Not a low ‘Rent’ district at High Tech Broadway star pays visit to theater students at North Bergen school

It’s not every day that local high school students get a chance to meet and spend quality time with a Broadway star.

So when High Tech High School theater director Alex Perez found out his students could meet one of the members of the famed Tony Award-winning play “Rent” last week, he jumped at it.

“I made a few phone calls to friends, and they hooked me up,” said Perez, a native of Union City who was a professional actor before taking over the theater program at High Tech seven years ago. “I used my professional contacts.”

Perez took a handful of his students to meet Colin Hanlon, who until recently played “Gordon” in the Broadway show. Hanlon has since left “Rent” to take a starring role in the Off-Broadway production of “I Love You Because.”

Even though Hanlon had to do a performance that evening, he took the time to meet with the High Tech students for about two hours, first leading an acting seminar, then conducting a question-and-answer session.

Then, the High Tech students were treated to an actual performance of “Rent,” courtesy of the seminar.

Free show “The kids had a blast,” Perez said. “Colin was able to give them insight about professional acting, and the students were able to tap into what it’s like out there, auditioning, trying to find work. I think he was able to bring some reality to them. Usually, they never get a chance to see the reality. They all want to be stars. But this was also a chance to see how many jobs there are in the Broadway industry, not just acting.”

The students were first able to participate in an acting workshop, with Hanlon overseeing the exercise.

Gia Zampella and Monica Saenz were two of the students who participated in the workshop. For Jersey City native Zampella, the day was a special thrill, because “Rent” is one of her favorite Broadway shows.

“I’ve seen the show four times prior to this seminar, and now it’s five times in five years,” Zampella said. “I really love the show and know it so well. It was an incredible privilege to meet someone who was part of the show and work with him. When you get to speak to someone else who has made it, who had been in the show for a few years, it’s unbelievable.”

‘I definitely recognized him’ Before leaving the show recently, Hanlon played a variety of roles in “Rent” over the last four years.

“When I heard his name, I wasn’t familiar with it,” Zampella said. “But when I saw him, I definitely recognized him. This is my first year of studying musical theater in school, so this is something I can definitely benefit from in the long run.”

Saenz, a resident of Harrison, was in awe of the entire day.

“It really was amazing,” Saenz said. “It was a great opportunity to have a one-on-one with a Broadway actor. He even made us do some improvisations with him. I really liked the talk-back session, when we were asking him about everything. It was also great to see him perform. I mean, we just had conversations with him and then he was on stage.”

Both Zampella and Saenz hope to continue their performing careers while attending the Mason Gross School of Performing Arts at Rutgers University in the fall. Saenz is more of a dancer, while Zampella is a performer. The two friends will try to attend the school together.

Perez believes that the entire experience was priceless for his students, who traditionally put together some of the best high school musical productions in the state, including their production of “Oz” three years ago that captured the New Jersey Rising Star award as the top musical in the state.

“I think it really helped to open their eyes and minds to the profession,” Perez said. “It definitely made everything more realistic to them, whether they are going on college auditions or other auditions. They could relate more to a professional than a teacher. Colin didn’t have an air about him. He was down to earth and made the kids feel comfortable. It really was a great day.”

Kids nominated for festival The High Tech program also received great news last week, when the Paper Mill Playhouse, which sponsors the Rising Star Awards for high school theatrical presentations, nominated High Tech’s program to represent the United States at the Fringe Festival held in Edinborough, Scotland, for the summer of 2007.

High Tech is one of five schools that have been nominated. Only one will be selected.

“Just getting nominated is insane,” Perez said. “We’ll find out if we’re selected in April. That will be two weeks in Scotland at the largest arts festival in the world. It’s a great honored just to be considered. Representing the United States would be a big thing.”


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