Pupils from Stoke Newington School are to perform Jonathan Larson’s Rent in December. Drama teacher Gemma Van Praagh took a break from rehearsals to talk creativity, Hackney’s landscape and teaching through “unconventional media”.
“Our school is committed to creative learning for all of our students,” Van Praagh told the Citizen. “Not only through the arts but across all of their subject areas. We strongly believe that children should be able to develop their understanding of curriculum areas and wider topics through practical and tangible lessons that put them at the centre of their learning experience.
She said school shows can be used to develop pupils’ “knowledge of social, political, historical and cultural issues”.
Recent years have seen the youngsters put on shows such as Oliver, Fame, and Hairspray, and Van Praagh is rightly proud of the fact that two of them went on to be performed at the Hackney Empire.
“We were fortunate enough to play to very large audiences and raise money for relevant charities to the themes we were learning about,” she said.
Rent is a play steeped in social conflict and political context, as Van Praagh explains: “Larson set his story in 1990s New York, when friction between the poorest communities and those more fortunate was at a peak, and AIDS had become one of America’s biggest killers.
It was no longer exclusively the ‘gay virus’, but a horrific disease that indiscriminately took the lives of so many, regardless of gender, race, socio-economic background or sexual orientation.
“We meet the characters amidst a micro-cosmic civil war as a poor community is evicted to make way for investment and economic gain.”
These are mature themes to explore, but the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation and Music Theatre International have adapted the original book to give school children the opportunity to delve into this world.
Van Praagh sees links between Larson’s setting and today’s Hackney: “We have decided to go one step further and bring the story home to the local borough. We are setting our version of Rent in Ellingfort Road during 1991 – a time that saw a number of bohemians, artists and liberals evicted from their homes to make way for investors and the wealthy to redevelop the area.
“The gentrification of Hackney, although positive for many, has displaced many of its residents due to house prices soaring well beyond the reach of most of us, and much of this began at the very same time that Larson was writing his story across the seas.
“The plight that the characters faced in Rent was true for many people in our beautiful East London borough in 1991, and is not a far cry from what is happening in many communities and areas today.’
Van Praagh’s students are researching and exploring these issues, and she says they want to make a social comment to the audience through their performance.
“We are interviewing residents about the changes they’ve witnessed in Hackney over the years, as well as family members and artists. We’re also using archived footage to learn as much as we can about our community and its history. Hopefully in some way we can effect change by learning from our history and teaching an audience to look after our diverse and beautifully interwoven community.”
The school’s cast and crew spans from Year 7 to Year 12 and the students will be working as an ensemble to create their very own version of the play.
The crew will be designing the set, sourcing costumes, creating the multimedia elements of the show as well as creating props and scenery.
Van Praagh said the cast, despite the age differences, are “working beautifully and so very maturely” to pull the show together.
She said: “It is not an all-singing, all-dancing musical, rather a story based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème. It is riddled with tragedy, complex relationships and social injustice. So, as well as choreography and harmonies, our staff are having to teach these complicated themes to our young cast and crew.”
The performances take place from 13-15 December at Stoke Newington School, with more information available on the website.