Reneé Rapp, actress and singer
A lot has changed in the year without theater, and reopenings should reflect the reckoning many Americans have had with issues such as race and diversity, Reneé Rapp said.
Elizabeth Viggiano for Insider
By Anna Medaris Miller
When Broadway went dark in March 2020, Reneé Rapp, the star of Tina Fey’s acclaimed musical “Mean Girls,” lightened up.
“I remember for the first time, my shoulders were not painfully so tight, and I didn’t have a headache for three days,” said Rapp, who used to get stress headaches daily.
Rapp, who turned 21 in January, had never had the sort of pauses built into a typical young adult’s life trajectory.
Broadway snatched up the vocal sensation soon after high school, where she earned the Best Actress award at the Jimmys, the highest acclaim for high-school musical theater across the US.
So when her run as Regina George, the top “plastic” in “Mean Girls,” abruptly ended just five months in, she said she felt “a strange sense of relief.”
“It was the first time I had been forced not to do anything,” Rapp said. “Mentally, it’s changed the person I am. It’s also made me rethink my career and my values in my career.”
The day after her show, like all others, closed, Rapp hit the road, eventually landing in her hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina, where she stayed for most of 2020.
She didn’t sit still for long. She began teaching musical theater to aspiring performers, who were often her age, on Zoom.
“It was really cool and really stressful,” Rapp said, because she felt like a “100% unqualified teacher.” She spent lots of time on Zoom, relishing the rare opportunity to connect with people whom she’d never met in her life and talk about why they love the art form.
Soon, Rapp’s routine was upended again. After a series of auditions over the summer, Rapp was cast in Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s upcoming
series, “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” She moved to LA in December for her TV debut.
Mentally, it’s changed the person I am. It’s also made me rethink my career and my values in my career.
“Every day I walk into work, I have mad imposter syndrome, like I’m waiting for somebody to kick me out,” Rapp said.
But the learning experience drives her. She said she’s “becoming very obsessive” over how TV production works. She’s also driven by the topic the show is destigmatizing. “This is a slap in the face as a title,” she said, “and that’s something I want to be a part of.”
A lot has changed in the year without theater, and reopenings should reflect the reckoning many Americans have had with issues such as race and diversity, Rapp said.
“Broadway and theater at large has a whole lot of work to do,” Rapp said, referring specifically to “the safety of BIPOC actors, of marginalized actors, of trans actors, of disabled actors.”
It’s young people like her who are going to be driving that work.
“We are going to be the people who will sit at the tables and say, ‘No, actually, that’s not OK. This person needs to be in for this role. This person is not feeling seen. Here’s how we do that. Here’s where the accountability comes in,'” she said.
She sees herself producing one day, whether it’s music or screenplays or theatrical works.
“It makes such a huge difference when young people invest in artists and not institutions,” Rapp said, adding that it’s important to support art that is going to uplift others and “shake s— up.”
That mindset — that individual artists and their stories are to be valued and celebrated — is a reversal from the way Rapp grew up. “You grow up in theater with people telling you that you’re replaceable and you’re just a number,” she said. “And unlearning that and divesting from that is extremely challenging, but so worthwhile.”
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