Coast theater alumni return to perform on the stage where they learned their craft

“It’s such a different show that was definitely ahead of its time,” Jacon Matthews said

GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Triple Threat Academy, now synonymous with Wings Performing Arts at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, which has been educating kids in the performing arts for decades, now has an annual fundraiser which aims to bring former students back to the Coast during college breaks or in between professional gigs. The event was designed so that the now “seasoned” performers can showcase not only what they’ve learned since graduating, but to inspire up and coming actors and actresses. However, this year is special for all involved... cause everything is Rent!

The highly-acclaimed and often-produced musical “RENT” is making a return to a South Mississippi stage, but this time on a stage you might not expect. The T.S. Hays Theatre at Lynn Meadows will host the musical inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera “La Boheme.” In a departure from the usual elementary- or middle school-aged performer, this show’s cast is a little different and it’s led by director Cliff Thompson.

“This was an experiment where we train these kids up, we spend almost their whole lives with them and then we ship them off to college, or to work professionally never to be seen again,” Thompson said. “So, I wanted to institute this show in the summers for the kids that are available to come home, to come back, and to provide grittier, harder material for them to do and provide them an opportunity to share what they’ve learned with us.”

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Posted by Wings Performing Arts of the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center on Monday, July 25, 2022

Wings alumni Indya Tanner and Jacob Matthews are in the show. They play Mimi Marquez and Mark Cohen respectively. Despite the show’s bold subject matter, both actors feel that the cast has become family.

“I think it’s because we spend so much time together during rehearsals. It’s such a complex show that we have to put a lot of work into it. Spending a lot of time with each other, you learn to group together and be like family,” Matthews said.

“I also think it has something to do with having to break some boundaries a bit in this show,” Tanner said. “Once so many people start asking you ‘hey, can I slap your butt in this scene,’ everyone becomes pretty tight-knit. Once you have to start kissing multiple people, it just kind of turns into you’re comfortable with everyone.”

Mimi is an erotic dancer with HIV and a drug problem who lives in New York’s East Village in the early 1990s. Despite not having that specific experience, Tanner said relating to the character wasn’t as hard as you might think.

“I did a lot of research into her part and tried to connect with her as who she was,” Tanner said. “I looked into her personality, and she’s one of the most optimistic characters in the whole story. Throughout all the issues, she finds a way to bring everyone together, and she manages to find love even with Roger who rejects her several times.”

With a myriad of character types: a Jewish-American filmmaker, a bisexual, a drag queen, an anarchist with AIDS, a gay man, and a lesbian to name a few, Matthews believes that this nearly 30-year-old story will still resonate with today’s audience.

“It’s such a different show that was definitely ahead of its time,” Matthews said. “It kind of changed the game of what Broadway theater was about. It’s just such a heartfelt story to tell, with so many important characters and topics to talk about. It’s definitely a show that a lot of people can relate to on a personal level.”

Having performed in or directed “RENT” many times over the years, director Cliff Thompson said there is one song that every time he sees it performed, still feels like he’s seeing it for the first time.

“The number in the show that I connect with the most is in the second act. It’s called ‘Without You.’ It’s an interesting song because it sounds like a pretty, poetic piece,” Thompson said. “But to see what’s happening on stage at that time, it’s so much more impactful. You see one of the main characters breathe his last breath. The main romantic couple reunites. That’s a song that no matter what mood I’m in or where I’m at... it just totally gets me.”

This show opens this week at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, and tickets can be found on the museum’s website.

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Chet Landry

Chet Landry

Born and raised in Biloxi, Chet Landry is no stranger to “coast life.” A graduate of The University of Southern Mississippi, by way of Biloxi High School, his roots run deep.