Maclean Mayers & Erica Peninger show off their High School Musical Awards with show host, Broadway actor Kyle Dean Massey
The bright lights of New York City will be calling two Memphis-area teens to Broadway this month. Maclean Mayers of Germantown, and Erica Peninger of Hernando, Mississippi were selected Best Actor and Actress during the Orpheum’s qualifying round of High School Musical Awards in May. The two face off against other regional winners for the coveted Jimmy Award at The National High School Musical Theatre Awards (NHSMTA).
The NHSMTA is a week-long program that brings together more than 50 winners from across the U.S. to compete for the top prize in high school theatre: the Jimmy Award. The teens represent 25 cities and range from freshmen to graduating seniors like Mayers and Peninger. The grueling schedule includes 10-hour rehearsal days and evaluations from Broadway professionals. The event concludes on Monday, June 29, with the awards show, which is patterned after the Tony Awards.
This year will be Mayer’s second time to compete. Last year he won Best Actor for his role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. This year he is being honored for his portrayal of Edward Bloom in Big Fish. “I put my heart and soul into making the show as good as it could be,” the recent Germantown High graduate told me over coffee. “And with it being my senior year, there was an added urgency to make the show as good as possible. The audience has such an emotional connection to it, and so do I.”
Mayers is new to acting, he began in ninth grade on a whim after landing the role of the Cowardly Lion in The Wiz. But he’s a natural who credits theatre for changing his life. “Before I started acting, I didn’t care about being involved with anything at school and I wasn’t keeping my grades up,” he explains in a soft-spoken drawl. “But after I was in The Wiz, I became more outgoing and involved in my school’s fine arts program. I changed completely.”
The experience has been pivotal for Mayers growth as an actor, too. “The High School Theatre Awards has been a life changing experience,” he reflects. “I don’t go into it competitively. I’ve made some amazing, best friends there. I am very humbled and happy to be where I am.”
Acting is her life
Similarly, Peninger is self-assured but remarkably modest for someone with such a muscular resume. Her role as Maria in Panola Playhouse’s West Side Story (opening as soon as she returns from Broadway) will mark her 70th show. She estimates she’s averaged seven to nine shows a year since she started acting as a child.
“Theatre and acting is like an every day thing now,” she says with the casualness you might hear from someone talking about their day job. “I don’t consider this a hobby anymore because this is my life. Acting is what I want to do professionally.”
Peninger has all the Southern charm a girl could want, and it’s what she channeled into the role of Millie in Hernando High’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, which won her Best Actress nomination. “Millie relates a lot to me because she goes to New York, loves i, and never wants to come back,” she says shyly. “I want to get to New York as fast as I can and stay there — no matter what.”
Penninger’s first role at age 9 was an orphan in Annie. “I loved the movie as a kid, so I auditioned and then never quit,” she explains. She was recently a finalist for a film role in True Grit. Her biggest fear about the upcoming trip? “That I’m not going to want to leave the city,” she says.
Despite the daunting week ahead of them, Penninger and Mayers are both freakishly calm. “Everyone is so deserving of this award,” says Mayers. “I’m thrilled just to be there.” Penninger is more blunt: “I think this will be a success for me because performing on Broadway has always been my dream,” she says simply. “No matter what happens, when I come home I can say I performed on Broadway. Who cares if I win?”