TAMPA — Much to her 18-year-old daughter's embarrassment, Cathy Hooten accompanied her to an audition for a Mad Theatre musical.
Hooten had her doubts about actors and wanted to check out the theater scene for herself.
Her doubts quickly faded on that night in 2000, and she became the stage manager for the community theater's first production, Pippin, in which her daughter was a dancer.
Hooten has been with the theater ever since.
This year marks her 10th as Mad Theatre's president.
As a sophomore at Riverview High School, a reserved Karli Gundersen sang in the chorus, something she'd been doing since she was 8 years old in the Tampa Bay Children's Choir.
The school required her to help out with something in chorus or theater, so she became stage manager for a production of Nunsense.
When the female lead dropped out a week before opening night, Gundersen was the only one who knew all of her lines.
She's been performing in main roles ever since.
On Thursday, Gundersen, now 26, will star as Ilse in her eighth Mad Theatre production, Spring Awakening, while company president Hooten watches from the audience in the Jaeb Theater.
The two women who never thought they would be in the theater spotlight are now a part of one of the company's most racy productions — including nudity and adult themes.
"Spring Awakening is kind of timeless because it deals with teens exploring their sexuality so it's still relevant," Hooten said. "It will make you a little uncomfortable, but it's all true."
Sexuality is just one of the mature themes in this adult production. Rape and suicide are also main motifs. Gundersen conceded her preparation proved challenging.
"I played a lot of comedic roles, but this role is deep and serious," Gundersen said. "There's a specific scene where there's a funeral for the guy who plays opposite of me. He commits suicide in the show. In real life, I had a mentor who inspired me and he passed away so before every show, I think about that."
Using methods like that, she strives to make her performance as relatable as possible.
"I may not have experienced rape or suicide, but I find the thing that was most traumatic in my life," Gundersen said. "You don't realize until you get out on stage how the show affects people. As actors we go in all happy and excited, and then we're like, 'wow, this is a lot to take in,' but that's why we love what we do because there are people who can relate, and we want to reach those people."
Gundersen's character, Ilse, was raped by her father.
"That's really tough because at one point the guy who plays my father comes up and pulls my hair back and whispers in my ear and I literally get chills, but the creepy chills and this is acting," Gundersen said. "I cant imagine how it is in real life."
The sex, suicide, rape and rock 'n' roll all unfold on the stage of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts' Jaeb Theater, three times the size of the venue's Shimberg Playhouse, where Mad Theatre's productions usually are held.
"The last few shows we've done, we've been so blessed we had to turn people away," Hooten said. "I don't ever want to do that, and this gives us the chance to let everyone in, though it is more expensive."
Gundersen's entire face lit up with a red glow that almost matched her hair as she talked about performing in the Jaeb for the first time.
"I am so stoked, I can't even tell you. It seats 300 versus 99 and it has a mezzanine," Gundersen said. "I don't care if I perform in a barn, as long as I'm performing I'm happy, but with the Straz name on it, it's an honor."
Since its start in 1999, the community theater company has aimed to produce thought-provoking shows.
"That's the hardest thing we (the board of directors) do every year is decide which shows we will put on," Hooten said.
Their choice of shows, talented actors and board of directors made up of volunteers has steered the company upward, which is evident by the move to the Jaeb.
"People think community theater is a click above high school, but we truly aren't, and we are ready to perform in a larger venue," Hooten said. "If you don't try new things, you get stagnant. I don't want to be that company who is comfortable."