The much anticipated return of Spring Awakening to Broadway has opened to deaf(ening) applause. For today’s #followfriday we’re following the example of Deaf West and breaking convention, and so today we’re following all three of these guys: @SpringBway @DeafWest @AmericanASL.
Deaf West has redefined the Broadway experience with their latest production of Spring Awakening. The Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik Musical has been reenvisioned to be inclusive of a hearing impaired cast performing in either spoken English or American Sign Language. They have added a depth to the production that transforms it from the story of the youth wanting to understand the world, to the story of wanting to be understood by it.
The inclusion of deaf actors is nothing new for Deaf West who were founded in 1991 and have since been transforming theater “to directly improve and enrich the cultural lives of the 1.2 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who live in the Los Angeles area.” Two of the title characters in the show are rewritten as deaf and played by hearing impaired actors, Moritz (Daniel N. Durant) and Wendla (Sandra Mae Frank). Perhaps it is their life long experience of communicating through the use of their bodies that allows the two actors to deliver such a stunning performance whereby the use of sign language does not distract, but enhances it. In fact the show has brilliant casting all around despite most of the cast making their Broadway debut.
It is a clever choice by the creative team to choose the two characters most misunderstood by the society described in the original Wedekind play to play the leading deaf roles. Their search for answers to the procreation of life and their struggle to understand the way things are is paralleled in the real life efforts many of the hearing impaired go through to be understood by others. There is a subtle reminder that, just like an adolescent questioning his sexual awakening, the misunderstanding for the deaf comes from a place of innocence, and not ignorance; that it is our own refusal to listen to the deaf community that fragments our community.
This exploration of adolescence within the context of of this dark time in Deaf history serves as a haunting reminder of the perils of miseducation and miscommunication. – Michael Arden
Now, you wouldn’t be alone if this staging of the show confused you. Without knowledge of the original rendition of the musical you will be playing catch up, with the added challenge of guessing who is who, who is deaf, who has a voice actor and so on. But is it too far to wish for a society like Arden’s idealization, where the hearing so easily understand and communicate with the deaf? Either intentionally or not, you leave the theater with a sensation that perhaps for the deaf everyday it is like being lost in the crowd. You can feel all alone even when you are surrounded by others.
It is stunning to experience joy, love, fear, and suffering through a context different to what the hearing may take for granted.
The shows use of the voice actors for Moritz (Alex Boniello) and Wendla (Katie Boeck) maneuvering like phantoms around the stage remind us that ‘our voice’ is so much more than the physical expression of our vocal folds. That our presence in the world can exist beyond the physical limitations of our body, and like Moritz and Wendla what we do and how we love will continue on in the way we touched others once we are gone.
There is now a change.org petition that has started to see this production recorded professionally. If you love cast albums, imagine what this might mean for generations of the hearing impaired. See it on change.org
What is most admirable about this production, is that it had every opportunity to turn disability into a spectacle but it did not. It roots itself in the human desire to be understood and hence creates a very genuine theatrical experience. Bravo to Michael Arden for taking the show on this journey and finding it a place on Broadway and in our hearts.