BWW Interview: Skyler Volpe is Mimi in RENT Anniversary Tour
Skyler Volpe as Mimi
RENT opened on Broadway in 1996, and was simply praised by the New York Times saying "Well done Mr. Larson." A new musical by an unknown and recently deceased writer, Jonathan Larson, opened on the Great White Way and rocked the Musical Theatre community at its core. Based on Puccini's La Bohème, the story follows seven artists in New York City struggling to follow their dreams. The now Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning musical returns to the stage in a vibrant 20th anniversary touring production.
Skyler Volpe plays Mimi Marquez, a sexy, young, fun-loving character who has lived a tough life but chooses to see the world through an optimistic lens. I was lucky enough to talk to Volpe, an alumnus of Connecticut College, about her experience being a rock star on the 20th-anniversary national tour of RENT.
Christopher Castanho: Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you're from and where you went to school...
Skyler Volpe: I'm from Port Washington, New York, which is 45 minutes east of Manhattan. I went to school at Connecticut College, graduated in 2013. I studied Dance, Sociology, and French and I was actually the only triple major in my class because I'm a big nerd [laughs]. I moved to the city a couple months after I graduated and just started auditioning. Three years later, here I am.
CC: What was the audition process like for Rent?
SV: I had gotten an appointment through my agent, it was a dance call. The next four days I came back and sang, worked with the director Evan Ensign and music supervisor Tim Weil, and the choreographer Marlies Yearby. I had to sing "Out Tonight", "Without You" and "Goodbye Love" every round, I would get notes after every time, and would come in the next time having applied those corrections. When all was said and done, I had a total of five auditions for this tour.
CC: When was the first time you saw Rent?
SV: I saw Rent when I was a kid, when I was actually pretty little. I grew up listening to the cast recording, my parents had seen it on Broadway and my mom was an 'OG Renthead', so she'd play the album in the car all the time. Me and my little brother would sing along as five and three-year-olds. I saw it when I was probably eleven, after knowing it for a long time.
CC: Did you always want to play Mimi?
SV: Yeah, I mean definitely [Laughs]. I always thought 'Mimi sings the fun songs, she wears the blue pants' cause when I was a kid I didn't understand what the show was about, but it was a story that made me feel good, the songs made me feel good. So in that respect I was like 'I'm going to play Mimi' I'd make my little brother play all the other parts. My mom tells the story of all of us sitting in the back of the car and how I made my brother play Collins, he was three.
CC: Did you grow up doing a lot of theatre?
SV: I did, I started doing the school play in second grade. And since I lived so close to the city getting rights to do certain shows was tricky. Like Rent was never an option, and it was also because Rent was on Broadway until 2008, and I graduated high school in 2009, so it was not even a thought in my mind that I would be able to do it.
CC: So what's it like finally being able to do this show?
SV: It feels pretty amazing, there's a lot of stuff about Rent that I never knew or understood. So getting to work with our creative team, as they've been working on it since it's creation, we get so much insight on the songs and moments that drive the show, and I wouldn't have been able to figure all that out on my own. Getting to work with people who are so deeply connected to Rent has been such a gift.
CC: Since you mentioned the creative team, what's been the most memorable part of your rehearsal process with those individuals?
SV: It's been one of the biggest acting challenges I've had to conquer because there's this crazy dichotomy of Mimi being very sick and very weak but also being really feisty and strong. So trying to figure out how to make those things happen at the same time was really hard, and it's still a process that's changing every time I do the show. And then working on "Out Tonight" with Marlies [Yearby], who was the original choreographer, is pretty insane. Because I went to school at Connecticut College, my professors there were very heavily involved in the modern dance world in New York, when I auditioned for Marlies he knew the training that I had, and would always challenge me. So that was really incredible, being taken to a new level with that material.
CC: How many times you have you performed Rent?
SV: We've done this show 234 performances, and I've actually never missed a performance...I don't know how it's happening, I just take a lot of vitamins and use a lot of potions [laughs]. The end of this part of the tour is June 25th, and then there's another one starting up in the fall, and I'd love to be on that. It feels incredible to have performed this show so many times, I feel really accomplished. I have had to adopt this whole attitude of gratitude, I hate that that rhymes, it sounds so dumb! [Laughs] But it's true, I'm so grateful to be able to share this story, it's never boring, and there's always something to dive deeper into. I still feel like I have a lot to learn, which is incredible.
CC: What's your favorite part of the show to do?
SV: It changes, it changes pretty frequently actually. I think lately I'm really into "Out Tonight" again, we saw our choreographer recently and he 'leveled up the number', so now it's been cool to redevelop what to do in that song.
CC: What's been your favorite location on tour so far?
SV: What a tricky question! I have a lot of friends in Los Angeles, so that was really great to see them. We just spent two weeks in Boston, and I got to stay with one of my best friends from high school. It's been cool to be everywhere. It's sad because at a lot of places we're only there for one night. One nighter weeks are hard, but there's something magical about Rent, even after we've had a long travel day, you just look out into the audience and you're reminded why we do this. Sometimes it's a teenager who saved their allowance forever to come see our show, that's why we're here. It makes it worth it, you can strip away how tired you are and share this incredible story.
CC: What a great segue into our final question, what does the story of Rent mean to you?
SV: I think it's as simple as: life can be hard and tricky, and toss you so many curve balls, but there's always the option to choose love and live generously. Give up what you have and if you do that you can find the joy everywhere; it makes everything so much more bearable and easier.
Based on original direction by Michael Greif (Tony and Drama Desk Nominations, RENT), Evan Ensign re-staged the 20th anniversary tour. Original Broadway creatives Marlies Yearby (Choreography), Angela Wendt (Costume Design), and Tim Weil (Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements) are joined by Jonathan Spencer (Lighting Design), Keith Caggiano (Sound Design), MiRi Park (Associate Choreographer), and Matthew E. Maraffi (adapting original scenic design by Paul Clay) to make up the creative team for the tour. The RENT 20th Anniversary Tour was cast by Joy Dewing Casting.
The RENT 20th Anniversary Tour is produced by Work Light Productions, whose other touring productions include Cinderella, MAMMA MIA!, Motown, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and Vocalosity. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/RentOnTour or rentontour.net.