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Interview: Marlies Yearby of RENT at Winspear Opera House At AT&T Performing Arts Center

Over the past 20 years, Jonathan Larson's RENT has become an iconic piece of American musical theater. As its anniversary tour is about to make its scheduled stop in Dallas, I had the immense pleasure of speaking with original choreographer, Marlies Yearby, about the past, process, and production of her work on this particular show.

Q: Because this is the 20th anniversary of RENT, tell us how you first became involved in the production of this show in 1995/1996?

A: Well I actually got recommended by Mark Russell of PS122 through Linda Chapman. And I got a phone call and met with Jonathan and Michael Greif at the time and through the conversation that we had it just seemed like it was a good fit. They seemed to really want the aesthetic that I had. [Through the familiarity] with my work in both theater and my company at that time, there was just something about a connection. I really enjoyed the way Jonathan staged and just wanted me to let the actors live on stage naturally, to allow the dance come through in a natural way was right up my alley.

Q: I had seen a forum online, a panel discussion with you and the original cast, where you had mentioned that Jonathan Larson had talked to you about using a lot of pedestrian movement. You said that you had really watched the cast to kind of see how they moved; can you tell me a little bit about that process?

A: Oh wow, well you know its very much how I make work. I'm very much a people watcher and I like to watch people as they move through in a natural state but also as they move through an emotional state. So when I am with a cast, the first thing I start doing is just watching how they move naturally in a space... That journey has been really special to have the 20th anniversary and have a group of people that ignited in me very much like the first cast where it felt like that freshness and that enthusiasm and newness of what we were creating in the moment, as opposed to regurgitating what's happening, in a really wonderful way. Its been marvelous to play again, that openly, with the cast of RENT.

Q: So you got to create on this new cast as well? What can we expect from this cast?

A: Oh yes. Mark, played by Danny Kornfeld, has an amazing palette in his body, its very different than Anthony [Rapp] but yet in that same kind of unique way that it lives in their body. He has this way of making you feel like you're looking at him in a lens, you know? Where the compactness in the way that he kind of interpreted the lyrics in his body was just amazing, drew me in. So then I began to explore what happens if he breaks that lens: expands wide, then narrows it back in so that we see that fluctuation of being really open and expansive and big, and very tight and kind of nerdy and very specific in the way he moves. And it just works out really amazing, that journey with him.

Equally so with Skylar Volpe, playing Mimi, a whole different journey for her. Finding how to speak to her in her body, realizing that the music was the place to grow her from. Musically when she connects her whole body opens up in an amazing way.

Q: Since they're all so individually connected with their roles and you were able to recreate the movement on each of them, has the choreography changed a lot in the last 20 years or do you feel like it is still very similar to what you started with as far as the body of movement goes?

A: Right, well you know there are what I call the "iconic movements of RENT." You know you will still see Angel jump off the table, you will still see Mimi kick down the stairs as an example. At the same time, after 20 years we have always made little changes... it lets them enter into the story in a different way each time. Which I think is part of its charm RENT has had over the years, its part of what makes it feel like its one, always current, even though its a historical piece in that sense and [two] it allows the audience to take the journey with them in... that its always constantly growing and changing over the 20 years.

So with this company I was thinking about time and I wanted to encapsulate in them who they are, and bring that to it, and also to poke around a little bit with time both in terms of contemporary, popular movement of today and yesterday, bits and pieces of that ebbing and flowing inside of Boheme. At the same time tapping into individual resources, Benny [played by Christian Thompson] has a unique quality that comes from a very urban place as much as it is a refined place so I think how can I play with that, bring that in and remain impactful.

Q: As a choreographer, what really catches your eye during the audition process? What are your non-negotiables?

A: I love to see them willing to take a chance when they're given notes, which we always do through the process. Put themselves out there in a big way and take a risk beyond their comfort zone. And then I look for an understanding of who they are in their body as movers. Those two extremes: willing to fall off The Edge and knowing enough about your body that you step in the room comfortable with who you are.

We absolutely use improv because there's nothing like it that brings up movements that are there... and actually in the audition process I'm more interested in giving opportunities to grow than I am interested in immediately cutting, so our audition process is actually longer for the dance. And it resonates throughout in the music department as there are multiple opportunities to open the door.

Whether you get it or not... take every bit of it and use it, don't look at it as a paycheck... just go for it. You might as well think of [the audition process] as a free workshop, as an opportunity to grow.

Q: In talking about what sticks with audiences over the 20 years, the legacy of RENT, obviously one thing that remains poignant to the story is the inclusion of AIDS. With the resurgence of shows like Falsettos, and other shows that tackle this disease like A Normal Heart, I feel that there is something very unique with this show in how they displayed that illness and how it affects this family of characters. Tell me a little bit about that content in the piece and how you feel it affects audiences.

A: I really truly believe in the absolute love of not only yourself, but the other through the adversity of everything including this disease. To be non-judgemental, but instead to support from a pure place of love. RENT does that over and over again and what a message in this day and time. 20 years later I believe its very impactful because we need to again connect to the fact that we ARE all different, but yet the same, we are all so connected and love can really be the glue that joins us together especially if we can do so through all of this. AIDS has been an amazingly impactful disease in all walks of the globe, so we can have important discussions still [through this production].

Q: What else would you like to share with our audiences about this 20th anniversary show?

A: I would say the opportunity to create again 20 years later, of RENT, has been an amazing similarity to the time when I first did RENT. I felt like everybody in the room was supposed to be there, for whatever reason, right then right now. And I felt that this year, this 20th anniversary cast, has been awe inspiring in such a way that it has made me really want to explore again working with new plays and collaborations that maybe I haven't thought of before. Its really great to be inspired in that way.

RENT is playing September 20th through October 2nd in the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. For ticket information contact the Box Office at 214-880-0202 or go to

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From This Author - Christina Hoth

CHRISTINA KUDLICKI HOTH is a born and bred native of the Dallas/Ft. Worth dance scene. As a skilled educator in multiple techniques, Hoth's choreography has garnered several local and national ... (read more about this author)