“I am Tom.”
Those words of introduction come from Durham native Aaron Harrington, who plays Tom Collins in the 20th anniversary tour of the Tony-Award and Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway musical “Rent,” which runs through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
A re-imagining of Puccini’s La Bohème, “Rent” follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village, amid the shadows of AIDS. The musical celebrates joy and optimism in the face of fear, reminding us to measure our lives with the only thing that truly matters: love.
Harrington, a 2010 graduate of Cary Academy, earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Shaw University before changing his career goal from advertising to acting. During his senior year, he was introduced to North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre. He became a cast member of founder and executive director David Wood III’s “A Christmas Carol” in the 2014-15 season.
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“Aaron was spectacular,” Wood said. “We knew when we worked with him and saw him on stage he was going to have an incredible career in this business.”
Despite being cast in a national tour, Harrington finds officially defining himself as an actor new.
“I don’t know what makes a good actor, but I do know that the people who came before me make me work harder to stay at a high standard and staying true to myself pushes me to be a better actor,” Harrington said.
Tom Collins believes in taking risks. He has AIDS, teaches at New York University, and longs to open a restaurant in Santa Fe with his love interest Angel, a drag queen he meets after getting beaten up on the streets.
For Harrington, Tom symbolizes that nobody is perfect.
“We all go through situations that make us lose faith in humanity – just look at the news today – but our job as humans is to take the most out of life we can get because it’s how we maneuver around those situations that create our character,” Harrington said.
Performing in the national run of a musical is demanding. Harrington credits his drive for singing to vocal instructor Lonieta Cornwall, assistant professor of music director of choral studies at Shaw.
“Everybody has talent, but you have to work hard, and I could depend on Aaron to do hard work because that is what I required of him,” Cornwall said. “He’s been there before.”
We all go through situations that make us lose faith in humanity ... but our job as humans is to take the most out of life we can get.
His character is intense, and Harrington meditates before each show. As call time nears, he begins the transformation process.
“The last thing I do is always put on my glasses,” he said. “They have a yellow tint, and ... with those glasses on I see a different perspective – the perspective of Tom. I’m no longer Aaron; I’m in his shoes in NYC.”
After losing his father, Gary, to heart disease in 2014, Harrington personally connects to the scene, “St. Mark’s Day on Christmas Eve,” when Tom gives the eulogy at Angel’s funeral.
“I literally have to put myself back at my father’s funeral,” Harrington explained. “How would I respond or react or deliver an uncomfortable message to people I know or don’t know or who criticize my lifestyle.”
Harrington dedicates his performances to his father, who never saw him perform onstage. In the end, he says, his performance in “Rent” is simple: “I am Tom, and I am in his shoes in New York City.”