What do you do when your fave is problematic?
Just ask Chris Tyler.
The self-described "artist, actor, and (occasional) drag queen" tackled this question in R*NT (or, What You Own: another dirge for a city remembered), a piece that ran from April 28 to 30 at the Performance Project at University Settlement, where Tyler, 27, is a 2015-2016 Artist-in-Residence.
R*NT was a "super collaborative effort" between the cast and crew that simultaneously parodied and deconstructed the Broadway musical RENT, which, not coincidentally, celebrated its 20th anniversary on April 29. Drawing heavily from the work of writer and activist Sarah Schulman, Tyler's show explored the link between RENT's romanticized vision of artistic life in New York's East Village, analogous contemporary media like Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York," gentrification, and neoliberal identity formation.
The plot loosely followed that of RENT itself, with many key differences. Benny is now an art investor type, whose pro-development sentiments are framed as good and relatable. Angel no longer dies due to AIDS-related complications; in fact, Collins proposes to her in the style of that gay couple's viral Home Depot proposal video from a couple years back. The redux is equal parts hilarious and chilling, an unsettlingly bleak commentary on how LGBTQ political priorities have shifted from the AIDS crisis to the present.
Tyler's R*NT also debunked many of the myths that persist around the original Broadway production, citing Schulman's Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America at every turn. For example, did you you know that RENT playwright Jonathan Larson was straight? Did you know that he didn't die of AIDS-related complications—that he never contracted HIV at all? Did you know that he only lived in the East Village for a couple of years, according to Schulman, and that he allegedly had no direct involvement with ACT-UP, the advocacy group organizing for the rights of people living with HIV? And have you heard that–according to Schulman—Larson may have plagiarized subplots and other details from her 1990 novel People in Trouble in order to fill the gaps in his knowledge? All of this was news to me, despite the fact that I had an embarrassing RENT period my sophomore year of high school. Everyone I've spoken to about this over the past few days has been equally surprised.
In spite of all these complications, it can't be denied that—for better or worse—RENT has played a formative role in many teenagers' lives over the past 20 years. Tyler's piece did not shy away from this fact, and R*NT felt all the more powerful for embracing the discomfort and ambiguity that came with it.
There was still a lot in Tyler's piece that I wanted to unpack the morning after I saw it on opening night. So, I called him up. (Full disclosure: We're friends.)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I honestly think it's kind of bold for you to publicly own RENT as a formative part of your identity. There are so many queer suburban transplants in New York who are too embarrassed to admit that. Why do you think they're embarrassed?
It's become such a mainstream franchise that it's not cool to like RENT anymore. Like, it was only cool when you were a queer loser back in high school and RENT was this loud thing you could attach yourself to with a veneer of rebellion, but without the actual stakes of rebellion. Musical theater's certainly not cool, but look at the queer nightlife scene—it's really just filled with a million Maureen-identifying individuals. Maybe Maureen-slash-Mimis.
Can you describe the relationship you had with RENT growing up?
I learned about it from this friend in high school who'd always be like, "You're such a Mark! You're such a Mark!" When I finally saw RENT on Broadway, I didn't really like it. I couldn't understand what the cast was singing about because I was sitting high up in the mezzanine next to my grandma, who kept asking me if the person in the Santa suit was a woman. I just didn't get into it until the movie version of RENT came out in 2005. The movie is so strange and even less legit [than the stage production], but I was drawn to that. It felt so false and packaged and marketed, telling a story of youthful rebellion with a cast well into their thirties. There were levels of anachronism to it, and that appealed to me.
So you never saw RENT as, like, a blueprint for your future as an Artist Living In New York City™?
No. I thought I was going to be an English teacher. I think it might have appealed to me because it came out the summer after I had a very intense, positive queer experience where I had become close with a bunch of people who did summer theater. We did West Side Story together, and they were all super-jazzed about seeing the movie version of RENT when it came out in theaters. Being a part of a large group of friends who were really excited to do this one thing together felt larger than the scope of my day-to-day high school experience, where I didn't have many friends. I wonder how much me liking the movie related to that experience of social inclusion. So much of my show, R*NT, is about community and social inclusion and chosen family.
It's interesting to consider the role RENT might play in the gentrification process—how this thing that gave you a sense of community when you were younger has probably contributed to the disruption of larger communities in New York. I feel like a lot of people who move to New York do so because they consumed a piece of media like RENT (or Sex and the City, or Girls, or Party Monster, or Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York," etc.) at a formative age, and that planted the seed in their mind to gentrify the shit out of the city. Maybe I'm reaching. Do you want to speak to any of that?
It's dangerous whenever an experience becomes branded, because then you can sort of isolate yourself in relation to that brand identity. Then it's all about your personal relationship to a thing or an experience or an event, and it's not about your relation to a larger collective of people. That's a tenet of neoliberal commodification: the need to define yourself in relation to the products you own or the experiences you own, like a Broadway show. Things that you feel are proximate to some reality or truth. Having a one-on-one relationship with these things negates collective experiences and turns these experiences into something that is packaged and sold.
Speaking of Taylor Swift, your show opens the entire cast lip-syncing to a live version of her song "Welcome to New York." In another scene, a character's dialogue is bleeped out when she tries to say "1989," the name of Taylor's last album, just like how the word "rent" is bleeped throughout the show. What made you want to connect RENT with 1989?
Well, RENT takes place in 1989, or at least the movie does, so I thought that it made sense. I just thought they were in dialogue with each other.
What about "Welcome to New York"?
Um… [Chris' tone changes; he puts on an exceedingly positive affectation.] I just think it's, like, a great anthem for the city, you know? It was a really awesome campaign with NYC Go. Very appealing to a broad demographic of people.
It feels like you're trying to avoid saying anything critical about Taylor Swift on record. Do you not want to, like, anger her fans or something?
Yeah, basically. I'm scared of those Google Alerts.
OK, then let's switch over to Sarah Schulman. How does her work inform R*NT?
I mean, the whole piece would not exist if I had not read Stagestruck. It was a book that really blew my mind open and made me reconsider this thing, RENT, that I thought I had a pretty clear relationship to. I felt like it was really important to share the basic principles Schulman lays out and just pique your interest enough to read it for yourself.
I mean, it worked. I literally ordered a copy of Stagestruck and People in Trouble on Amazon the second I got home, even though doing so felt super contradictory to everything that resonated with me about your show.
[Laughs.] At the same time, I also feel complicated about using Schulman's work like this because they're not my ideas. They're her ideas. How do you stage being inspired by someone and being influenced by someone without just ripping them off?
That's one of the central themes of R*NT: drawing the line between inspiration and plagiarism. Your character wonders something similar during one of the final scenes, about whether he can create art that draws on perspectives that are not totally his own. And if so, how? Have you come to any conclusions about that through doing this show?
I don't think I've reached a conclusion about it, and I don't know that I can reach a conclusion about it. I think there's a lot of power in artists embracing the unknowingness of this question and grappling with the ethics of the things we make as we make them. It keeps us in constant conversation with ourselves and those around us, and it keeps us more accountable to other people and our audiences.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.