Eleven-year-old Jonny Perl crept into his parents’ room on a mission to sneak out and watch the movie “Rent,” something that he was forbidden to view as a child. Ever since, the play has shaped Perl’s outlook on the world, he said.
Now a third-year communication studies student, Perl said the first time he saw the film, he was exposed to social issues he was never aware of before through drag, gay, lesbian and HIV-positive characters.
“It was like stealing my parents’ porn,” Perl said. “It was very inspirational to me not only because of the music but how it opened my eyes to a lot of the world.”
Perl is now producer, co-director and lead actor for a production of “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” an autobiography of “Rent” composer and playwright Jonathan Larson. The 11 students putting on the show make up Positivity Productions, a collection of HOOLIGAN Theatre Company members who wish to leave an optimistic impact on UCLA’s campus community.
The actors created the theater group this year to focus on addressing social issues and starting conversations about difficult topics, Perl said. The musical will be shown Tuesday and Wednesday, and it aims to bring up topics of mental, sexual and emotional health.
The musical focuses on main character Larson’s struggle with the pressure to succeed as he approaches his 30th birthday and does not feel that he has accomplished anything of significance in his life, attributing his struggles to mental health, specifically his anxiety.
Second-year world arts and cultures student Oscar Tsukayama, co-director and choreographer of the production, said a large portion of the plot surrounds Larson trying to keep his composure and interact with others throughout his anxiety-induced bouts of stress and worry. The choreographer said he wanted to ensure the mental struggles of Larson were portrayed accurately through Perl’s posture and movement.
Perl said the main reason the group was formed was to put on this show in honor of Larson, whose work has had a lasting impact on the lives of the cast and crew. They were involved in HOOLIGAN’s latest production of “Rent,” and he and Tsukayama said the music was an integral part of their theater careers.
“Tick, Tick … Boom!” frequently brings up issues of sexuality and sexual health through the lives of Larson and his friends. Positivity Productions’ members wanted to ensure the topics remained a prominent theme throughout their own version of the show, Perl said.
Tsukayama said his experiences learning about social movements such as Act Up and Ignorance = Fear influenced his decision to be involved in the play and use it to make a statement about injustice and social stigmas surrounding sexuality and health.
Perl said Positivity Productions will create an additional outlet for student expression and enable individual actors and directors to put on shows they believe will cause thought and discussion about marginalized groups, social stigmas and issues that members feel do not get enough attention.
“We are a little less focused on the entertainment value and a little more focused on, ‘What are we saying,’” he said.
The company is bringing important social issues to light through its social media presence, said stage manager and second-year English student Kristine Ngo.
When cast members were announced online, they discussed a social issue they felt passionately about and then included their answers in social media captions. Topics discussed by cast members included protecting endangered species like pandas and leopards, increasing accessibility to higher education for low-income groups and attaining equal rights for the LGBTQ community.
The ability to put on shows pertaining to these causes depends on the willingness and drive of people behind the production and the pertinence of the issue, Perl said.
The social pressure to fit a predetermined mold and achieve success in college is strong, Perl said. Students are expected to become doctors or lawyers. “Tick, Tick … Boom!” addresses the pressure to succeed, Perl said, and he hopes it will have an impact on the students that come see the show.
“If one person comes to this show that doesn’t really want to major in chemical engineering, and she sees the show and says, ‘Hey maybe I don’t have to be a chemical engineer. I can pursue my passion of journalism,’ then it will have been worth it,” he said.