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How ‘The Prom’ Chronicles LGBTQ+ Experiences Across Generations

December 13, 2018 by Suzy Evans
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Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen in “The Prom.” (Photographed by Deen van Meer)

Brooks Ashmanskas and Caitlin Kinnunen lean on each other in “The Prom” — in more ways than one. Ashmanskas plays the campy and outlandish Barry, an out-of-work Broadway actor, and Kinnunen plays Emma, an awkward high school student who wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom. When the dance is cancelled, Barry and his group of show biz friends descend on the small town, only to discover they have more in common than they thought.

While their characters rely on each other for emotional support and find unexpected similarities, Ashmanskas’s reliance on Kinnunen is more physical.

“I don’t warm up or anything, so right before I go out on stage I have to bend my knees because I’m old,” Ashmanskas says. “Whenever Caitlin’s around, I have her hands to hold onto because if I bend down I can’t get back up without someone’s help. So she helps me up and laughs at the noises I make when I try to bend my legs.”

TodayTix chatted with Ashmanskas and Kinnunen about how their characters’ journeys relate, why its important to tell LGBTQ+ stories, and how their personal experiences have shaped their performances.

You both have been with the show through a lot of workshops and the production at the Alliance Theatre in 2016. How have you developed the relationship between your characters as you’ve been working on the show?
Brooks Ashmanskas: When we first started working on it, there was less of it. There were little moments of it and it always felt better when Emma and Barry had more to do together. It said a lot about everything the show was trying to say. That was very smart of them, and plus it’s fun because Caitlin and I get to work together more.

Caitlin Kinnunen: Every time they’ve added more, we get to discover a new thing about each other and it’s really wonderful because he’s incredible and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from him.

What have you learned?
Kinnunen: He is the most present person I have ever worked with onstage, and he delivers the same performance and a completely new performance every night. It’s so cool to watch that, and so it’s really taught me just to present, in the moment, and with your scene partner 100%. You never know what you’re going to get with Brooks Ashmanskas.

Josh Lamon, Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Angie Schworer. (Photographed by Deen van Meer)

Your characters come from different generations, but they also have similar stories. Can you talk about the parallels and why they’re important?
Ashmanskas: The similarities are a lesson in that it’s still going on. Mothers are still kicking their daughters out of the house, or their sons, as the case may be back in the 70s. It’s important to point that out and to see that. What’s sweet from Barry’s point of view is how — especially from my generation, or his generation as the case may be — how the gay community stands up for one another and how important it is to do that.

When he hears that she doesn’t live at home anymore, and she’s been kicked out, even though he’s a silly, funny guy, it hits him in a real place to try to protect and help and do whatever he can for this girl.

Kinnunen: The issues and the struggles that were there when he was going to high school are still there and present when she is going to high school. It’s a little different and there is more access to the world as far as social media goes. I’m sure that Emma has had somewhat of an outlet, but she is still so ostracized by the community that she lives in. But to hear that he went through the same thing, for her is really refreshing and lets her open up to him even more.

How do you draw on your own experiences when you’re playing these characters?
Ashmanskas: With any character, at least from my point of view as an actor, the only thing I have to draw on is my own experience. I’m also a Broadway actor. I’m also gay. I’m also of a certain age, whatever that is. Barry is very close to who I am anyway, but just turned up the volume quite a bit.

As a gay man who kind of came of age during that time, did you have similar struggles to him?
Ashmanskas: I didn’t have similar struggles with coming out, and I have a great family. So I had it lucky in that way. But to be a young person and have everyone around you dying [of AIDS] for 20 years, was rough. It was like a war. I don’t think we’ve fully dealt with it. So yeah, certainly I had many, many experiences that I would think Barry went thought, although I had quite a good family.

Caitlin, you identify as an LGBTQ+ ally, and you’ve also come of age during the legalization of gay marriage and a lot of forward motion in the community. How do you identify with your character’s story, or do you see echoes of it in the experiences of you or your friends?
Kinnunen: For this one I really had to go with the text that was given to us and other people’s experiences because I had very privileged upbringing and didn’t deal with something like this. I grew up in a very progressive community. I grew up in town where this is all accepted and talked about openly and it was never an issue. To hear that this story actually happened to someone in real life was shocking to me. It’s mind-blowing that something as normal as being gay was looked down upon. Then I get so many messages from these teenagers who say that we’re telling their story and that this happened to them or this has happened to their friends. It’s heartbreaking. Just to be able to portray this character on stage is really special and I’m so glad that we are giving a voice to those people who haven’t had a voice yet.

How do you think the show plays a role in shifting the conversation in the country?
Ashmanskas: I don’t think that we can come from a place of trying to make a difference. We may personally want to, but the show is the show. What’s lovely about the show is that its basic, thesis statement is we’re all the same. We all have the same wants and needs. We all want to love somebody and we should learn to try to listen to one another — whatever side of the aisle you might be on, whoever you sleep with, etc. — we should listen to one another and try to accept people for who they are. Maybe through that we can change.

Caitlin, what was the reaction like for you to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, when you and Isabelle McCalla, who plays Alyssa, had the first LGBTQ kiss on the broadcast?
Kinnunen: For every negative comment that we have been given, there have been ten more outrageously positive comments. Izzy and I were just doing our job. They decided to do the finale for the Macy’s parade, and that’s part of the finale. We did it without even really thinking about the fact that this is a moment in history, this is the first LGBTQ+ kiss on the Macy’s parade. That wasn’t really a thought that crossed our minds until afterwards and then it was like, “Oh my gosh, we just did this thing.”

Seeing all of the support behind that has been really cool, and really uplifting and it is like, “Wow, we’re just doing our show, but our show happens to be this outrageous comedy with a heart of gold and it’s making an impact.” And that’s really cool.

“The Prom” is one of a series of shows that have dealt with the LGBTQ+ experience this season and last season on Broadway, including “Torch Song,” “Choir Boy,” “Angels in America,” and “The Boys in the Band.” Why do you think it’s important to keep telling these stories
Ashmanskas: The fact that Emma’s story actually happened, not that long ago, so we have to keep our presence alive and well as much as possible to be visible, to hopefully have an outlet for people who feel alone and ostracized — whether it’s for homosexual reasons or just in general. Also, for all of the shows you just mentioned, because they’re good. Because they’re good plays. That is the main reason that anyone wants to put on a play. So I’m all for watching great art, and if it happens to be about inclusivity, great.