Crew profiles: The brains behind Ram’s Head’s ‘Rent’

April 10, 2016, 11:29 p.m.

Director: Liz Knarr ‘16

Major: Political Science, Theater and Performance Studies
Hometown: Yorba Linda, California
Favorite Musical: “Next to Normal”
Random Fact: Knarr has been involved in 19 productions while at Stanford.

As Director, senior Liz Knarr’s goal is to make sure huge fans of “Rent” – colloquially called “Rentheads” – are fulfilled by what they see on the MemAud stage, but she has no intention of copying the Broadway original.

To Knarr, Jonathan Larson did an excellent job with the show’s lead characters, but what she’s really interested in “is the all of the people we don’t get to see who are all a part of the fabric of the New York.”

Knarr’s vision for the show lies in using the specific stories told in “Rent” to make a greater statement about everyone affected by the AIDS crisis – both victims and loved ones affected by the losses. She sees this production as the voice of the “generation” of people lost to the AIDs crisis and the “people who we’ve lost who can’t be writing their own stories right now.”

“Rent encapsulates that growth and that attitude toward the world, where you really should be seeking out people who are different that you, celebrating survival and grieving loss and making sure that every moment of every day is meaningful,” said Knarr. With an extreme attention to detail, she remains proud that the Ram’s Head’s production is “uniquely and wholly [its] own.”

Makulumy Alexander-Hills ’16. (Courtesy of Makulumy Alexander Hills)

Music Director: Makulumy Alexander-Hills ‘16

Major: Music, Earth Systems
Hometown: Pismo Beach, California
Favorite Musical: “Triangle”
Random Fact: “I really don’t watch movies. Name a movie, I probably haven’t seen it. 90% chance.”

Not only does Makulumy Alexander-Hills provide accompaniment during rehearsals for “Rent,” but he also helped find the show’s musicians, organize orchestra rehearsals and keep the health of singers in check. He also (casually) conducts the 22 person cast and five-piece orchestra while playing two keyboards each night of the show’s run.

For Alexander-Hills, the greatest challenge of the production stems from the stage’s unique set-up: The orchestra members play onstage, in different sections of scaffolding, rather than in a traditional pit. To keep the musicians unified, each has a monitor, which shows live video of Alexander-Hills’ directions. According to Alexander-Hills, most professional theaters use these kinds of monitors, and he is excited that students are getting to use professional equipment.

“We can actually boost the quality of music in the long run by starting to use these technologies.”

A fan of “Rent” since he originally saw it in high school, Alexander-Hills said that the musical “really hits home with these things that don’t come up in everyday life.” He, like Knarr, sees “Rent” as a means “to tell those stories that we don’t talk about.”

Costume Designer: Shalmali Bane ‘16

Shalmali Bane. (Courtesy of Shalmali Bane)
Shalmali Bane ’16. (Courtesy of Shalmali Bane)
Major: Biology
Hometown: Pune, India
Favorite Musical: “The Phantom of the Opera”

Random Fact: Carrots are the bane of Bane’s existence.

Shalmali Bane has a unique connection to “Rent”: Her favorite musical number from the show, “Take Me or Leave Me,” was playing when she received her acceptance letter from Stanford.

“The lyrics of that song totally shape that time. I felt like it was a sign, like ‘Take me. Now. Go to Stanford.’” Working on “Rent” in her senior year, Bane feels that she has come full-circle in her Stanford experience.

Bane’s job as costume designer required months of planning, shopping at thrift stores and learning to fit different body types. Contrary to the bright colors that are usually associated with costumes in “Rent,” Bane said her inspirations in design came from grungy ’90s fashion style. At the end of the day, however, Bane said it all comes down to character. 

“I wanted the people to be able to look and feel good,” she remarked.

Choreographer: Jace Casey ‘17

Jace Casey '17. (Courtesy of Jace Casey)
Jace Casey ’17. (Courtesy of Jace Casey)
Major: Film Studies, History
Hometown: Arlington, VA
Favorite Musical: “Merrily We Roll Along”
Random Fact: Jace has been “existential” since Lady Gaga’s 2009 VMA Performance.

A huge “Rent” fan going into the production, choreographer Jace Casey had fun mining ’80s music videos for inspiration, although it was an altogether eye-opening process. He found BDSM clubs during that time period often supported the degradation of women.

“Something that I push for a lot in this production [is] making sure that gender [is] depicted realistically, ” Casey remarked.

Casey revealed that his vision has changed throughout the rehearsal process with the aid of improvisation and a creative cast.

A challenge for Casey with the large ensemble has been to keep the stage clean, but organic.

“It’s not Hairspray, it’s not a show where you can just have people in lines and formations,” Casey said. To resolve this problem, Casey relied on the energy of the ensemble and the set pieces to space the cast in a dynamic way.

Casey sees the message of Rent “very much about the intrinsic beauty of people,” and acknowledges its power to counteract stereotypes about people based on appearance. Audiences of Rent will see bodies of all sizes and colors performing these numbers.

“That’s something I really want to do with this choreography … [to] literally [visualize] people in ways they wouldn’t traditionally be shown onstage,” said Casey in a recent interview.


Contact Bella Wilcox at belwilc ‘at’

Bella Wilcox is a senior studying Communication and Theater and Performance Studies. She is a writer for Stanford Journalism's Peninsula Press and her poetry will be featured in the upcoming edition of the Stanford Journal of Asian American Studies. Her original play will premiere on campus this spring. Bella is a freelance DJ and concert planner.

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