A Controversial Awakening

The cast members of “Spring Awakening” discuss its controversial material in anticipation of its opening night.

Spring+Awakening+follows+a+group+of+repressed+teenagers+discovering+their+sexuality+and+journeying+through+the+emotional+turbulence+of+adolescence.

Georgia Goldberg

“Spring Awakening” follows a group of repressed teenagers discovering their sexuality and journeying through the emotional turbulence of adolescence.

Georgia Goldberg, Assistant A&E Editor

Gisele Stigi ’22 gasped as a blue notification darted across her screen in late august of 2021, accompanied by an email announcing her senior year musical. Her jaw dropped as she read the title, “Spring Awakening.” Stigi, who was familiar with the mature content of the show, said she felt both excited and alarmed. Composed by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the musical is based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play—banned from being performed in Germany until 1906. The rock musical follows a group of repressed teenagers discovering their sexuality and journeying through the emotional turbulence of adolescence in the late 19th century.

“As someone who loves musical theater, I had heard some of the songs before, and I knew the subject matter,” Stigi said. “ I was pretty shocked. I was so surprised because I really did not know how the school would pull off the show, particularly some of the more explicit scenes.”

Stigi plays Wendla Bergman, a naive and curious young girl who must navigate her sexuality without any guidance or knowledge from the adults in her life. Stigi said the show explores heavy subject matters, including domestic abuse, suicide, abortion and rape. She said the intensity of the show’s themes has pushed her and her cast-mates to progress as actors.

“[In the first rehearsal], we saw all of these storylines for the first time and realized the massive task that we had in front of us [which was] putting on this ambitious show that dealt with such heavy themes,” Stigi said. “I think that looking back on it now, I’ve really grown in a lot of ways. I personally have worked harder on this show than I ever have on a show in the past.”

With a rehearsal schedule of 17 hours per week, Stigi said rehearsals are both physically and mentally exhausting. In addition to the depletion she feels from singing, dancing and acting, she said the dark aspects of the show can often take a toll on her wellbeing.

“Because the subject matter of the show is so heavy and my character has to go through a massive emotional journey throughout the show, I often walk out of the theater feeling very emotionally exhausted, as well as physically exhausted,” Stigi said. “I wouldn’t say it is an entirely negative feeling, but to me, it just shows that what we’re doing is so effective. The show is just emotionally and physically exhausting because we’re all working really, really hard.”

Performing arts teacher and “Spring Awakening” director Michele Spears along with the rest of the theater department established policies intended to ensure the cast felt comfortable during rehearsals and performances. The department aimed to eliminate any apprehension cast members might feel towards speaking directly with an adult about their discomfort with the subject matter. Therefore, students elected cast deputies, whom they could approach about any issues regarding their emotional and physical boundaries. Cast members are also able to pause rehearsal if someone in the scene or dance number feels uncomfortable by utilizing a cast-elected code word.

Stigi said her character suffers through both physical abuse and a failed abortion. She said she initially worried about performing her intimate scenes before an audience, but ultimately she feels comfortable doing so because of the policies put in place by the theater department.

“My character has to do a lot of very intimate and intense and explicit things,” Stigi said. “[Sports Assistant Editor Leo Saperstein ’23], who plays opposite to me, and I worked together with Spears, the director, to make sure that we were on the same page about everything that we’re doing. We did a lot of exercises that helped us [become] more comfortable with each other in a lot of ways. I’m no longer uncomfortable about any of it really, and that is due to all of this work that Ms. Spears and everyone else has done to make sure that we’re comfortable.”

Isaac Tiu ’24, who plays Ernst Röbel in the production, said explicit content occurs in the majority of the show’s scenes, and therefore, cast members are encouraged to discuss boundaries and address the content seriously.

“From the start, we as a cast have agreed that we are all comfortable around [the use of explicit language], and anyone who isn’t is given a space to speak freely and get anything they need in order to be completely comfortable,” Tiu said. “We treat explicit content tenderly and make sure we are understanding of its significance and effect on others.”

Tiu said the cast camaraderie has proven the production to be an excellent choice for the school to stage.

