Making the Rent
Trey Ellet knows how to make RENT in New York City
The Big Apple, is the city that stops for no one. It's the best place to live when you are on top, and the hardest place to survive when you're not. Ask Trey Ellett ('92). He knows as much about making rent in New York City as anyone. And not just the kind you pay the landlord, although Ellett has struggled with that too. Ellett is working on a different RENT, the one that opens every night under the bright lights of Broadway. And he couldn't be more excited to put in his two cents.
Before he opened on Broadway, Ellett took the lead role of Mark in the national touring company of the musical. He was so nervous, he refused to let even his family come to opening night in Detroit. Instead fellow JMU theater major Lisa Chapman ('92) heard about the performance and sneaked in to watch.
"When we were in college I told him I'd be there on his opening night because I knew he'd be there one day," Chapman says. "I was so excited when he told me he was in RENT, and I just knew I had to go."
"She drove eight hours to see my performance and gave me the most beautiful roses I had ever seen," Ellett says. "The card said she was there, and I was just completely shocked. It was a great opening."
Mark, Ellett's character, is a filmmaker trying to make ends meet and struggling to find his own voice. Mark's roommate has been diagnosed with HIV, his ex-girlfriend is now a lesbian and his friends include a drug user and a cross-dresser. Although the musical contains serious issues, Ellett insists that RENT is more about a group of friends that have become family, a situation not too far from his own experience.
In May Ellett reprised his role in the New York show on the Great White Way.
It wasn't always bright lights and roses, however, for this now-Broadway star. Ellett made his acting debut as John Darling in a production of Peter Pan while still in junior high in Roanoke, Va.
"I was definitely impressed, even as the nasty older sister," his only sibling Caroline says.
Even then, he knew where he was headed. "I was this 13-year-old kid in a huge dressing room with all these people from New York, and I decided that's what I wanted to do," Ellett says.
He continued to act throughout his high school career then decided to head to James Madison because of its "full, well-rounded education."
"I had gone to see JMU and liked it," he remembers. "I auditioned for the department and got a good feeling."
Once in Harrisonburg, Ellett became a JMU cheerleader and took his time before entering the spotlight again. In his sophomore year, he joined Cillia, a JMU improvisational comedy troupe, beating out dozens of others for a coveted spot. Ellett also took to the mainstage at JMU, performing in the campy musical Little Mary Sunshine. That is where he met his future mentor, assistant professor and choreographer William Feigh.
"I was impressed by his talent, he moved beautifully and had a nice voice," Feigh says.
The two worked together during the summers in Harrisonburg dinner theater, where Feigh also directed.
While performing in the experimental theater at JMU, Ellett decided to study abroad in London in the spring of 1991. There he delved into British theater and, even though he never performed that semester, Ellett insists that watching classical theater in its purest form was a life-changing experience.
After graduating, Ellett stayed in the Harrisonburg area and began working with Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, where he toured and gained valuable experience working on a variety of plays and dealing with different audiences day after day.
"We really believed in the work, and it was fun to see how we were touching people. ... It was just an incredibly creative environment."
After touring, Ellett thought he was ready to make the move to New York City. At the age of 23, he was waiting tables, trying to make ends meet in an unforgiving environment. His ascent to Broadway was long and tedious, with years of auditions that came to naught.
There were times when Ellett thought he might have to pack it in and give up. Luckily, he relied on support of friends and his belief that he would eventually make it.
"I would meet with William, poor, depressed, and we would talk and he'd pick me up and send me back out there," Ellett says.
Feigh says he just told Ellett what he saw. "I just mirrored what I saw in him. I told him I saw a man who had talent and I think I was so certain and so positive about his future, that he had to believe what I said."
Finally, Ellett took hold of his career and landed an audition for RENT, but only after some creative auditioning. Instead of waiting in line with the 700 other aspiring actors and actresses, Ellett made a recording of himself singing songs from the musical. He walked into the production office and waited while they listened. His craftiness paid off and he began the arduous process of auditioning over and over again.
While he waited to hear news, Ellett and eight of his friends pooled their
resources to create Eight Productions, and invited everyone they knew in the theater industry to a night of performances. All eight members of the group received work from people attending that night, and have been so busy Eight Productions has not put on a show since.
Once Ellett began touring with RENT, he started to meet a huge number of the musical's fans, called Rentheads. Many of them have seen dozens of performances and are devoted to the play's message, which is one of hope.
One of those fans was San Francisco high-schooler Sharon Hing who joined Ellett in an organization known as PAX, a group working to end gun violence.
"I always said the only reason to be famous is to be useful and my goal was to do something positive," Ellett says. "I thought this was a good way to get kids involved."
Hing immediately took up the cause, starting a PAX club at school that wrote letters to Congress and organized benefits.
"Trey is an amazingly gifted person who just so happens to also be one of the most down-to-earth, kind and compassionate people I have ever met. He is the perfect example of 'I can change the world in anything I end up doing'," Hing says.
"You can't be afraid to completely be yourself because that is the only thing you really have," Ellett says.
People close to him think he has much more, though.
Feigh says, "Trey brings incredible honesty to everything he does, and it's really striking to witness."
His sister agrees wholeheartedly, and adds "what you see is what you get" with Trey.
From here, Ellett isn't sure of his future but would like to branch out into television or film.
One thing is for certain -- no matter what happens to Ellett, he knows for sure what it takes to make the rent.
Story by Rachel Woodall ('98)