It's Sunday evening on Pedestrian Walkway and the normal hubbub of activity has settled into a tranquil lull as students, faculty and crazed preachers alike prepare at home for the week ahead.
All is at peace – until one passes The Lab Theatre, an offshoot venue of Clarence Brown Theatre.
A swarm of students carrying everything from furniture to costumes to cans of spray paint walk rapidly in and out of the theater entrance. Inside, the muffled din of shouted directives and laughter can be heard.
It's the week of UT's student-run production of "RENT," a promotion for Sex Week, and cast and crew are working frantically to transform the Lab's stage into 90s-era New York City by opening night Thursday.
"We always try to do a theater event right before Sex Week because we try to have our education available in lots of different mediums since everyone learns in a different way," said Brianna Rader, senior in College Scholars and co-founder of Sex Week. "'RENT' is perfect because in it you have AIDS – which relates to safe sex, issues of love and relationships, and issues of LGBTQ.
"It's a great show to combine all the issues we will address in Sex Week into one big performance."
After performing a stage reading of "Spring Awakening" last year with great success, Rader and her fellow Sex Week coordinators decided to do a full production of "RENT" this year complete with all of the play's original musical numbers.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, said Kolt Free, junior in college scholars and "RENT" production head.
"We had 50 people or so audition, which is a pretty big number for a cast of only 15," Free said. "We were really blown away, like there wasn't anyone that we felt we couldn't cast after their audition. It was amazing."
These numbers combined with the sold-out status of the show's tickets harken to the enduring popularity of the rock musical, which originally hit Off-Broadway in 1994.
Despite the many 90s-specific references in the play, Free said he believes "RENT" is still loved today for its timeless encapsulation of youth.
"It's about all these young people coming together, fighting for a cause a lot of the time and dealing with things like AIDS and support group," he said. "You have this beautiful character, Angel, who develops, and then you lose him in the process of the show, so I think the whole show is about love and loss and things we care about still today."
Albeit some 20 years later, "RENT" contains themes and ideas that are still fresh and relevant to the way sexuality is perceived modern day, Free said.
"I think that continuing to do productions like this and making it clear that AIDS is still an issue, and that sex health and being sex positive is still so important, is why we need shows like this," he said.
Demetrius Seay, senior in theater and one of the 15 cast members, said he believes his character, Angel, is especially useful in demonstrating these themes.
"I believe that Angel's message is to remember that we are all human beings, despite our differences," Seay said. "We're here to take care of the earth and each other, not to do good deeds because we feel like we have to but because we want to."
Seay, who drew inspiration for his cross-dressing character by studying videos of Beyoncé and asking local drag queens for tips, said watching "RENT" and seeing Angel's deep empathy for the other characters caused him to reevaluate his priorities.
"After watching Angel in the movie, I was like, 'I need to do something to touch other people,' because if we're not, then what's the purpose?" he said. "I feel like you're wasting your time if you're not touching someone else's life because that's what humanity is here for."
Melissa David, a first-year MFA in theater, said she hopes that through her character, Maureen, she will be able to touch the lives of the audience and possibly change some attitudes about "normalcy."
"I'm from California, and the culture here is so different from my home that 'RENT' still has a different resonation than it would in San Francisco," David said while taping Freddie Mercury's name to an AIDS victim awareness banner to be used during the show. "Here, it still maintains a kind of taboo allure, which is why I think that doing 'RENT' here actually can change some mindsets and ideas and just make people more aware."
Free said he is proud of the measures the cast has taken to ensure they will do justice to the some of the sensitive issues experienced by their characters.
"We've hit those issues straight on, and we haven't tried to skirt around anything that's a touchy subject," he said. "We're talking about them as cast, not just dealing with it on stage but really trying to understand the issues. I keep saying we – it almost feels like all of us are involved in the actual performing of the show with them because it's become such a communal, family experience."
It is this feeling of closeness that has allowed the "RENT" cast to jovially persevere despite some unideal production factors, such as a lack of rehearsal space (the group has taken to practicing group musical numbers in HSS).
Faculty mentorship and community generosity, including costume donations made by the Oak Ridge Playhouse, have contributed to the group's mutual determination to put on a high caliber show, all while having some fun along the way.
"Everyone's so kind and generous to each other, and we've really brought this to the next level," David said. "This is not just a little, thrown-together production of 'RENT.' It's balls to the wall because we're all in it 100 percent. There's no animosity or anger; we love and cry with each other, and it's unusual to have an ensemble like that.
"It's very rare to find that kind of family connection."