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UI Theater Department to perform Spring Awakening

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | NOVEMBER 08, 2012 6:30 AM

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On stage is a tiny village in which no one speaks of sadness, sex, or anything improper. Young teenagers wander in, wanting to explore and experience the world. They have no idea of the trials, difficulties, and despair that lie ahead. Their lives will be forever changed in Spring Awakening.

The second Main Stage show of the University of Iowa Theater Department season, and the only musical, Spring Awakening will open in the Theater Building’s Mabie Theater at 8 p.m. Friday.

Additional performances will take place 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Nov. 11. The show will close with performances at 8 p.m. Nov. 14-17.

Spring Awakening, by Frank Wedekind, premièred in Germany on Nov. 20, 1906. Shortly after, many theaters banned the show because of the content: nudity, swearing, rebellion, sex, child abuse, suicide, and abortion.

Controversial since the beginning, the work has been banned or censored numerous times. Despite that — or because of that — the popularity of the show has increased in recent years. In the 1990s, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater began working on a musical adaptation of the drama, which premièred on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Dec. 10, 2006. The story now makes its way to Iowa City.

The musical tells the story of a group of young children ages 15 to 17 who search for answers to the changes they are going through but find no help from the adults around them. Aneisa Hicks, a first-year graduate-student actor playing the lead female role of Wendla, believes this lack of guidance is an important component of the show.

“Without this guidance, we can wind up hurting ourselves in the end,” she said. “It speaks of how scary, exciting, daunting this time is without guidance. And also the juxtaposition of people thinking having knowledge will set them free and being hungry for knowledge but winding up in a hole because you have no one to guide you.”

In the opening scene, when Wendla asks her mother the age-old question — “Where do babies come from?” — this lack of guidance becomes apparent.

Struggling to understand her mother’s nonsensical explanation, Wendla continually asks questions but gains no understanding. Even after seeking out those who are more informed, she remains unable to comprehend much of what is going on in the world. The pursuit of information pushes the show forward.

The cast believes the audience will easily understand the theme.

“I really wanted to do something that our student population would want to go see —particularly the undergrads,” said Nathan Halvorson, a third-year graduate student directing the show as his M.F.A. thesis. “I don’t think we always think about them. I wanted to speak to our population, which are mostly young people.”

“The main characters are 15, but we have a truckload of 18-year-olds who just show up and are dealing with what these characters are,” he said. “This show speaks to everyone. This time in our lives, bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, is treacherous. The decisions we make now affect our entire lives. The show is important, because it tells you that you are not alone; everyone is feeling these emotions and going through these experiences. These kids go through some major sexual awakenings, life-changing situations, unbearable sadness, and intense moments of joy.”

Each character develops a method of seeking what he or she so desperately wants to understand. The performers had very little trouble accurately playing this quest for information, because it is something they experience.

“We all have to navigate these waters, and it doesn’t stop at puberty,” said Amelia Peacock, a junior playing Thea in the production. “To be OK with who you are and to celebrate everyone around you and who they are is an important message.”

Hicks echoed this.

“Spanning through time, there’s not a year or a decade in which children aren’t dealing with the same problems,” she said. “This story is so real in so many ways.”

This sense of realism, Halvorson believes, sets Spring Awakening apart from most other musicals.

“I think it’s kind of revolutionary when it comes to musical theater,” he said. “It’s really exciting, because it’s not about jazz squares and fan kicks.”

The music also vastly differs from traditional musical soundtracks. The songs sound more like punk rock as opposed to show tunes. They sound as if they could be played on popular radio stations, not Broadway classics.

The songs help to further the plot and pull everyone into the story. In this case, they do not lower believability, they heighten the sense of realism by showing what the characters are unable to express through words without notes.

“It’s believable, when a lot of musicals are not,” Halvorson said. “It’s so aggressively raw; we have to totally believe that they’re going through these life-or-death experiences.”

Finding that connection to her character to make it believable did not prove exceedingly difficult for Hicks.

“I would almost say I’m Wendla at 24, and she’s me at 15,” she said.

However, as with any role, there were difficulties in developing the character.

“She walks around the world with her heart first and foremost,” Hicks said. “She’s not afraid to ask for help and to show how she feels. And in my personal life, that’s tough for me. She’s asking a lot of me. To be so open to the world with a smile on your face without any sort of conniving air to it is strength. She’s willing to go explore the world and ask questions, but she’s still just a little girl who likes boys and wants to hang out with her friends. Through trial and error, she found herself, and that’s beautiful. There’s nothing weak about her.”

Unafraid to ask for help, as Hicks says, may be an understatement.

Going so far as to ask Melchoir to beat her in order to be able to understand the abuse her friend lives with, Wendla never shies away from anyone who has the ability to help. It is powerful to witness someone so open to the world, someone so perceptive to the lives around her. Certainly, Wendla lets her guide her through life. She follows it to the extent that, fully unaware of what she is doing, she falls in love with Melchoir.

She lets him love her, and together they create a life. At only 15 and not even informed on how babies are made, this would be a terrifying prospect to most.

