For its final production of the 2018-19 school year, the Washougal High School advanced acting class wanted to challenge itself. The students wanted to test the limits of their abilities while learning new skills at the same time. They just simply weren’t interested in doing what they had done in the past.
At the same time, they remembered how much fun they had embracing nostalgia during their 1980s-era production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the year before. They approached drama teacher Kelly Gregersen and told them of their choice: “The Awesome ’80s Prom,” an interactive play written by Ken Davenport that debuted off-Broadway in 2004.
“This show,” said junior Rachel Lyall, “is completely different from anything we’ve ever done before.”
The play, which will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday, April 19 and 7 p.m., Saturday, April 20, in the Washougal High School commons, features a number of elements that most of the actors don’t have a lot of experience with.
For starters, the production relies heavily on audience participation; several members of the crowd will end up in the play, and the audience votes for prom king and queen, a decision that’s critical to the outcome of the story. Therefore, the shows may have completely different endings on each night.
Improvisation also plays a crucial role. Actors have different speeches ready for whatever situation may arise as the result of the audience direction.
“It reminds me of those ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books – if one thing doesn’t work, you try the other thing,” said senior ShaylaRae Tyner, who plays Molly, a freshman on the school’s junior varsity cheerleading squad. “It’s like a big adventure for us. I feel every time we rehearse it as a group, something’s different. It changes every day. It’s so unpredictable.”
The play, which is set at fictional Wanaget High School in 1989, also breaks traditional physical boundaries.
“An element of the show does happen on stage, but a lot of it happens around the audience,” Gregersen said.
The actors have been challenged by the fact that they haven’t had much of an audience to interact with during rehearsals.
“I think rehearsals have been different from anything we’ve ever done before,” said Lyall, who plays Heather Two, a cheerleader. “You’re not sitting and memorizing. You’re not blocking your movements. Instead, you’re more focused on how to interact with people, but you’re interacting with nobody because you’re rehearsing without an audience. (You have to) stand and fake a conversation with somebody in front of you so that you can get a feel for how your character would respond to whatever situation you’re presented with. We’ve all pushed ourselves further than we thought we would at the beginning of it.”
Gregersen said the actors have focused on building their characters through different improvisational situations.
“They have to work on building character in ways they weren’t used to in other shows,” he said. “For any show (actors) need to know the background of their character and their thoughts, but in this case they don’t know what’s going to be thrown at them. They need to know their characters inside and out.”
The play features stereotypical characters from some of the more widely known 1980s teen movies – the popular cheerleader, the captain of the football team, the scrawny “nerd,” the foreign exchange student.
“When we got casted, we all chose to write three roles that we like and have (Gregersen) cast it,” Tyner said. “He put us in roles that we would not normally play. It has been a big a step for a lot of our comfort zones. We have someone who’s really nice playing a mean cheerleader. Then there’s me – (I’m) outgoing, but I (play an introvert).”
The group prepared for the production by immersing itself in as much 1980s culture as it could find. The students watched popular films such as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off;” conducted online research to become familiar with news headlines, fashion trends and slang; and listened to as much music from the era as possible.
As as result, “they probably know the ’80s better than they know their own decade,” Gregersen said.
“I really liked ‘The Breakfast Club,'” Tyner said. “I like Cyndi Lauper. Queen, some of their songs I really enjoy. I love ’80s music. I listen to it a lot; it’s in my playlist. Making the playlist (for the play) was pretty easy for a lot of us; we just picked our favorite songs.The crimped hair (is great). I still crimp my hair now. (But) the fashion, I think, is my favorite. I’m an outgoing person, and seeing how they had bigger hair and they wore bigger clothes, I just fell in love with it. I think coming up with costumes for everyone has been my favorite thing.”
Gregersen, who directed a production of “The Awesome ’80s Prom” at the school nine years ago, is excited to return to the play.
“It’s a fun experience,” he said. “The last time we did the show, a lady I hadn’t met before grabbed me at the end and said, ‘Not only is this the best high school play I’ve ever been to, it’s the best prom I ever attended.’ It’s a big, broad comedy with fun characters. There’s no deep meaningful takeaway at the end. It’s all about having a lot of fun.”