Corona del Mar High School’s embattled spring production of the musical “Rent,” which attracted national media attention, drew protesters from Kansas and sparked an ACLU lawsuit, is also garnering a slew of youth theater awards this season.
“It was the perfect storm and the perfect cast,” said Corona del Mar drama teacher Ron Martin, who won a National Youth Theatre award for direction this year.
“The controversy really helped unify myself and the cast — we weren’t just putting on a play, we were actually all working together to make a statement.”
Cast members from “Rent” will perform at the National Youth Theatre California Awards ceremony in San Diego on June 28 after winning four awards for the California region.
The production is up for an additional three awards at the ceremony. National Youth Theatre considered 200 productions from more than 100 theaters in more than 60 cities spanning 20 states for the awards.
“Rent” opened in April to sold-out crowds after sparking national outcry when Martin claimed the principal initially nixed the production over concerns about gay characters in the script.
The school denies that claim, and production moved forward after the incident drew national media attention.
The ACLU is suing the Newport-Mesa Unified School district, claiming the school fosters an environment rife with homophobia that is hostile to gay and female students.
Members of the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing the funerals of Iraq war veterans across the country, waved signs with anti-gay slurs and dragged American and Israeli flags on the ground across the street from the school as students left class the day the play opened.
“It brought us all together. We worked really hard because it was something we believed in,” said Hayley Palmaer, who won a National Youth Theatre award for best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Joanne Jefferson, a lesbian attorney in “Rent.” Palmaer, who graduated from Corona del Mar this week, is headed to Syracuse University this fall to study acting.
The cast was inspired by gay activists, like Daniel Choi, an Iraq war veteran, who founded “Knights Out,” an organization for gay United States Military Academy graduates, Palmaer said. Choi and other gay activists spoke to the cast of “Rent” on opening night.
“We wanted to give our best performances after hearing them talk,” Palmaer said.
Ryan Willison, who played Mark Cohen in Corona del Mar’s production of “Rent,” and is nominated for a National Youth Theatre award as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical, believes the three protesters who flew in from Topeka, Kan., to picket the school the day the musical was to open energized the cast.
Hundreds of students stood outside the school in support of “Rent” that day.
“It was intense, because it felt like the entire school was behind us, I saw people that I had no idea would be supportive of us,” Willison said.
“It really made me realize the play had a potential to start a dialogue.”
Willison, who graduated from Corona del Mar this week, will attend Tufts University in Massachusetts this fall.
Corona del Mar’s production of “Rent” has also won 14 MACY Awards, which recognize youth theater in the Los Angeles and Orange County regions, and several Orange County Cappie Awards.
The Cappie Awards are judged by student theater critics from around Orange County.
Corona del Mar received more nominations than have ever been received by any school in the county and more awards than any school in the district this year, according to the school district.
The cast of “Rent” has gone on to perform a few musical numbers from the show at various award ceremonies, sparking tears at times, Willison said.
“Everyone in the cast gets teary eyed because it makes us realize we wish we were still putting on ‘Rent,’” Willison said.
Awards for ‘Rent’
Selected awards and nominations Corona del Mar High School’s production of “Rent” has garnered:
National Youth Theatre Awards:
Outstanding Production; Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical (Hail Ketchum as Mimi Marquez); Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical (Hayley Palmaer as Joanne Jefferson); Outstanding Ensemble; Outstanding direction (Ron Martin).
Additional Youth Theatre nominations:
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical (Ryan Willison as Mark); Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical (James Ramsey as Angel); Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical (Erica Schultz as Maureen Johnson)
14 awards including Best Costume Designed by a Student; Spirit of the Macy award; Best Dramatic Actor in a Musical (James Ramsey) and Best Dramatic Actress in Musical (Erica Schultz)
Best Musical and Best Male Vocalist (Brian Silver)