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Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening

Published on
December 18

Spring Awakening is one of my favorite musicals, seriously. When it premiered on Broadway in 2006, I got my hands on the soundtrack and listened to it religiously before finally seeing the touring production when it swept through my hometown. A recent invitation to see the new Deaf West Theatre production, which transferred to Broadway after a critically acclaimed run in L.A., left me both excited and apprehensive; knowing the original production so well, I worried that this new version might disappoint. I am happy to announce, however, that my fears were unfounded.

The alternative rock musical, which pairs period aesthetics with a modern day sound, is based on an 1891 play of the same name by Frank Weidekind that tells the story of teenagers discovering their sexuality within the moral repression of 19th century Germany. Unlike the original production, certain characters in the new Spring Awakening are deaf and use American Sign Language to communicate. For audience members who do not read ASL, each deaf actor has an accompanying hearing actor who speaks and sings for the character. In addition, subtitles projected onto the stage provide clarity when, for whatever reason, a deaf actor cannot sign his or her part.

What struck me most about this year’s Spring Awakening is how the production takes what is essentially an ethical choice and turns it into an aesthetic one. According to its mission statement, Deaf West Theatre strives to “directly improve and enrich the cultural lives” of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals by providing “exposure and access to professional theatre,” and in consequence, the choice to use ASL is an ethical one. However, the production team deftly exploits the artistic potential of the juxtaposition of three different forms of communication—verbal, nonverbal, and written—to create an aesthetically resonant experience.

For example, two very important scenes for the character Moritz (Daniel N. Durant) were performed in ASL along with subtitles, while the Voice of Moritz (Alex Boniello) was nowhere to be found or heard. Though it seems small, the impact of so much silence after the noise of the preceding scenes and songs cannot be overstated. It was as if the audience collectively held its breath so as not to disturb the intimacy created by the sudden void, and I still feel a shiver when I recall Moritz’s anguish, unadulterated and amplified by the silence which insulates and traps him in his own mind.

Most of the time a deaf actor and his or her Voice stay in close proximity; when Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank) speaks to her mother, for instance, her Voice (Katie Boeck) is a few paces behind her. The result is that the hearing actor does not overshadow the deaf actor, and over time you forget who is actually speaking. In a song near the end of the show, however, a character rises from his grave as a ghost and signs the lyrics while his voice, unseen by the audience, is projected throughout the space. For me, the decision to hide the character’s Voice actor made the scene much spookier, as if he really was from the world of the dead and communicated in an inhuman way. 

There are so many other examples I could happily expound upon; suffice it to say that by incorporating ASL in such an artistic and comprehensive way, Deaf West brings both hearing and hearing impaired audience members a new appreciation for an old(er) show.

 

 
Photo credit: Abigail Santner

 

The Arts Initiative is grateful to the production team and cast of Spring Awakening for their generosity in welcoming us for three sold-out Columbia Night performances this fall featuring a post-performance talk-back with members of the exceptional cast. 

Spring Awakening runs through January 24, 2016. Discounted individual tickets are still available through Givenik.com. Student tickets for selected performances are available online in advance for members of TIX4STUDENTS. In addition, a limited number of $35 same-day rush tickets are available by in-person lottery at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre 2 hours prior to curtain. The lottery will be conducted in English and ASL. Winners will be drawn 90 minutes before curtain, with a limit of 2 tickets per person.

Learn more about the show at http://www.springawakeningthemusical.com/.