5 Questions with Vanessa Clay

There is much to celebrate with the current production of “Rent” being presented by Capital District Arts Initiative at Lark Hall, which has five more shows this weekend at Lark Hall. The first is the production itself produced by CDAI, a group new to me, in an immersive staging directed by Francesco C. Archina at Lark Hall, where I’m not aware that they have hosted theater productions before. AND they sold out all five performances of their opening weekend, so act fast to catch this entirely new take on the classic rock musical by a new group in a new space. To learn more, I asked five questions of Vanessa Clay, a member of the ensemble who also alternates as Mimi.

Vanessa Clay

PW: Your opening weekend is nearly sold out. You’ve spoken to Nippertown’s owners Jim & Laura, and reached out to me. What else have you and CDAI done to promote the show?

VC: It honestly seemed too easy to promote this production, as I know many folks in the area have a close bond with the music or the movie. It’s the nostalgia of it all that really brings the attention we need. I’ve been using my Instagram following to my advantage and post about it a couple of times a week on my Story. It’s helped gain a lot of traction even though my account is private. I already promote the drag events I help coordinate in the Capital Region, and we already know how close Drag and Theatre correlate. (If you know me, you know Albany’s Typhoid Mary and I go hand in hand!) I’ve noticed CDAI will repost any posts the cast members make or just promote it themselves. I’ve also noticed flyers being posted all over local businesses from N Pearl to Central Ave. They each have a QR Code for easy access to the ticket link. We’re all very excited to be a part of something beautiful, and from the way my cast members and I talk about it, it really shows how much we care. We want everyone to see this.

PW: You are in the ensemble and understudying Mimi, playing the part in the two Saturday matinees, how does that work in rehearsal? Do you have Mimi days? How has it been challenging to balance the two very different responsibilities?

VC: I’ll be honest. It was quite a challenging process. In our scheduled rehearsals, it was my responsibility not only to prioritize my ensemble role, but I also had to watch Mahogany Akita learn her role as Mimi without any of my own scheduled rehearsal time. I’m typically a hands-on learner and was able to schedule some rehearsals on our days off. But, at most, I only had about 3-4 rehearsals where I was able to go over blocking/choreography on my own with my director or choreographer(s) present. When it came to my first practice run as Mimi, I was very nervous as I thought I wouldn’t have the blocking down and look like a mess in the space. Luckily, with the confidence I had and with the help of my cast, I got through it with ease. There were moments during certain numbers where a cast member would mumble to me, or nod their head, to indicate where my footing should be or what was going to happen next. It must’ve been written all over my face how confused I was. Since then, this is the most confident I’ve ever felt in any role I’ve played before. I couldn’t be more grateful for all the support and encouragement I’ve received from this team.

PW: What have you learned about yourself from playing Mimi or working in this production?

VC: I’ve learned that, in all my 25 years of being here, I am so hot! I am beautiful and sexy, and powerful. It’s not something I ever thought I’d learn about myself but this has been a goal I’ve been trying to achieve for years; that confidence I’ve yearned for. When I auditioned for this show, I was doing it for me. This was finally my time to sing again after not doing so since November 2019. I wasn’t trying to make friends or connections, as I already knew half the cast, but that has changed completely since the show started coming together. Over the last three years, I’ve realized that I’ve drifted away from wanting to pursue theater or continue working with community theater organizations, not because of anything in particular but just because I lost interest. That interest hasn’t come back, but my passion for singing definitely has. 

PW: What is a play or musical that has changed your life and how?

VC: Without a doubt, it’s this one. I have loved Rent since I was a child. I have a vivid memory from when I saw the movie for the first time, and I instantly fell in love with the music and story. When auditions were announced I just knew I had to get involved in some way. I was very hesitant in the beginning and had backed out of my original audition last minute but was able to re-convince myself within that same week. (It was also with the encouragement of some friends and my fantastic director, Francesco Archina) I would’ve missed out on a huge opportunity and I’m so glad I made the right choice. Rent has given me the confidence I’ve always needed. This has helped me process a breakup and how I can be better and more present in my current relationships, platonic or romantic. This has made me cherish the music and the emotions behind it, more than I ever have before. Rent has helped me love myself more. 

PW: What was the Rent experience like for you, and what’s the most significant memory you’ll take away from this?

VC: Personally, it was a scary rehearsal process. I thought I was never going to be able to balance both roles while handling my day job, side job and friendships. I was also navigating a big change in my life at the start of the new year and the emotions that came with it. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to place myself in the mindset I needed to be in to fulfill these roles. I felt a lot of pressure all at once and thought about giving up many times. I am so proud of myself for not doing that. It really shows the growth I’ve made in such a short amount of time.

“Rent,” presented by Capital District Arts Initiative, runs through this weekend, last performance Sunday, 6/25 at Lark Hall. Tickets: www.capitaldistrictartsinitiative.com

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