New Theater chair seeks roots of RENT

Scott Irelan, new theater chair at Youngstown State University.

Scott Irelan

When Frank Castronovo retired this past summer after 41 years of service in the Department of Theater and Dance, he left his successor some big shoes to fill.

Scott Irelan believes he is equal to the task.

Now in his third month as the new department chair, Irelan has inherited what may be one of the most challenging undertakings by the YSU theater and dance department to date, the production of RENT.

RENT presents an interesting challenge,” said Irelan, who is directing the production that runs Nov. 8 to 12 and 15 to 17 in Bliss Hall’s Ford Theater. “The piece is a reaction to a cultural moment. We want to, as much as possible, avoid anything from the movie or the Broadway version. We want to get back to what it was when it first came out as the New York Theatre Workshop production in 1996.”

A native of Northwest Ohio, Irelan earned a bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green State University, then spent two years touring as a professional actor before returning to BGSU to earn his master’s. He received a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and taught at Illinois State University in Bloomington/Normal, and most recently, Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.

He said he chose Youngstown for its unique local flavor and for the challenge of contributing to a growing university with a well-established theater and dance program.

RENT, an off-Broadway rock-musical production by the late Jonathan Larson, chronicles a struggling group of impoverished musicians and artists residing in New York’s Greenwich Village during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. The musical won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award for Best Broadway Musical in 1996 and was adapted to film in 2005.

“We are focusing both on strong voices and a solid band,” Irelan said. “The scenery and lighting are going to be similar to that of a rock and roll concert. We want to acknowledge the history that has developed around RENT, but not reproduce the movie or Broadway version.”

Irelan said that next season will mark the department’s 50th year, and will include some “different” offerings and a concentration on the family and children’s theater program, Penguin Playhouse, instituted by Castronovo and Brian DePoy, dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts. Irelan noted the program, now in its second year, is an important part of the University’s 2020 Strategic Plan as part of the department’s community outreach effort.

Planned coursework in family and children’s theater will be offered in the spring, giving students exposure to the variety of theater they will experience by taking their shows into the community—termed “trunk shows”—where all props and costumes are stored in a single trunk and transported to the venue.

“They’ll still be trunk shows, but may be bigger trunks,” laughed Irelan. “It’s going to be an exciting year. We have some good ideas, and if we can get the structure in place, we can re-envision who we are both on campus and in the community.”