A Date For `The Prom'

To win roles in a new play about this teenage rite of passage, auditioners relive the horrors of their own high school dances.

August 16, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

Right there, in the audition room, Christine Reinhardt relived her most memorable high school experience:

"When I was at Carver High School, I hardly knew anyone's name," she says, twisting her fingers in front of her. "I was always in love with a person I couldn't have. Then I met this guy who was five years older than me. Prom was coming, and I decided to tell him I was falling in love with him. I went up to him, and said, `John, I have something to tell you.'

"He said, `Really? Because, Christine, I have something to tell you! I am falling so much in love ... '"

She felt light-headed, as though she were breathing champagne. Here it was, the moment for which hundreds of romance books and movies had prepared her:

"` ... with God,' John finished. `I'm going to study to be a monk.'"

OK, so that wasn't the precise wording that Reinhardt had anticipated. Nor could she have known then that her humiliation would eventually stand her in good stead, two decades later, when she would audition to play a teenage version of herself in The Awesome 80s Prom.

The Prom is set at the punnily named Wanaget High School in 1989. It features all the usual stereotypes, including the witchy head cheerleader, the dumb jock, the nerd and the space cadet. Like Tony n' Tina's Wedding, on which the format is modeled, The Prom will have a simple plot and heavy audience interaction. Theatergoers select the prom queen and king and dance with cast members.

"The high school prom is so significant in American culture," says Prom creator Ken Davenport. "It's about the passage from childhood to adulthood, about losing your virginity."

In other words, the prom is about the loss of innocence.

And it brings to mind obvious questions: Who, in their right minds, would actually pay to lose their innocence a second time? And to lose it while wearing an outdated dress several sizes too small, and a poofy 'do several sizes too large?

The answer is: a lot of people.

Shows are running in New York and the Twin Cities, and Davenport says he's close to finalizing arrangements for a Chicago production. The Baltimore version will run Sept. 27 to Nov. 11 in a pavilion at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center on Eutaw Street downtown. (And yes, that's the same Ken Davenport who attended the Johns Hopkins University in 1990-1991 and who acted in local college and community theater productions.)

"The Awesome 80s Prom is not a traditional theater experience," Davenport said. "You don't sit back for two-and-a-half hours and cross your arms in front of your chest and say, `Yeah, it works.'"

Many audience members, for instance, come in the outfits they wore to their own proms, adorned, in some cases, by what appear to be the original corsages.

"People get very involved," Davenport says. "My cheerleaders in the New York cast have had their hair pulled by members of the audience. They're getting back at the actors for what they went through in high school."

Preliminary tryouts were held yesterday in a room shaped like a shoebox and backlit by the sunny glare of the street outside. The auditioning process, in fact, is a bit like high school. You're new and trying to impress the cool kids (the producers, writer and director). You'll do anything to get noticed, (Reinhardt's resume claims she can play the piano upside down), and appearances are desperately important. As one actress, Elisa Dugan, noted on her resume, she is 5 feet 4 inches and has green eyes, and her hair color "is blond (flexible)."

By 11 a.m., 15 actors had auditioned for 19 roles.

For some, the audition starts before the actor performs the monologue that he or she has carefully memorized.

With his curly hair a bit too long, his rumpled shirt and his bad-boy smirk, Sean Mullin is instantly recognizable as yet another high school cliche - the charming schemer. You know the type: He's the kind of guy who could flirt with a teacup, the kind of kid who can wrap all adults, but especially women, around his shapely little finger. And it's camouflaged by a screen of calculatedly outrageous behavior.

"I've had bronchitis for a week, so double my performance here today, and that's how bad I'll be in your show," says Mullin, 25. "I quit acting a long time ago to get engaged, only to be ditched by my fiancee in favor of a guy with more money. I should have stayed with acting."

Davenport is all sympathy. "Did it happen recently?" he asks.

"Nah," Mullin says cheerfully, "Years ago. But I still go into singles bars and tell that story. Works like a charm."

And this was all before he performed a speech from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, complete with the preening, little hair-smoothing gesture so characteristic of teenage boys.

Afterward, Mullin asked a visitor conspiratorially, "Am I the cutest guy to audition so far today?"

As a matter of fact, he was.

Of course, looks aren't everything. There's a certain authenticity that comes from having lived a role.

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