“There is no doubt in my mind that ‘Spring Awakening’ was a perfect and relevant choice for [the school] to put on,” Tiu said. “In the modern day, it is more important to talk about hard subjects than ever before. What makes ‘Spring Awakening’ so unique is that it is so out there—it makes you think. It does not solve all problems, but rather, it asks a question to the audience. [It] prompts [us] to think about hard subjects and makes us more comprehensive and interested in the conversations we need to be having.”

Ofek Levy ’23, who plays Herr Rilow, Herr Neumann and Father Kaulbach, said discomfort surrounding the mature material in the show is inevitable, despite the policies in place. Still, he said he believes awkwardness and anxiety are important in order for actors to develop their performance skills.

“I think me and my peers are [sometimes uncomfortable], but that is just part of the acting process,” Levy said. “It is important in acting that you are uncomfortable [because] to truly step into another character, you have to step out of yourself. And that is a scary, scary thing. Acting [is] a lot like learning in that sense: discomfort is uncomfortable, but it is essential to learning and growing and ultimately understanding ourselves.”

Student ensemble member Katie Hadsock-Longarzo ’23 said the discomfort surrounding the show’s subject matter initially left her shocked that the school allowed for its production. However, she said upon learning more about the show, she now feels it is the perfect fit for this year’s winter musical. Still, Hadsock-Longarzo said the show is not without its flaws and said she is disappointed by the lack of depth the show attributes to its female characters.

“The guys are more developed characters than the girls,” Hadsock-Longarzo said. “They have problems that are a little less severe [than those of the girls]. It is a little frustrating when the girls’ storylines are so much darker, and yet they [are] less developed characters. [For example,] the biggest problem for one of the [male] characters is that he likes his piano teacher’s boobs.”
While the majority of themes are rooted in the show’s time period, Hadsock-Longarzo said there are some that can be applied to contemporary times as well. For instance, one plot-line follows the love story between two boys, Röbel and Hänschen Rilow, played by Features Assistant Editor Harry Tarses ’23.

“Although there is a gay storyline, there are no real repercussions about being gay in that time period,” Hadsock-Longarzo said. “Objectively, I think it is refreshing that it is not such a huge deal or a scary thing. However, I think [the show] does overlook some of the problems in that time period that those characters would have faced.”

Still, Hadsock-Longarzo said she thinks the show is a good choice for the school because the issues presented in the production are still prevalent for teenagers now.

“The show is about kids dealing with these dark storylines, like abuse from parents and questions about if a character is raped or not,” Hadsock-Longarzo said. “There is suicide mentioned, there is ostracization because of sexual assault, there is just a bunch of different dark storylines. And yet, it is something that is relatable for teenagers because the problems that existed in the 1800s are very similar to the problems existing now.”

Levy said the show raises a number of timely questions that will help initiate important conversations within the school community.

“It is not just about teenagers and sex,” Levy said. “It is also about teenagers who are trying to find out who they are and trying to understand the world around them because they haven’t talked to anyone about anything. The show really helps to emphasize the importance of talking, the importance of communication and the importance of trusting one another.”

Unlike past productions, the directors did not cut any students following the “Spring Awakening” audition process and instead, they created a student character ensemble, parents character ensemble, band vocalist ensemble and finale ensemble. Hadsock-Longarzo said more students wanted to be in the show this year because there were few in-person productions last year due to COVID-19. She said the theater department’s expansion of the cast made the show more inclusive to the student body.

“This year [the department] made it so everyone can be included in the show, and I think that is really cool because then, even if you’re a sophomore, or less experienced with theater, you still get an opportunity to be involved with the show,” Hadsock-Longarzo said.

Tiu said despite the cast’s large size, he has bonded with his cast-mates and appreciates all the relationships cast members have formed while producing the show.

“I have had a blast finally getting to rehearse and perform live, getting to know other students in the tightly-knit theater community and having the opportunity to do more of what I love,” Tiu said. “Since our first rehearsal, I have gotten so much closer with everyone, it almost feels like we are a family. The dynamic is so encouraging and welcoming that our community of performers is closer than ever. With every rehearsal, we get to know each other better as a team.”