ITHACA, N.Y. — Following the casting controversy for Ithaca High School’s 2018 spring musical, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the district implemented changes to make this spring’s production of “Rent: School Edition” — which is being presented this weekend — more inclusive and diverse.

Last year, several students raised concerns about the casting of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” saying the main role was whitewashed and that the department had a history of doing so. Students petitioned to cancel the play, and the administration agreed and approved a new spring musical, “Hairspray.” Since the casting controversy, Daphne Shululu, ICSD’s new director of fine and performing arts, has implemented several new theater procedures to eliminate barriers to student participation.

“That looks like a number of different things, from a commitment to conscious casting and giving students more voice and choice, to working with the fine and performing arts faculty,” Shululu said. “This helps students as emerging artists move into pre-professional artists, as well as growing students into their creativity as opposed to growing them out of it.”

Related: Ithaca High School cancels spring play in wake of student diversity demands

Shululu said to encourage more students, particularly those belonging to marginalized communities, to participate in productions, the district should take a color-conscious casting approach. While critics say considering a performer’s race or ethnicity when casting is a racist practice, Shululu argued that it opposes racism by honoring different cultures, races, and identities that are traditionally underrepresented in American theater.   

This year, Shululu gave students the option of voting between two musicals that she said could be color-consciously casted and directed: Jonathan Larson’s ‘Rent’ or Howard Ashman’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” In a poll of approximately 500 students, “Rent” won by a margin of 10 votes.

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“Rent,” which made its Broadway debut in 1994, takes place in New York City and follows a group of friends who struggle with their careers and love lives during the AIDS epidemic. The show has been acclaimed for its diverse cast, including queer characters and a cast featuring black and Hispanic leads.

“‘Rent’ acted as a door opener to Broadway for actors of color, the LGBTQ+ community and a younger generation of theater artists and audiences,” Shululu said of the show choice.

She took steps to ensure auditions and casting for the show were inclusive. In previous years, students interested in the musical auditioned in front of the director, whereas for “Rent,” students auditioned in front of a committee made up of the musical production team and school faculty members. Shululu said the committee looked at every student who auditioned to discuss who would be most appropriate for each role. Every student was guaranteed a part in the show if they chose to accept it.  

While the casting committee had the final say on the cast list, Shululu said students were asked to turn in a form asking how they identified, such as what their ethnicity and preferred pronouns are, and what characters they would and would not want to be considered for.

“‘Rent’ is tricky because not everyone will feel comfortable playing characters in same-sex relationships and there’s also a character that dresses in drag, so we wanted to know how students felt about that,” Shululu explained.

Students were also invited to audition in groups, by performing a song with an ensemble rather than preparing a portion of a song to sing solo. 

Nathan Norcross, the director of “Rent,” said this change to auditions was meant to encourage students who wouldn’t normally audition to join the cast.

“It was a unique and not a traditional or necessarily professional audition experience, but I think for this moment in this department and the community, as we strove for inclusivity and support of an entire student body that maybe wanted to participate, it really felt like the right thing to do,” Norcross said.

Related: Ithaca teens receive death threats, harassment after ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ play cancellation

Members of the “Rent” cast agreed that having more student input in the theater department is beneficial for students involved as well as for the overall success of the production.  

“It’s nice to have student input because we know who we have here and what us as students are capable of, and also knowing the kind of stuff that will sell and we like to see. As much as some directors might like the show ‘Oklahoma,’ that’s not something that would sell in Ithaca, New York with a bunch of high schoolers,” said Emma Ellis, who plays Paula in “Rent.”

Cast members Prachi Ruina and Ari Cummings, two students who spoke out against the lack of diversity in last year’s “Hunchback” cast, agreed the district’s changes are a starting point for the inclusive theater environment they hoped for.  

“I think there’s definitely more work to be done, but that just comes with time. I think that it’s definitely off to a great start and I think it will lead to a program that is as close to perfect as we can get,” Cummings said.

Ruina likewise supports this year’s changes but said the district should focus more on recruiting students of color for musicals, so color-conscious casting will be possible.

“It’s a little hard for this show because one of the roles in the movies and on Broadway is usually played by an African American male, and for this show it’s not. It’s mostly that no males tried out for it who were of color, so I think they should have done a better job trying to recruit … because again it is that representation that really matters,” Ruina said.   

Lorraine Tino, a theater arts educator at IHS, said the theater program will be even more student-led in future years, including having a committee of students select what productions are voted on. She and Shululu are advising IHS’s new student show-selection committee, made up of five students from different grades, which is currently choosing two musicals for students to vote on next school year.

Tino said she believes there is a perception among IHS students that the theater program is exclusive to white students, which is why this year’s student committee is focused on selecting two shows that highlight the experiences of marginalized people.

“Telling the stories of everyone, including marginalized people, will always be a really important goal … it’s just that at a certain point we won’t have to be quite as intentional when hopefully the day arrives when everyone knows the theater program is for everyone and people will come and audition for a play. It’s ‘ethnic neutral,’ where they’ll realize that if we do ‘The Music Man,’ even if you’re not a white guy you could have the lead. But that may not happen for a few years until people really believe that that’s true,” she said.

Outside of musicals, Shululu said the district is finding other opportunities for students to access the performing arts without requiring them to sign up or take a course. Shululu said these efforts have included inviting local Ghana musician Nana Amin to teach students across the district about West African percussion and rhythms during their lunch periods, as well as collaborating with Dr. Baruch Whitehead, an associate professor of music education at Ithaca College, to teach 5th grade students a piece he wrote that examines how American music and art intersect with that of other countries.

The Ithaca High School Drama Club’s edition of “Rent” will take place April 12 – 14 in the Kulp Auditorium. Shows will be presented at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For more information and tickets, visit the IHS website here.

Featured image by J.T. Stone/The Ithaca Voice

J.T. Stone is a contributor for The Ithaca Voice and a 2020 graduate of Ithaca High School. Questions? Story tips? Email him at