Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Penn State graduate Christian Thompson co-stars in national tour of RENT

By Anna James

While a student at Penn State, Christian Thompson unknowingly began training for his current touring Broadway gig when School of Theatre Musical Director Beth Burrier taught him the vocal line for Benjamin Coffin III from the Tony Award-winning musical RENT.

“I looked at Christian after class one day and said, ‘You are the Benny-est Benny that ever was. I should teach you the track,’” Burrier recalls. “So we got together, and I taught him Benny in RENT. … And here he is, doing Benny on the national tour.”

The 2015 graduate will return to Nittany Valley as a part of the twentieth-anniversary tour of RENT on stage April 6 at Eisenhower Auditorium.

Thompson plays the role of the landlord—and former roommate—of the main characters who threatens to kick them out of their apartment if they don’t pay their long-overdue rent. He also understudies the role of Roger Davis, an ex-junkie and HIV-positive musician who struggles to find the right notes for his next song.

While embodying two characters could be daunting, Thompson finds that balancing the roles comes naturally for him.

“I think both Benny and Roger live in me in a very special and unique way,” he says. “I had the great fortune of having the training from Penn State to be prepared to do something like this, and to have two major roles in my head at one time and not be overwhelmed.”

Thompson credits much of his success to his alma mater. Penn State’s Musical Theatre program is known for providing a superb education of the core fundamentals such as acting, singing, and dancing. But Thompson attributes his greatest lessons to the “little things” he learned throughout his four years.

“How to be collaborative with people, how to talk to your cast mates, how to respect everyone’s process,” he says, “those are the things that are so vital, and those are what make or break a tour. They are all things I started to claim at Penn State.”

Although Thompson was only a toddler when RENT made its Broadway debut in 1996, he says the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical remains a powerful and iconic show.

“The beautiful thing about RENT is it centers around a lot of universal themes of love, of inclusion, and of community and finding your community,” he says. “I think those types of things are so timeless that it really doesn’t lose much steam.”

Thompson is thrilled for the opportunity to see the country while touring with RENT, he says, and has learned a lot along the way. His biggest tip for surviving the tour lifestyle? “A sleeping bag makes a great pillow on a tour bus,” he jokes.

Thompson has another piece of advice for those who hope to pursue a career in theatre. “Just keep going with everything you have,” he says. “A playwright, Dominique Morisseau, said [to me], ‘If you serve the art, the art will serve you,’ and I think that is the most true statement I have ever heard.”

Anna James, a Penn State junior majoring in advertising and public relations, is a Center for the Performing Arts marketing and communications intern.