ACTOR HARRISON CHAD TALKS WITH A&U’S CHAEL NEEDLE ABOUT RAISING AIDS AWARENESS IN HIS HOMETOWN & THEATER COMMUNITIES.
Harrison Chad recently played Roger in his high school production of RENT. (Yes, with some omissions and tweaks, this edition of the Tony-winning musical now joins Seussical and Jekyll & Hyde in the drama club canon.) Even though RENT’s twelve-year run on Broadway is over, it’s nice to know that a story that explores the urban poetics of survival in the first wave of the pandemic is enjoying more seasons of love, with younger audiences and younger performers—different voices—tackling important issues in a way that makes sense to their lives. Curious about the response that his school’s production received, I ask Chad about his take on how it played. He hesitates, but only to reflect more deeply about the musical’s effect. “You know what? This is the perfect thing,” he says about the musical as a vehicle of AIDS awareness. “RENT got a great response from everybody. It was enjoyed; it was understood. We performed it at the elementary school and middle school—we went on a certain day and performed little segments from the show. It drew a great response and it did help awareness, but I think we could do even more. RENT was a good stepping stone but we need concrete seminars, like what Windows of Opportunity does.”
He is talking about the Queens-based youth nonprofit that champions peer education on a number of issues, including eating disorders, career and college advisement, and HIV/AIDS, among others. Peer education, in turn, becomes a vehicle of empowerment for the teens—those teaching, those learning—in the process of taking charge of their lives. Students involved in Windows of Opportunity (WOO) travel to area schools to hold peer-led workshops. Of all the programs under WOO’s umbrella, perhaps closest to Chad’s heart is Shortstack. Started as a modeling program for teen girls who do not fit industry height standards, Shortstack believes in helping girls empower themselves and their communities. For the past three years, Chad has spoken at each of Shortstack’s annual charity fashion shows. Over the years, the event has “skyrocketed,” he says, excited about the most recent one at the Midtown Loft & Terrace in Manhattan, where a generous catwalk allowed the models to take even longer strides for AIDS awareness, one of Shortstack’s priorities. A little over three years ago, Chad was introduced to the creator of Shortstack, Olivia Mignone [A&U, June 2008], who also serves as program director along with Tanya Rios. “She asked me if I would be willing to come and speak at their fashion show.…I thought it was a great organization they were starting. I was interested in helping out, to make it the best event it could possibly be.” Shares Mignone: “Finding Harrison three years ago, or, should I say, Harrison finding us, was really a miracle. What I mean by that is here I was trying to do something really powerful in making a stance against society, and simultaneously wondering if anyone would listen to a teenager. When we initially spoke to Harrison, and learned about all his accomplishments at his age, he stood as additional proof to me that youth can be successful. I was honored to have him be a part of Shortstack and support our HIV awareness efforts. The first year of our fashion show at Adelphi, there were many behind the scene things that were going wrong that no one knew about, and one of the things that calmed me down was watching Harrison take the stage to speak about the power of youth, the difference we were making, and the message we were sending. Listening to his words was one of the more powerful moments that has impacted my past four years doing HIV work. Listening to him made me realize that what we were doing was important, was very real, and we would be noticed!”
WOO’s peer-led HIV/AIDS workshops are a much-needed addition to high school curricula, which often fail to help students connect potentially life changing information to their life practices. Chad thinks there is access to AIDS awareness in secondary schools, but only limited access. “Windows of Opportunity is great because it makes AIDS awareness a focus. It makes [AIDS awareness] a priority and sets a standard that this is important and everyone needs to learn this. Schools do this, but it’s not a focus. “Also, the kids, when they’re working with Windows of Opportunity, they are involved. The kids are allowed to talk, and everyone is very connected—whereas in school when you learn about [AIDS] it’s more of one person just talking about it. There aren’t really the conversations, where you understand—or questions. Windows of Opportunity allows them to fully understand what we need to do in order to prevent [HIV].”
Chad believes his peers are receptive to AIDS awareness messages. “I’ve been talking to Hal [Eisenberg, WOO’s founder] and I really want to get my school involved with Windows of Opportunity. People are open to it, and people want to learn more,” but they need information and people to deliver it, he says with an earnest passion to represent his fellow peers. “Hal wants to come to our school and do these seminars for Windows of Opportunity. I think it’s a great idea. And kids definitely will come to the meetings and be involved. It’s just a great overall experience.”
