The year is 2002: flare jeans and frosted tips run rampant, and in a high school in Oshawa, Ont., Marc Hall is denied permission to take his boyfriend to the prom.
Prom Queen: The Musical tells Hall’s true story in which he takes the Durham Catholic School Board to court. Hall won his case, setting a precedent across Canada states that schools are not allowed to discriminate, even on the basis of religious practice.
The musical first premiered at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in 2016. The High School Project premiered the show in London — but not without controversy.
The High School Project is a unique group in London that provides high school students the opportunity to work with professionals in the performance industry. The cast is made up of around 40 high school students from across London, as well as a crew of students mentored by professional costume designers, stage managers and producers. The project began in 1998 with West Side Story and has blossomed since.
Prom Queen: The Musical is directed by Dennis Garnhum, the artistic director at the Grand Theatre.
Hosting The High School Project is a huge annual undertaking for the Grand Theatre. The productions cost around $300,000, primarily supported by community members and donors. Additionally, London's two school boards, the Thames Valley District School Board and the London Catholic District School Board, usually each donate $15,000.
However, in a public announcement earlier this year, both school boards decided to pull funding. In a statement made by the school boards, Matt Reid, the Chair of the Thames Valley Board, explains: "There are many things in the script [of Prom Queen] that go against the culture and values of our schools."
Due to community backlash and a petition from trustees of the school boards, the Thames Valley District School Board reversed their decision and reinstated their portion of the funding only a week later, with acknowledgement of the discriminatory implications of their actions.
Still without a large portion of the necessary funding, the High School Project turned to the community. An online fundraising campaign started the same week raised over the $30,000.
Deb Harvey, executive director of the Grand Theatre, comments on this community outreach.
“The thing that was most heartening for us was that the community immediately stepped forward,” she says. “I remember saying to our staff, ‘OK, we’re going to find out who our city is,’ and within 24 hours, we knew because there were community groups and people who stepped forward to make sure this happened and more than secured that funding that we lost.”
With the increase in funding, the Grand Theatre decided to put the money back into the community, by supplying students with 1,600 free tickets for the matinee performances.
For many students, seeing the matinee performance of Prom Queen was their first experience at the Grand Theatre. Harvey believes this is a great opportunity for students who don’t normally come to the theatre to see a show that resonates with them.
Harvey explains that the student matinees were met with positive reactions from the audience.
"They're screaming at them like they’re rock stars,” she laughs.
It wasn't only students cheering on the cast. Opening night was met with thunderous applause before the bows even began; the director had to ask the audience to stop clapping, but the cheering only increased as Marc Hall and others from the real-life event were called up on stage.
There is no indication that this is just a student performance. The level of professionalism and talent easily parallels, if not surpasses, professional companies. Students making up the cast are incredibly proud of what they do, and it shows. In this two-hour show with dance numbers and fast-paced dialogue, the cast never stops to catch their breath. Each supporting character has well developed backstories and roles in the show, keeping the audience invested in every storyline.
The students, from high schools all across London, rehearsed daily from the beginning of August. Many actors reached out to the people they portray onstage in order to form a sense of identity for their characters.
Damon Guidolin, a student in his fifth year of high school at H.B. Beal Secondary School, plays Hall’s boyfriend, Jason. He explains the importance of creating an authentic performance.
“It’s easy to come up with a character in your head,… but creating a real person is so hard, and you really have to get to know the person,” he describes. “You have to have conversations; you have to research them to really get close to the character. Otherwise, I don’t feel like you’re doing them justice.”
Even when students were unable to talk with their real-life counterparts, they had the support of Hall throughout the entire project, who communicated with students during production. This was the case for Marcy Gallant, a Grade 12 student from H.B. Beal who plays Marc’s best friend, Carly.
“I have a sense of who Carly was through Marc Hall,” she explains.
In bringing Carly to life, Gallant tried to find a balance between authentically portraying the person her character is based on while also taking creative liberties.
“I think Carly is really similar to my personality, because she’s a firecracker. She’s really supportive over everything Marc Hall does, and I have so many friends who I support through everything,” Gallant says. “I mixed a bit of both — authentic and a bit of my own spice.”
Despite controversies surrounding funding, this will not be the last of The High School Project. As Harvey explains, the Grand Theatre and The High School Project are committed to “making sure there are safe places in the world and making sure people know that … it’s one of the most important things we can offer in this community."
Prom Queen: The Musical runs from Sept. 21 to 29 for the public. Student matinees began on the Sept. 18 and run through Sept. 21. More information can be found from the Grand Theatre.