thankfully, we would be able to go ahead, we really felt in our hearts and heads that we’d overcome everything that was thrown in our way – apart from obviously, a national lockdown.”

It was thirty-minutes prior to curtain up on the second preview of RENT that it was announced that the UK would enter a second national lockdown. Hope Mill, and theatres and arts venues around the country, would be forced to close once again: “Yeah… it was devastating.”

The cast of RENT at Hope Mill Theatre © Pamela Raith

But Hope Mill had a contingency plan. The theatre announced weeks prior to the production’s opening that RENT, in addition to its live performances, would be professionally captured by theatre videographers The Umbrella Rooms, and streamed to audiences online. Houston clarifies the economic reasons for filming the show, describing how it came about from “having to operate within social distancing and half-capacity. We had to find another way to make the show financially viable.”

Hope Mill’s capacity was reduced from 140 to 65 audience members for the run, and so, Houston and the team negotiated rights to present the production digitally. Rights and rules surrounding filmed theatre are historically complex, and ultimately, Hope Mill was only allowed to sell enough live-stream tickets to “make up the capacity.”

“A lot of people ask: ‘Well I don’t understand why it’s limited? Why can’t you just sell as many as you want online?’ The answer is: because we only have the license to make up our lost seats. So, whatever we weren’t able to sell due to social distancing, is what now is online, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

For Houston and Hope Mill, “that recording was pretty much our insurance policy.” Even prior to the lockdown announcement, filming was scheduled for the first week of performances, ensuring that a contingency plan was in place in the event of closure. Houston elaborates: “If for whatever reason we had to close – whether it was a COVID case or a lockdown or whatever – we had that option to say to audiences: ‘you can’t come at this time, but you can watch it online.’ That was just so vital for how we were mounting the show.”

On 4th November, in bittersweet fashion, RENT both officially opened and closed on the same night. Reviews for the production were unanimously positive. Critics were in agreement that- as Houston, Whelton, and the team at Hope Mill aspired – their new production of RENT was fresh, young and vibrant. Most vitally, it succeeded as a RENT for our times.

Speaking to Houston, it’s so apparent the love and passion that went into this production: “It really was – and of course I’m going to be bias – but it really was special. It was electric. It was RENT like I’ve never experienced it before. The cast, the design, the great team, it just felt right. So right. For now – for the time we’re living in – it surpassed myself and Will’s expectations of what we wanted it to be.”

RENT at Hope Mill Theatre ©  Pamela Raith

Hope Mill’s RENT has been preserved and will stream to online audiences throughout various dates in November and December. Houston promises audiences that, having seen some of the footage online, the film will be “incredible.”

Nevertheless, Houston makes reference to the fact that the show was realised for the intimacy and immediacy of Hope Mill, describing passionately and emotionally that “to be sat there in that space and experiencing it live… it was another level. It was really special.”

So will RENT return to Hope Mill? That answer isn’t so clear. Houston assures that the team “are doing everything within our power and means to bring the show back live” but recognises that “there is so much involved in that. logistically, financially…” For Houston, Hope Mill and the wider industry they represent, the future remains uncertain. But the work done by venues like Hope Mill and the risks taken for the mutual benefit of both the industry and audiences alike, is hugely commendable.

There’s something undoubtedly symbiotic about the origins of RENT and Hope Mill Theatre; a shared youthful, revolutionary spirit. As theatre enters new physical dimensions, it seems apt that Hope Mill, and this particular show, are amongst those leading the way.

RENT streams online to UK audiences on various dates from 27th November to 30th December. Tickets are available here.

Featured Photo (L) © Hope Mill Theatre. (R) © Joseph Houston

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