Singing in Sign Language: Deaf West Theatre's 'Spring Awakening'

Jimmy Bellinger, Joseph Haro, Daniel David Stewart, Daniel Durant (standing on bed), Joshua Castille, Miles Barbee. | Photo: Tate Tullier.

Last fall, theater company Deaf West mounted "Spring Awakening," the alt-rock musical created by musicians Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, based on Frank Wedekind's late 19th century play about angst-ridden German teens. Produced in association with the Forest of Arden at the 99-seat Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, the show became an instant classic.

Featuring a cast of 25 deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing-actors and musicians, the work was performed simultaneously in American Sign Language and spoken English. The L.A. Times' F. Kathleen Foley wrote: "It's hard to enumerate all the ways in which Deaf West's 'Awakening' is so very, very good. The signing in this production does more than simply translate; it ennobles."

The "Awakening," which snagged eight Tony Awards in 2007, including for Best Musical and Best Score, and has also been produced in more than 20 countries worldwide, becomes more textured and immersive in the hands, quite literally, of Deaf West.

The production proved so popular that it moved to the 500-seat Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, with 22 performances running from May 21 to June 7.

But when Deaf West artistic director David J. Kurs first saw "Spring Awakening," he wasn't so convinced. "I remembered feeling that the production was really like a hearing-oriented musical," Kurs says, speaking through ASL master, Beverly Nero, "but then when I met with Michael Arden and he told me that the story was really about communication -- about the separation between children and their parents -- then it clicked."

Adds the Riverside-raised director: "Everything came together, because deaf people tend to be born to hearing parents and very, very often deaf people have to navigate that world of having parents that speak a different language and have a different culture."

Ali Stroker, Sandra Mae Frank, Miles Barbee, Austin McKenzie, Joshua <br /> Castille. | Photo: Tate Tullier.
Ali Stroker, Sandra Mae Frank, Miles Barbee, Austin McKenzie, Joshua Castille. | Photo: Tate Tullier.

On a recent afternoon rehearsal, the hearing -- and singing -- actor Austin McKenzie, who reprises last fall's role of Melchior, the nascent intellectual targeted by pernicious professors, was rehearsing the song, "The Bitch of Living." Accompanied by pounding guitars and drums, this tune, like so many in the work, seems anthemic, with the signing beautiful in its own right, the gestures, a kind of rhythmically accented choreography.

But this shouldn't come as a surprise, as Deaf West is no stranger to musicals. Since its founding in 1991 by Ed Waterstreet, the troupe has staged more than 40 plays and four previous musicals, including a revival of the 1980s Broadway show, "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." That production moved from North Hollywood to the Mark Taper Forum in 2002 and then to New York in 2003, earning two Tony nominations and a special Tony award for Excellence in Theater. There was also a 2009 production of "Pippin," staged at the Taper. Director Arden appeared on Broadway as Tom Sawyer in "Big River" and shared the title role in "Pippin" with deaf actor Tyrone Giordano.

But in Deaf West's reimagining, this "Awakening," continues to break new ground. While the music and libretto are the same, and many behind-the-scenes personnel have Broadway credits or past experience with the show, Kurs says that this production has more choreography than previous Deaf West musicals, with Emmy-nominated Spencer Liff integral to the production. Liff 's fistfuls of credits include choreographing for the hit TV shows, "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance."

Daniel David Stewart (back to camera), Joseph Haro, Joshua Castille, Miles Barbee, Sean Grandillo, Austin McKenzie, Jimmy Bellinger. | Photo: Tate Tullier.
Daniel David Stewart (back to camera), Joseph Haro, Joshua Castille, Miles Barbee, Sean Grandillo, Austin McKenzie, Jimmy Bellinger. | Photo: Tate Tullier.

Says Kurs: "Spencer is a fantastic choreographer who himself had done workshops with us and really understands the relationship between sign language and music. It's obvious that we can't just be wild with the choreography, because the sign language within it must remain clear.

"So that is the process that we are learning and experiencing," continued Kurs. "For all of the characters, for Spencer and for Michael and this production, adds even more choreography than the first production we did of "Spring Awakening." Our first responsibility is that the sign language is clear and understandable to the audience and also that the sign language itself is functional, like choreography in many ways.

"Even though hearing people don't know sign language, but still they see it -- and they can feel it."

Kurs mentioned that from the beginning Arden was interested in expressing the story in very visual ways, making that another reason the team spent quite a bit of time on choreography. "There is more movement and the actors themselves are sometimes becoming visual props. For example, actors become tombstones and then they become trees and the other actors are moving around them. There's constant movement.

"It's really like theater on steroids," exclaimed Kurs, his brown curly hair casting a halo-like effect around his already gentle countenance. "There's something going on all the time, and with the addition of sign language, it's double and triple."

Sandra Mae Frank (on floor), Amelia Hensley, Joseph Haro, Treshelle Edmond. | Photo: Tate Tullier.
Sandra Mae Frank (on floor), Amelia Hensley, Joseph Haro, Treshelle Edmond. | Photo: Tate Tullier.

Wedekind's play, considered scandalous in 1891, featured German schoolchildren exploring their sexuality. It also chronicled the divide between parents and children. But in the Sheik/Sater rendering, today's audiences are given both a contemporary and exhilarating portrayal of adolescence.

Kurs explains that his team spent a great deal of time on the translation. "Steven Sater's work is very poetic and it's very abstract and there are many idioms in the book that we spent hours and hours analyzing. Luckily, Steven himself wrote a book about the meaning of each of his lines ['A Purple Summer: Notes on the lyrics of 'Spring Awakening'], so we were able to use that as a guide to help us analyze the script.

