The Trumbull High senior who led the charge to change the school administration’s decision to cancel a spring production of Rent is headed to New York City on Monday to accept accolades from a national theater organization.
Larissa Mark, president of the Trumbull High School Thespian Society, will be honored with the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund’s first-ever “DLDF Defender Award” for organizing both student and community opposition to the play’s cancellation in late November. She will accept the award Monday. Feb. 24, during the annual awards ceremony of the Dramatists Guild of America at the Lambs Club in New York City.
The Rent cancellation controversy started before Thanksgiving, when Principal Marc Guarino told students the play would be put on hold indefinitely, citing controversial and sensitive material in the play as part of the reason for its cancellation.
Mark’s work to reverse that decision gained support of fellow students, parents, town officials, and national organizations. Principal Guarino eventually agreed in mid-December to allow the school edition of the musical to go forward.
“The cancellation inspired a ‘Rentbellion’ amongst the Trumbull student body, expressed within the school’s halls and on social media,” the DLDF said in a release on Mark’s award. “However, the president of the Thespian Society, Larissa Mark, took a different tack. She started petitions, put up a website, spoke to the media, and focused community resistance in a remarkably effective way. The story of Trumbull’s cancellation of Rent eventually attained national press.”
Now, two months later and in the midst of rehearsals for Rent — Mark is both stage manager and assistant director — her tireless work hasn’t been forgotten by the Dramatists Guild.
Mark spoke to The Times this week, recalling why she decided to fight for the production in the first place.
“I was in the room when the principal was telling us we would not be allowed to do this show and seeing the reaction of my fellow thespians — some of them burst into tears, saying how important this play was to them,” Mark said. “I felt like I had to act.”
She spoke at Board of Education meetings, was interviewed by the press, created surveys, and circulated petitions. She also encouraged fellow students to keep a respectful tone throughout.
The national attention, including coverage by The New York Times, was a complete surprise to Mark, but she rolled with it.
The Facebook page she started and managed, “Trumbull for Rent,” gained 2,000 supporters in the first three hours and kept growing.
“We never expected this to be bigger than petitions around the school and a survey in town,” she said. “I had no idea just how close-knit the theater community is.”
From the meetings to talking to the press and moderating social media, it was a difficult task.
“It was kind of hard at times,” she said. “I was still a student and had hours of homework. But when something is important to you, you just keep going. A lot of the other students helped, and I wasn’t in it alone.”
The Dramatists Guild was one of the organizations that stepped in to offer support.
“At the behest of the DLDF, and with the advice of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Guild president Stephen Schwartz wrote directly to Principal Guarino to offer the Guild’s resources to assist in preparing Trumbull for the show’s subject matter with the kind of public discussions and events that the principal had stated were necessary in order to reschedule the show,” according to DLDF.
The guild didn’t hear back from the school leaders, but Mark told the members of DLDF recently that the letter had an impact.
“I would be incredibly remiss not to mention how much the guild’s letter struck Mr. Guarino and aided our cause,” she said. “The day after he received it I had a meeting with him where he mentioned the letter, and how much it affected him. Our entire community is so glad that we will be moving forward with the show, because theater is a place we are allowed to talk about ‘taboo’ topics and express ourselves.”
The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund said the award to Mark honors her contribution to free expression in the dramatic arts.
“When a provocative piece of theater is canceled anywhere, it has a chilling effect on the production of provocative theater pieces everywhere,” DLDF President John Weidman said. “In this instance, it was Larissa Mark’s effort, commitment and leadership that ensured Jonathan Larson’s right to be heard.”
Mark was shocked to learn she will be honored with the “Defender” award. While checking her college emails, she noticed a message about the award.
“I screamed,” she said of the news. “It’s still very surreal.”
Mark will bring her parents and brothers with her to New York City to accept the award on Monday.
“I know that I’m the one accepting the award and I’m very honored,” she said. “But so many people were involved in this. While I may have been a large part, I am so thankful to all the people who helped get our show back.”
Trumbull’s production of Rent takes the stage March 27-30. If ticket sales are any indication, the community anxiously awaits the show.
“We managed to crash the server in the first 24 hours of ticket sales,” Mark said with a laugh.
To learn more about the production, visit thsmusicals.com. For more on the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, visit dldf.org.