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Spring Awakening's Deaf Actors Dance to Music They Can't Hear

Date: Sep 14, 2015
It's a moment that would be complicated in any musical: In the current Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, at the start of a song in the second act, a group of actors faces upstage, backs to the audience. They represent a forest of trees, and eventually they begin to sway in unison as the show transitions into a searing number about loss. For their choreography to have its intended impact, everyone needs to move at the same time, as though the woods have suddenly sprung to life.

Now consider the additional challenge that arises when many of the performers are deaf. Unable to hear, they obviously cannot take their cue to start moving from the sound of a violin or a line of spoken dialogue. And since they're facing upstage, they can't even watch the primary actors in the scene to see when the music has begun.

However, Deaf West Theatre exists to find the possibilities in these conundrums. Founded in 1991, the Los Angeles-based company is internationally renowned for creating productions that showcase deaf performers and integrate elements of deaf culture into a wide array of work. The troupe's revival of Spring Awakening, which premiered last year in LA and began performances last week at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, is a striking example of why this approach works.

Based on Frank Wedekind's classic Expressionist play, the musical indicts a repressive society that insists on keeping adolescents ignorant about everything from their own sexuality to the political ideas of the world at large. This results in a series of easily preventable tragedies, though it also allows some of the teens to discover their true natures as they rebel against the adult world.

Their resistance is especially obvious in the music: Though the dialogue scenes are rooted in the 19th-century world of the original play, the songs use contemporary rock (and contemporary language) to express the drive toward enlightenment. It's like the future itself is stepping into the show and belting a ballad.

The Deaf West revival enhances that effect. American Sign Language (ASL) and projected text are incorporated throughout the production, underscoring the fact that many of the characters – be it through their age differences or moral positions – effectively speak different languages. Plus, the signing itself clarifies the generational divide. During the book scenes, old-fashioned signs are used, while the songs incorporate modern ASL. So while the adults may use literal, word-for-word translations – turning "It is so hot outside" into a five-sign sentence – the teens might use a more conceptual approach, registering the heat by fanning themselves then signing "outside."

This points to the rich palette that Spencer Liff, the production's choreographer, can paint from. Working with the show's three ASL masters – who have translated the entire script – he's able to blur the lines between signing and dance, so that ASL words evolve into choreography and vice versa.

But again, his work has to be executed by performers who can't hear music. Those trees have to sway simultaneously. So how does that happen?


"It's all body cues and visual cues," Liff says. "When they're all out there as trees, they're staring at a dark stage for five to six minutes and then have to hit a cue. So that's the hearing actors. They'll do tiny shrugs to let them know they're getting ready. There are a million tiny cues. Your hand opens. You cross your arms. You shift your body weight. Those are things we use throughout the entire show." (He adds that during rehearsals, the cast also learned to be aware of the percussive elements of songs, since the vibrations are more easily felt.)

Granted, when Liff began the first workshop of this production in 2013, he didn't know that strategy would work. "I was terrified because I didn't know any sign language," he recalls. "I had no way of communicating with our deaf actors outside of our interpreters. Every single day, I had a moment when I almost cried from how difficult and frustrating it was. I couldn't use any of the normal things I use in choreography."

But as the company members pressed on, they learned to understand each other – Liff now knows enough sign language to communicate – and they also developed the particular vocabulary for this staging. For instance, Liff explains, "I often watch the show with earplugs now. The first time I did that, I realized there were so many holes where it wasn't clear to the deaf audience that music had started – that we were going from dialogue into a song. So I try to do something with the entire cast, physically, that makes it very clear we've transitioned."


The "swaying trees" moment is a good example. Meanwhile, the ASL masters have also been challenged to make sure their translation captures the subtext and nuance of this densely metaphorical show. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's score is as likely to suggest carnal desire with a song about the wind as it is to have a character directly describe her body, and that demands a distinct set of signs.

"In sign language, we would literally say, 'The wind dies,'" says ASL master Anthony Natale, using standard signs to illustrate the idea. "But the concept is totally different in the show. Behind that, it means you're aroused sexually, you're filled with emotion. So we shift the sign." At that, Natale, who is deaf, demonstrates a sensuous set of gestures paired with deep, physically expressive breathing.

He notes that this perspective on translation has allowed for exciting collaborations with Liff. In one song, the actors communicate the line "touch me" with a sign that runs a hand in a diagonal line from the shoulder to the midsection. Then they perform the sign with the other hand, running the other way, so that the phrase is literally sketched across their bodies. Performed rhythmically, this act of speech also has the erotic charge of dance.

"With the choreography, we do have to watch to make sure the meaning stays the same," says Natale. "But we can enhance it to make it more artistically beautiful."


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Photos by Kevin Parry.

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