Adds Kurs: "We were really lucky that Steve wrote that book and he was able to share some thoughts with us. While the ASL masters are [also] very visual, we wanted to make sure and be very careful that we were expressing the author's original intent and the equivalent in ASL -- and not just go off somewhere."

Kurs says that both Sheik and Sater have seen the production, which features two additional cast members and a seven-piece band, including harp. "I'm sure that it's also a very new experience for them, because with this production the addition of sign language, maybe it wasn't their original vision when they first wrote the script, but I think that they [came] around."

Treshelle Edmond, Lauren Patten, Ali Stroker. | Photo: Tate Tullier.
Treshelle Edmond, Lauren Patten, Ali Stroker. | Photo: Tate Tullier.

Kurs graduated from Gallaudet University and served as Deaf West's artistic associate and associate producer before taking the reins of the troupe, as well as having worked as a writer and producer of documentary, commercial and theatrical projects. He says he saw his first Deaf West production when he was thirteen.

"But I never wanted to act and I was never in a Deaf West production," explains Kurs. "I had acted before and I think that by the time I started to become involved with Deaf West, I was already more interested in writing, producing and presenting ideas -- and in bringing the best art possible to audiences. That's how I fell in love with the whole experience."

One newbie to the Deaf West production is Orange County-born Krysta Rodriguez. The 30-year old has an impressive list of Broadway credits, including originating the role of Wednesday Addams in "The Addams Family" alongside Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. Other Broadway shows include her being in original casts of "In the Heights" and "Spring Awakening."

Rodriguez recalled first seeing "Awakening" off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre, where it ran before transferring to the Great White Way in 2006. She was studying at NYU while juggling auditions and jobs. Her first Broadway credit was in "Good Vibrations" when she was 19.

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"I will remember that day for the rest of my life," Rodriguez says. "I was tired, I'd been in school all day and I saw the show with a friend, and it blew my mind. I didn't know anything about it going in and I'd never seen anything like it. Seeing these people who were my age doing roles that weren't just about, say, being in the hallway at my locker, or my boyfriend did this.

She continues: "They were real problems -- life and death issues that you don't get to play when you're 20 years old. I called my agents the next day and said, 'I know it's going to Broadway and I need to be in it.' And they went 'Sure, whatever.' I knew they needed swings [understudies], and I had already swung before and said I would never do that again. But I was like, 'If they let me sweep the floors, I will do that.' I needed to be near this."

Rodriguez plays the role of the somewhat older Ilse. "She's really the only character out of all of them that could be lifted out and free-imagined. She's sort of the link between the children and the adults. She's a cautionary tale for the children.

Added Rodriguez: "She's what the adults used to say, 'You don't want to be like this when you get to be this age.' I can really feel this girl who is older and too mature for her age but still hasn't quite grown up yet."

Daniel Marmion (at podium), Joshua Castille, Jimmy Bellinger, Austin McKenzie, Joseph Haro, Daniel Durant. | Photo: Tate Tullier.
Daniel Marmion (at podium), Joshua Castille, Jimmy Bellinger, Austin McKenzie, Joseph Haro, Daniel Durant. | Photo: Tate Tullier.

The singer/dancer/actor was in the TV series, "Smash," and is currently on the ABC Family drama, "Chasing Life," scheduled to begin airing its second season this summer. She said she saw "Big River" on Broadway and was moved by the production.

"This "Spring Awakening" is also amazing, and audiences will take away so much. But I hope they get to see, at least in my character, a person rise and fall, and go through some of the worst things you can go through and then emerge with a different sort of knowledge and beauty. That's what I'm going for."

As for a "Deaf West style," Kurs points out that the company's productions are meant to be equally accessible to both deaf and hearing people. "Even though we sit next to someone who may be speaking a different language and they may be watching a show, I think that we're both enjoying it on the same level.

"That's the best way to describe our style. And I think that that applies to all generations and that it really just has to be on that level. We can't have anything where deaf and hearing audiences are not experiencing everything on the same level.

"Everybody," adds Kurs, a huge grin lighting up his face, "has to enjoy it equally."

Sandra Mae Frank, Treshelle Edmond, Natacha Roi (seated), Kathryn Gallagher (on guitar), Lauren Patten, Amelia Hensley (obscured). Katie Boeck, Ali Stroker. | Photo: Tate Tullier.
Sandra Mae Frank, Treshelle Edmond, Natacha Roi (seated), Kathryn Gallagher (on guitar), Lauren Patten, Amelia Hensley (obscured). Katie Boeck, Ali Stroker. | Photo: Tate Tullier.

Patricia Wolff, Interim Artistic Director of the Wallis, not only enjoyed the production when she saw it in downtown Los Angeles, but realized it would be a perfect fit for the Beverly Hills theater.

"It was one of those experiences where you don't really know what you're walking into, and it takes your breath away," she says. "It was so spectacular when I was watching, and it was so relevant in terms of its themes. On paper, it's about adolescents trying to connect, but somehow this production is about something so much more and so much bigger. I knew, without a doubt, that we had to do it."

With Deaf West's 25-year anniversary coming up next year, Kurs says he wants to keep innovative, keep pushing the line and not repeat things. And yes, Kurs hopes that "Spring Awakening," following in the footsteps of "Big River," will also go to Broadway.

"I think that art is a really very powerful way of communicating and sharing our community, and sharing our culture with the world. I can talk for hours and hours about sign language and deaf culture," adds Kurs, "but still, it won't be as much as you can learn for two hours just sitting in the theater and watching our show."


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