Chad knows well how to gauge an audience. On Broadway, he has played Gavroche in Les Mis, Chip in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and Noah Gellman in the award-winning musical Caroline, or Change, for which he performed the entire run from its workshop days through its transfer to Broadway. Chad also played opposite Christine Baranski in Mame in a Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts limited-run production a few years back in Washington, D.C. He voiced Boots the monkey on the animated favorite, Dora the Explorer. His film and television work includes the sequels to Charlotte’s Web and Tarzan (well, Tarzan II is a prequel and Chad plays the vine-swinger as a young guy) as well as non-animated features such as The Hebrew Hammer and Carry Me Home. “Did you see Caroline, or Change?” he asks, wanting to know if I know the back story. When I answer that I’ve only listened to the score, he chuckles an aside: “My voice is different now!” He gives me a primer about the musical: Tony Kushner, who penned the book and lyrics, wrote a semi-autobiographical but highly fictionalized account of a relationship between a young, Jewish boy growing up in the South and the black maid who works for his family during the American civil rights movement around the time of JFK’s assassination. Caroline, he relates, is resistant to change, but in the end she does engage with the sense of liberation sweeping the nation.
He’s intensely interested in the political dynamics. He has an impressive résumé for his seventeen years, and he has been concerned about the AIDS pandemic since his last flight to Neverland. “For me, with this AIDS pandemic, I was introduced at a really young age. I was only six years-old when I got Peter Pan,” Chad says, referring to the late-nineties return engagement on Broadway. “What happened was that I became really good friends with the hairdressers there. Their names were Robert and Joachim. I would be in [the hair and makeup room] all the time. I would sing out with them during the shows. They were my best friends,” he reminisces. “Robert, and I didn’t know this at the time, was sick, and he actually had AIDS. I had been keeping in touch with him, and four months after the show, my mom told me that Robert had passed away. I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it. I was very distraught over it. And she explained to me about AIDS and it really opened the door—I really saw how it affects everyone. I never even thought that at such a young age that I could experience that kind of pain. It was really tough but it strengthened me and it taught me that I need to get involved and become more aware and get other people more aware because this…is a crazy pandemic.” The theater community, as Chad readily points out, makes it easy to become involved. He touts the educational and fundraising work of Broadway Cares/Equity Fight AIDS, the organization’s appeal for donations at the end of shows, its annual Easter Bonnet fundraiser, and Gypsy of the Year competition. “I’ve never been to this because I’ve been too young, [but] there’s Broadway Bares, which you can tell by the name….!” he says about the burlesquestyle fundraiser. “The Broadway Kids are not really invited to those!”
As a performer, Chad has participated in two World AIDS Day concerts— one-offs of Children of Eden and Pippin, both headed up by Jamie McGonnigal. Pippin “was a huge spectacular where they brought all these Broadway people to put on this show.” As Young Pippin, Chad joined Ben Vereen, Rosie O’Donnell, Charles Busch, Michael Arden, Laura Benanti. and others on-stage after about a week of rehearsals. “We had a great response. People came out. Donated money. It was a huge charity [event]. “Children of Eden was at this magnificent church on the Upper East Side,” says Chad. “It was humongous. When the whole cast was singing, it really echoed. It had great acoustics; and it was a great event.” He’s attuned to those same acoustics of AIDS awareness in his Long Island community, and especially at school, where he was elected president. “I got a card from one of the guys at Broadway Cares and I wanted to do some fundraisers at my school because I want to get my community involved. I want to step up and show that I care and that my community cares as a whole.” Chad is still interested in acting, but at present focused on finding the right college. He has his eye on political science as a major. “My senior year is coming up, I’m applying to colleges, and that’s really important to me. I have a lot of things to worry about at school because college applications are really difficult. I’m still going into the City and doing a lot of stuff but, you know, I have to apportion my time because school is important as well. And I’ve always been able to keep a good balance between the two.” I mention that it sounds like a hard feat, especially when he also somehow finds time to spend with his girlfriend. “But you know what?,” he responds. “[Acting] is so gratifying, so rewarding, and so much fun. I want to do it, that’s why I do it.” He continues: “I like the challenge, every day, of going into the City and auditioning. I really enjoy it.…I want to learn. Whatever comes up, I’ll learn from it. And take the good experiences and treasure them because you never know when your next [gig] is going to be. So, you take them when you get them.”
Humble about his acting accomplishments, Chad doesn’t talk about them unless asked. He needs no real prompting however to talk up others, and steers the conversation back to AIDS awareness. “I think it’s important to keep the community aware.…because people don’t worry about [AIDS]. We need to stress the fact that it’s a huge problem in our world. It’s great how an organization that started out by just a girl wanting to model when she didn’t fit normal standard model stereotypes…can give back to HIV awareness and really inform younger kids and teenagers on how to go about preventing it.” Probably it’s clear to those who know Harrison Chad well, his voice is different now.