Innovative choreography delivers a powerful experience for hearing and non-hearing audiences alike
by Linda A. Rapka
Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 stage play, the rock musical “Spring Awakening” debuted over a century later in the 1990s. With music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater, “Spring Awakening” went on to Broadway to win eight Tony awards and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.
In the show’s current run at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, L.A.’s premier professional resident sign language theater Deaf West brings a unique and powerful twist to the classic tale of teenage sexuality, the irrevocable power of shame, and the yearning for knowledge and enlightenment.
Make no mistake: Deaf West’s adaptation isn’t just an experience to accommodate the non-hearing. The company does not merely accommodate deafness in the musical, with ASL interpreters shoved to the side of the stage. Rather, deafness is fully incorporated into the production, and the resulting experience reaches an unexpected emotional high for hearing and non-hearing audiences alike.
For its reimagined version, West hired both hearing and non-hearing actors, who are treated accordingly within the world of the play. Hearing and deaf actors perform in tandem to portray each character, set to choreography that intertwines sing language with speech, song and text projections. When music is being performed, deaf actors sign in time with the music to signify a musical segment to non-hearing audience members. Musician actors are front and center on stage and serve as active storytellers within the production.
It would be easy to expect such complex choreography to amount to a confusing stage spectacle, but the contrary proves true. As a hearing audience member, I was struck by the unexpected emotional response felt by the actors’ use of sign language. Rather than being a distraction, the signing seemed to make every word visceral, more personal, as would an excited speaker’s use of animated hand gestures. Many ASL gestures are also recognizable even by those unfamiliar with sign language, and as such serve to enhance the audible parts of the play.
One of the most powerful lessons in “Spring Awakening” is the destructive power of what happens when you allow others to impose their values upon you. Deaf West Theatre’s forward-thinking production is a perfect testament to this theme, proving the beauty that emerges when breaking free from societal norms.
Local 47 “Spring Awakening” Band:
Christian Hebel, violin
Diana Wade, viola
Tim Loo, cello
Dan Savant, music contractor
Deaf West Theatre’s “Spring Awakening” runs through June 7 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. AFM members receive a 35% discount with promo code wallis35 at thewallis.org.