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‘Rent’ scores multiple awards

Student production first garnered national media attention from discrimination lawsuit. Now, it’s getting attention of theater critics.

June 19, 2009|By Brianna Bailey

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.”

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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.

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