BC Christian News • OCTOBER ISSUE 1998 • VOL. 18 #10 • Formerly "Christian Info News" •

Christian actors at home among Rent's disenfranchised

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Also see review.

By Anne Eapen

IT TOOK a few phone calls to pin down an interview with the Christian cast members of Rent. When we finally got together, I learned they had viewed the meeting with some trepidation.

They had had some previous encounters with Christians which had not been amicable -- people whose assessment of Rent was less than charitable. Certainly the gritty and unadulterated depiction of street life, drugs and sex could make some Christians squirm uncomfortably in their theatre pews.

But isn't this the kind of backdrop that Christ would be smack dab in the middle of -- reaching out to the disenfranchised and the lost?

Rent, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning rock musical, plays at Vancouver's Vogue Theatre.

"I agree with your assessment," says ensemble actor Dean Balkwill, currently attending City View Baptist Church in Vancouver, "but not all Christians view Rent that way. Some think we're glorifying these situations: for example, when we sing 'La Vie Bohme' in the first act, it goes 'do marijuana' -- and the kids in the front row ['rent heads'] go 'yeah!'. Christians may question us, but I tell them these people are in the world and we can't ignore them. We are asked to love them and reach out to them." Balkwill (Gordon, the man, Mr Grey), shares his faith unabashedly. Along with his wife, Balkwill began Bible studies when they were performing Rent in Ottawa. The sessions were regularly attended by Saskia Garel, (Mimi Marquez), David St. Louis (Christmas caroller, Mr Jefferson, a pastor), Maggie Benjamin (Mark's mom), and Robert Glean (who played Benny at the performance I attended). Ranging in age from 19 to 28, these actors are not merely vocal about their Christian faith, they practice it.

"Some people in the front rows, they picture this life as a cool life because you don't have to answer to anybody," observes Glean, who attends a Catholic Church in Toronto. "Most of the people get it, that the whole picture is loving each other no matter who we are even if we don't accept their lifestyles. We don't have the right or the power to judge. Hopefully by our actions, it might prompt them to seek out what makes us the way we are."

Garel, who was raised a Catholic but attends a Pentecostal church in Agincourt, Ontario plays a promiscuous junkie working at coming clean.

"When I heard the content of the show, that scared me and deterred me somewhat from wanting the role of Mimi because it clashed with my beliefs. But when I got here and found other people with the same faith as me, I realized that this is a job. Then I discovered that Dean and his wife had started a Bible study -- it was such a gift, what a lovely surprise. I never thought I'd find any other Christians in this line of work."

Besides the Bible studies, prayer circles before each performance are worked into their routine.

"We encourage and affirm each other in the Lord," says Balkwill. "Everyone in the cast is welcome," he points out, "but not everyone is Christian . . . it allows for people to share what's on their hearts, it helps everyone regroup before we go out on stage."

There are occasions when they are razzed for their faith, but those are few and far between. Benjamin, who goes to an Assemblies of God church, shares with some surprise what her newfound fame has meant insofar as sharing her faith: "People are listening to me now, they want to know what I think or say. And I figure I can use this opportunity to spread God's word, and people may actually listen."

Balkwill says the support they provide one another is crucial in their line of work. "In this theatre world, Christ needs to be very real. Otherwise we will suffer because there is so much corruption and stuff that goes on here that's not acceptable to our belief and lifestyle. So if we don't have someone we can go to daily, and be sustained by his word -- then we are just going to be lost."

But the stereotypical partying is not something all actors do either, points out Garel.

"I go home and read and take a hot bath -- this is the first week I've actually gone out , and I'm feeling it," she laughs. "I'm not into the whole party scene."

St. Louis, a Presbyterian, concurs: "The lifestyle ends when we leave the stage . . . My mom always told me, 'Remember who you are and remember who you represent.' I personally don't do much partying -- I'm a homebody -- but I know many people who do. And that's not wrong, as long as they know who they are and who they represent -- God."

Benjamin, the youngest cast member, says she loves to party and have fun. "But I want to show myself and others that you can have pure fun. Not to do anything to excess -- I must know my limits. I want to honor God by using opportunities." She calls to mind a verse from scripture: "To whom much is given, much is required."

Garel says she reminds herself that she isn't in the business to glorify herself. "God knows my heart and I know that I'm on the right path, so I'm safe. I want to be right with God first and foremost, and that makes me comfortable with what I'm doing."

For these five members of Rent, being openly Christian could mean the only hope some people in the theatre business have to come to know Christ.