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The HSPVA Theatre Department puts its own spin on ‘Hairspray’
by Megan Smith

Put on your dancing shoes and fluff up your hair, because The High School for Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) presents their production of Hairspray on April 9–11 and 16–18.

Though the HSPVA play is based on the 1988 comedy of the same name directed by John Waters, don’t expect students to perform an exact replica of the film. “It was really important to me to do the ‘HSPVA version’ of Hairspray,” director Charles Swan says. “So I encouraged our cast to not watch the Broadway or movie productions and to really contemplate why we needed to do this show; what do we have to say as a result of performing this musical? Those questions led to some amazing conversations about our world and how, like 1962 Baltimore, there are so many marginalized groups: people who struggle with being too large, too small, too black, too white, too uptight, too free, too ‘normal’ (whatever that is), not normal enough, etc. It’s my hope that our conversations around these issues translate directly to our audiences and, in doing so, make this production uniquely ours.”

One of the leaders of the cast is senior Jacob Allen starring as Edna Turnblad, mother of Tracy Turnblad, and a character originally played by the great Divine. In keeping with tradition, HSPVA cast a male for the female role. “From the beginning of our process it was important to me to eliminate words like ‘drag’ from our work,” Swan says. “We spoke as a company about who Edna is, and at the end of the day she is just a mom—a mom whom everyone loves and who loves everyone. We always referred to Edna with the appropriate pronouns and treated her as a woman.

Senior Jacob Allen (back, with ironing board) stars as Edna Turnblad, mother of Tracy Turnblad, in HSPVA's version of Hairspray.
Senior Jacob Allen (back, with ironing board) stars as Edna Turnblad, mother of Tracy Turnblad, in HSPVA’s version of Hairspray. Photo: Courtesy of Charles Swan.

“Ironically, Jacob’s masculinity has been reinforced as a result of taking the risk to play a woman—it takes guts to do that, especially in high school!,” Swan adds. “One of my favorite memories of the production, so far, was watching Jacob—in his rehearsal skirt—hold his girlfriend’s hand as they walked down the hall.”

“As a straight man, the obvious difficulties of becoming a woman were many,” Allen says. “How does one endow motherhood? What makes women intrinsically different from men? How can one endow womanhood without being tacky or false? These questions taunted me when we first began the process. However, as I began to get more comfortable in my shoes (literally), I realized that all it takes to be a mother is to love, and that was something I could relate with. All of the questions I had asked myself at the beginning of the process solved themselves from there.”

The high school’s version of the production also aims to expand the script’s original themes to make them more inclusive of modern-day issues. “One of the concepts that we have worked with is that ‘everyone matters,’” Swan says. “It would be easy to present this play on the surface level—the outcast wins the day and the curtain falls. But the writers of Hairspray are so smart that they continue the music—a whole other verse and chorus—until the ‘bad guys’ are won over as well. That is to say that there is enough love to ‘lasso’ us all in and we all are important in the human experience. To leave anyone out of that equation would have been false. So, if you watch the choreography, I’ve tried to incorporate moments—blatant and subtle—where all of the marginalized groups represented in the play dance with whom they really want: gay couples, interracial couples, etc.”

Campus climate is—for the majority—very positive toward LGBT students and culture, Swan says, and cast members had no issue with including gay characters in their performance. “I’m confident that these children—this generation—will be the ones who will continue to fight for equality and fairness,” he says. “They are standing on the shoulders of the amazing pioneers of change who came before them, and because they are growing up in a world where more and more openly gay people are around them, I don’t think they will tolerate injustice. There will always be the need for people to stand up and ensure others are treated correctly, and I think our students are embodying lyrics like ‘you can’t stop today as it comes speeding down the track.’”

What: HSPVA’s production of Hairspray
When: April 9–11 and 16–18
Where: HSPVA, 4001 Stanford St.
Details/Tickets: onstagehspva.org

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Megan Smith

Megan Smith is the Assistant Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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