SPRING AWAKENING – The Musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater
Royall Tyler Theatre, 2017
I was eager to direct this piece since I saw the original Broadway production directed by Michael Grief in 2007. I was deeply and profoundly inspired by its combination of sparsity and grace. I challenged myself artistically to pay homage to the original production, yet I aimed, as in all projects, to add my own directorial imprint on the material.
After reading the text the musical is based on (the original Wedekind play, written in 1891), I conducted historical research on Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s (The original play was not produced until 1906). I simultaneously conducted research on past productions of the musical, and made it a point to attend the Deaf West Theater revival on Broadway in 2016. I allowed the research to provide a road map toward developing design choices, but I knew my own creative expression would be most evidenced in the use of theatrical space, the dynamics of staging the human bodies in the space, and the choreography of the musical numbers.
I furthered my research by looking into the visual images that would have been present in the world of the characters in the play during the period the story is set. I was struck by the tension in the play between social constructs and the natural world, and this led me to focus on artwork of the period that reflected such tension. I responded to the works of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimp, two of the most prominent European visual artists of the late 1800s. I shared images by these artists with the show’s designers. Both artists created arresting and stylized images of nature. Since the story centers upon a group of school aged young people (14 and 15 year olds), I also investigated German culture and the school system during that time period. Ultimately, design choices were determined and informed by the tensions between human nature and social constructs, and between the soft organic natural world and the hard lines of manmade architecture. For example; the silhouette of a huge oak tree was painted upon the hard surface of the far upstage brick wall of the theater building. Since the hayloft location at the end of Act I is where the two central teen characters consummate their attraction to one another, we identified this as the most important location in the world of the play. That location informed numerous other scenic design elements: the barnlike look of the orchestra platform, the wooden platforms in the audience and the wooden chairs and benches that became “furniture” and other set pieces throughout the story. The costume designer continued the organic versus social construct theme in his designs, which realized flower patterns in the girls’ dresses yet constrictive black school uniforms for the boys. At the same time both the boys’ and girls’ costumes had contemporary touches in line with the contemporary rock genre of the piece. As in the original production, the adult characters most authentically reflected the clothing of the period, which we followed as a metaphor for social decorum and tradition.
Realizing the production was informed by three key principles: an immersive experience for the audience, suggestive design elements, and fluidity of staging. The thrust space was altered to add seating on one side of the proscenium opening, and a raised orchestra platform unit was erected opposite. The space under the orchestra was used for prop “storage” and actor entrances. Seating was removed from three locations in the house and replaced by platforming to allow certain scenes and musical numbers to take place. Some scenes were played utilizing the theater’s aisles. Edison bulbs were hung above the wooden audience platforms, which sometimes served as “interior” lighting for the scenes played there, and at other times suggested evening stars.
Because the story is reborn and injected with references and a musical vernacular of the 21st century, my collaboration with the designers was informed by research that straddled German culture in the late 1800s and today’s approaches to theatrical spaces and contemporary storytelling. There is a clear division in the text between the moments in the story that take place in the material world and those that take place in the “song world” of the teen characters’ hearts and minds. That gave us permission to create full on rock and roll lighting for many of the numbers, as well as very saturated and otherworldly lighting looks for the intimate musical numbers.
Although I felt compelled to pay homage to Michael Grief’s original production (through sparsity and staging elegance), I allowed my own choreographic emphasis on the fluidity of storytelling to be the goal. I developed a physical movement vocabulary for the actors, which was repeated in the musical numbers, and I staged the transitions between scenes to run into and out of each other seamlessly. As the play’s action moved forward we built the connection between actors and the audience. The finale “Purple Summer” number culminated with actors crossing up into the aisles and onto platforms in the audience, creating one unified community as a metaphor for a hopeful societal future.
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