by Angela Tricarico
An important piece of the rehearsal process for members of an ensemble is building a personality and backstory for the character that they’ll portray nightly once the show begins performances.
Most commonly, the process begins by giving characters a name, backstory, and a relation to other people around them. In other words: who are they, and why are they here?
Fernell Hogan, who is currently in The Prom, says that you have to use your imagination to fill in all of the details that aren’t given.
“A lot of it comes from improvisation. Then you keep the moments that work and throw out the ones that don’t,” he said.
Hogan’s main character is Noah, a student at James Madison High. He says that he and some of the other Ensemblists in the show have created a family with their characters.
Jerusha Cavazos, also in The Prom, says that her main focus is to find a way to have her characters “add to, compliment and move” the story. In developing her main character, she followed director Casey Nicholaw’s instruction to find props that their characters may find useful.
“I saw a giant stack of books and it clicked!” Cavazos said. “During our lunch break that day I ran down to CVS and got a cheap pair of nerd glasses for fun and never turned back.”
For Cavazos, Hogan, and the rest of The Prom ensemblists, they’re more than just students at James Madison High; they’re also placed in scenes as Applebees workers, attendees at a Broadway opening night party, and members of the non-equity tour of Godspell. In Act Two, they each become another character: a teen somewhere in the world who is affected by “Unruly Heart,” the song Emma posts online to share her story with the world. As the music builds, more members of the ensemble fill the stage, until they’re all singing in unison. All of these characters have backstories too, that the actors created and shared with each other.
Cavazos recalls that during a lab of the show, Nicholaw asked the company to think about what it’s like to have an unruly heart.
“Long story short, we all had a beautiful cry and the number was never the same,” she said.
Cavazos’ character now is a combination of different versions of the show; as her lines were changed and rewritten, she was able to keep things, but also change them to fit the current version of the lyrics.
“I have personally taken all the versions we had and made them mean one thing for me,” she explained. “My character in “Unruly Heart” is a lot more ‘me’ than anything else. I am the most alive in that number. Sometimes, I end the number in a big smile and sometimes I end it with tears running down my face.”
During a previous version of the song, Hogan actually used to say his character’s name.
“My line was ‘Hi Emma, Jake here in Evanston. Loved your video.’ In the rehearsal process, those lines changed a lot and sadly Jake was cut, but he lives on in my head,” Hogan said.
He also explained that Jake is inspired by the reactions people had to seeing the first same-sex kiss on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, happy to see themselves represented on TV.
“There was something so sincere and simple about their responses that it only makes sense for Jake to have the same reaction,” he said. “He is a young guy who has struggled with his sexuality and the reaction that he knows his parents will have if they knew. Emma serves as his inspiration to accept himself and not let anyone else define him.”
Though Jake and the rest of the “Unruly Heart” ensemble are fictional, the response The Prom has gotten would certainly prove that, if they were real, they wouldn’t be alone.