The actors have been in character since 7 p.m. Upon walking into the theater, the audience is greeted with a ragtag pre-show scene — naked models being drawn on stage left, some kinky sex to stage right and a general display of uncensored loitering. At 7:30 p.m., the show begins.

“Rent,” a rock opera about a group of bohemian artists struggling to survive in New York amid poverty and the AIDS epidemic, made its debut on UC Santa Cruz’s Mainstage Theater last Friday. Directed by actor Daniel Scheie, the play features a cast of about 40 members.

“One of the things you hear Danny Scheie saying all the time is, ‘Somewhere along the line, ‘Rent’ got cute,’” said tech crew member Alyssa Glenn. “It’s not supposed to be a cute show.”

The musical features themes like love and living with no regrets, but also highlights social issues such as houselessness, poverty, disease and the LGBT community, which Scheie feels are “right up the alley of the consciousness of UCSC.” One scene involves a neighborhood protest, which used protest signs created by the actors that dealt with issues that were important to them personally.

What makes this particular production unique are the slight changes to the script, such as removing some of the “happier” songs to emphasize the heavier topics.

“I really wanted to find a different way to do it,” Scheie said. “I was worried [the nude scenes] would be really weird and creepy, but it’s super cool and beautiful. [The students are] so brave. They’re up for anything. I love them.”

The numerous scenes featuring full nudity are not in the original script, but add to the uniqueness of the production and a feeling of uninhibited artistry in the show.

During rehearsals, Scheie organized “dress-up days” where the cast would come dressed as houseless people or prostitutes. The point, however, was not to get in costume, but to put oneself in the shoes of people in difficult situations.

“I’ve definitely grown as an actor in numerous ways,” said ensemble member Ciera Eis, who plays the mother of one of the main characters, Roger. “[Scheie’s] a really good director. He makes you get in the moment and really feel the character.”

Another surprising element to the show is the innovative, partially-recycled set design. David Cuthbert, the lights and media designer, scavenged old parking lot traffic lights, which make up a portion of the show’s total 300 lights.

Set up on either side of the stage are old televisions of different shapes and sizes, through which the character Mark, a filmmaker played by Conor Murphy, projected live images from his old video camera. When the camera isn’t on, the televisions play scenes from old movie adaptations of “La Bohème,” the Puccini opera “Rent” is based on.

“It’s this type of theater where you don’t hide that it’s a play. It’s okay to show the technical elements,” said tech crew member Alyssa Glenn, referring to the stage’s rugged, industrial aesthetic. “He doesn’t want to hide that you’re in a theater seeing a work of art.”

The opening song, “Rent,” features a rebellious dance number from the entire cast. Cast members burn scraps of paper in trash cans to generate heat, including an original “Rent” poster hidden between the cushions of an old couch. Scattered throughout the play are solo pieces performed by the leading actors, giving a sense of the individual talent making up the entire cast.

“You could feel the audience [during opening night], they were connected to us,” said ensemble member Kristofer Bumanglag. “That’s what’s so great about theater. Sometimes it seems like theater is even more real than real life.”

The personal connections between cast and script, between audience and cast, helped highlight the musical’s message of the importance of love and friendship in the face of adversity.

“You could die tomorrow, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Eis said. “There is no day but today — live it through love.”

The show will run May 16-18, May 22-25 and May 29-June 1. Doors open at 7 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are free for students w/ an ID, $15 general, $12 seniors and youth.