When I was in high school, I was not a big fan of the prom. I was not a big fan of the 1980’s when I lived through them either. Therefore, I find it bizarre to have produced Ken Davenport’s The Awesome 80s Prom not just once, but twice.
I first produced The Awesome 80s Prom for the 2009-2010 school year at J.W. Mitchell High School. I was a theatre teacher without a theater. Ironically, in the 1980s, a shortsighted decision was made not to build theaters while constructing new high schools in the district. It was also decided to build two performing arts facilities on either side of the county. Any school built after that directive had to have their performing arts activities (band, chorus and drama) at one of those two theaters. J.W. Mitchell High School was one of those schools and the theater we performed at was nearly a half hour drive away.
I was desperate to find something that could be produced on our campus to engage the school and the surrounding community. Since I have a strong background in improvisational theatre, I was interested in doing something that was both audience interactive and site specific along the lines of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Lo and behold, I found The Awesome 80s Prom.
I was apprehensive about a piece that took place 12 years after my own senior prom. However, the play featured an important element I look for when choosing material for my program: the opportunity for high school students to play high school students. I also look for plays that require research of a particular time in history. Once I received the script, but more importantly, the resource materials, I knew I had made the right choice.
Everything to ensure the success of the show is meticulously mapped out in the resource materials including suggestions for the set, lighting, costumes, props marketing, music, as well as how to approach rehearsing the piece starting with the creation of a strong improvisational ensemble. I have been preaching to my students the essential need to create a character biography for any role they are portraying, and the resource materials provided “character bibles” for each of the main characters! There was vocabulary for the time period, significant historical and cultural milestones, and links to even more research. It was a theatre educator’s dream!
The play is comprised of a “pre-show” where the characters arrive in conjunction with the audience and story-lines are introduced. There are six scripted scenes interspersed with five “free form” (improvised) scenes where the actors must work out specific objectives while interacting with the audience in order to help move the story-lines forward.
The scripted material is comedy gold, but it is the improvised scenes that really put the student actors “in the moment.” The commitment to their character has got to be so complete that they can react under any given circumstance, such as friends and family trying to get them to break character. This commitment is essential since each show is different based on the audience that attends that particular performance.
What I hadn’t anticipated was to be charmed by the 1980’s. While exploring the time period with them, I found myself developing a mutual appreciation for the movies and the music with them. I also had not anticipated the connections that would be made by my student cast with both their parents and teachers, many of whom were teenagers during the 1980’s. Students told me about sitting with their parents, going through their old yearbooks, and borrowing clothes that they still had from when they were in high school. Parents were sharing their favorite movies that many still had on VHS tapes.
I had the most fun going over the music of 1980’s, designing a soundtrack that not only kept the dance floor hopping or the cherished moments to slow dance, but also served as a musical bridge from the scripted scenes to the free form material.
We performed the production in our cafeteria, which seemed a logical location at the school to hold the prom. The audiences were huge for all performances and it was a blast to see the parents and teachers relive what obviously was the time of their lives.
Due to the unique nature of the show, I decided to submit it for consideration to perform at The Florida State Thespian Festival, the largest high school theatre festival in the world. And we were chosen! It was so gratifying watching the thespians geeking out to a form of theatre that they had not encountered before.
Nine years later, I found myself at a new school and the theme for the school year was “Old School Royals.” With the success I had experienced with building a community of parents, teachers and students from the last time I produced it, I felt it was time to do The Awesome 80s Prom again.
Doing the show again was even more fun the second time around. There were more documentaries on the time period and my students were making connections with the parallels between what was going on during the 1980’s and what they are living through now. They were especially floored by a 1980 presidential campaign whose slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again”.
I decided to submit the production again for the Florida State Thespian Festival, and again we were chosen to showcase. This time we were lucky enough to have the play’s creator, Ken Davenport, in attendance. His talk-backs after each of our two performances were decidedly inspirational with Mr. Davenport encouraging the students to get together with a group of friends and create something…anything. After all, this was how The Awesome 80s Prom was born.
The greatest power the theatre has is to change people’s minds. The Awesome 80s Prom is a radically tubular ride that captivates the cast by giving them challenges they had not encountered in their relative experience. It challenges the audience’s expectations of what a theatre piece can be. But, for me, I believe the show’s strongest attribute is its charm. It charms the students in exploring a different time, it charms parents and teachers to remember their time in high school, and most surprising, it charmed me into appreciating the 1980’s more than I did when I lived through it.
(credit: Mike Carlson/RRHS)