Hicks agreed that Wendla has fear in her life.

“I think there’s fear in not being heard; she just wants someone to listen to her,” she said.
Halvorson concurred, adding that this message of being heard is the basis of the show’s widespread appeal.

“I think there are lessons for the children, but there are also lessons for the adults,” he said. “The main thing in the show is everyone’s just desperate for someone to hear her or his voice. I think everyone can learn from that; to just walk out and have your ears open to the world around you. I think it’s ageist to think that an older audience doesn’t want to take part in this experience. Plus this show is what their children and grandchildren are talking about and doing, so they should see that.”

Peacock also feels the themes of the show will affect all audiences.

“We’re talking about the big issues — sexual identity, abuse, loneliness — that society sweeps under the table — they are in their faces,” she said. “It’s going to affect the audience strongly.”

As a musical, the cast and production crew had many aspects to consider when trying to achieve this effect on audiences. In order to do so, all cast members had to excel in acting, singing, and dancing.
This made for an elaborate audition process.

“I looked at all three equally, I think,” Halvorson said. “They had a very intense dance call, a very intense vocal audition, and very intense scene work. You can’t have one without the others.”

“It took most of one of the callback days,” Peacock said. “We all didn’t want to leave the stage [for other callbacks]. It was a really stressful and hectic day. But it was fun, too. The dance callback was the most extreme part of the process. Nathan told us to do our own thing with it, our own thoughts and ideas. It didn’t really seem like an audition at all.”

Hicks had a similar experience.

“I saw my name on the callback list, and I thought that’s scary,” she said. “I thought I’d get cut, because there were like 20 of us. We were taken in and shown two dances, and that was such an emotional experience for me. I was experiencing profound anger, grief, and longing, and I wasn’t expecting that. I got called in to do another aside. I told Nathan I would give anything to play any character in the show. At the final audition, they paired me and Andrew [Wilkes] up, and it was magical. We played with the scene that is the love scene and went in to audition together. It was just a perfect gel, and after that, he gave me a piggyback ride out of the audition room. When I checked the cast list, I cried and laughed at the same time.”

The performers had proved themselves to Halvorson.

“The 13 in the show, after the 10 hours of auditions, told me they were in the show,” he said. “There were no other choices; they were the ones.”

Plenty of work lay ahead for Halvorson.

“I made a lot of changes to the way it is traditionally staged,” he said. “For example, in the original staging, they all hold handheld mikes, and I didn’t want to do that. There’s a lot more movement, dance, storytelling through bodies than people often see this.”

The movement is central to the staging of the show. The actors rarely sit still; they are always dancing, running, jumping off ladders. The motion helps to visualize the inner frustration and turmoil the characters face. Halvorson described it as a “very athletic production.”

Designing the dance elements of the show proved to be a lot of work for Halvorson, who choreographed in addition to directing the show.

“I had to really go back to the drawing board with things I was coming up with choreographically,” he said. “Putting my 30-something-year-old mind into a 15-year-old-body and making it move that way was a challenge. I do a lot of comedies and farces, and this is not that. But I did what I always do; look for the truth of the moment and make it interesting from there.”

The “truth of the moment” seemed to be of huge importance to the creative team on the production. When dealing with such sensitive topics, the members believed they had to be honest.

“I wanted it to be real,” Halvorson said. “There’s a lot a sexual exploration in it, so it’s often staged in a sexy way, but I wanted it to be sexually truthful. I think that first time is more about exploration and a bit awkward, and I wanted to be truthful to that.”

This desire for truth was a large factor in his decision to have nudity not only on Wendla’s part, as in the original, but also for Melchoir.

“I felt like the original production was kind of misogynistic,” Halvorson said. “We treated [the nudity] as we did everything else. We treated the whole show with great respect and care and detail. The cast is so open to trying some of these scary things that I’m asking them to do.”

While they felt the need to perfect this aspect, none of the cast felt this was the most crucial moment of the show. While sex is spoken of several times, the sexual scene between Wendla and Melchoir last only a few minutes. The buildup to the scene — the emotions coursing through them, their need to comfort one another, the love they feel, and the passion they portray — have a much more lasting effect.

“It’s not a story just about sex,” Hicks said. “It’s about love, compassion, the longing to be heard, to be understood, and everybody can relate to that. Everybody can relate to wanting to be heard. The ways we go about expressing that are real. Just because we are talking about things that are frightening doesn’t mean you have to be frightened. Allow the story to teach you about yourself. This show is gorgeous, and it speaks so truthfully about the human experience.”

“As an audience member, you dare to go because it’s just so intense, and emotional, and scary, and such a ride that you almost don’t want to get off,” Peacock said. “It’s just one of those things you don’t want to miss.”

Halvorson believes that the show will profoundly affect every individual who attends.

“I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it here. It’s strange and new and different,” he said. “I think people will come for the nudity, violence, and swearing but leave moved by the experience.”

What: Spring Awakening
Where: Theater Building Mabie Theater
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Nov. 11, 8 p.m. Nov. 14-17
Admission: $5 with student IDs, $20 general public


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