Sexual repression in Germany circa 1891 and sexual licence in the developed world in 2013: what could they possibly have in common? A lot, according to a group of artists involved with Studio 58’s production of Spring Awakening, the musical.
Frank Wedekind completed the original play in 1891, but its content—which includes masturbation, homosexuality, and violent heterosexual encounters—was so controversial that the script wasn’t produced until 1906, and didn’t receive its English premiere until 1963. As the play unfolds, we see the grave consequences—including reform school, suicide, and death at the hands of a medical quack—that sexual repression has for the lives of a group of young teenagers.
Wedekind evokes a culture in which it was impossible to talk about sex. In our culture, it sometimes feels like it’s impossible to talk about anything else. But Wedekind’s story of sexual angst still speaks to today’s youth. When Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s rock-musical version of the play hit Broadway in 2006, it won eight Tony awards, including best musical, and the show acquired an instant and devoted young fan base.
David Hudgins, who is directing the western Canadian premiere of the musical Spring Awakening as part of the theatre-training program at Studio 58, says, “There were students petitioning for this piece—some of whom are in this room.” He’s referring to Alex Strong, one of the four young actors who are also chatting with the Straight in a tiny coaching space that’s part of Studio 58’s Langara College quarters. Strong is playing Ernst, who willingly gives himself up to being seduced by a youth named Hänschen, who’s played by Dominic Duchesne. Riun Garner will embody Melchior, the bright, sexually informed, atheistic boy who stumbles into a frantic encounter with the sexually ignorant but curious Wendla, whom Lauren Jackson will bring to life.
For these artists, Spring Awakening appeals partly because it allows them to rock out. When the 19th-century characters flip into their interior worlds in the musical, they also flip into the power and sexual abandon of rock ’n’ roll.
But the artists’ passion for the piece goes deeper; the characters’ alienation—and loneliness—feels immediately real to them. Duchesne says: “We get so many of our ideas of what sex is through social media, so a lot of people have this idea that sex is pretty much just like porn: it’s superficial and meaningless. People display themselves on Facebook or Myspace in provocative ways, but that’s just a façade.”
Garner agrees. “We’re scared about showing our more vulnerable sides in regards to sexuality,” he says. “It’s safer to make it superficial; you don’t want to get too attached to another person.”
Strong talks about the yearning beneath this superficiality. Referring to a lyric from the musical—“O, I’m gonna bruise you/O, you’re gonna be my bruise”—he says: “For me, sex is sex: there’s coitus, orgasm, those physical things. But there’s so much more to it—like where the bruising comes from. I think it comes from a place of wanting to be seen by another person and accepted for who you are and touched in a way that is intimate—and, like, you know, someone loves you.”
Duchesne emphasizes that parents need to talk more to their kids about sex, instead of letting the Internet educate them, and Jackson agrees. Asked what’s missing in the current framing of sex, she says: “The conversation. The involvement. The exploration that’s associated maybe with a bit of shame or confusion. How to take all of the information that’s out there and do something with it, be it.”
The actors relate to their characters’ longing for a direct experience of their bodies. At one point in the story, Wendla, whose mother refuses to tell her anything about sex, asks Melchior to whip her with a switch. “Wendla’s just so numb,” Jackson says, explaining that the character is searching for the trigger that will release her inchoate desires. “In the beating scene, the new feeling for her is the rush, the adrenaline: it’s everything that sex and violence have in common.”
Slapping his chest for emphasis, Garner adds, “The characters want to be here. They want to be in their bodies. And, when they [Melchior and Wendla] get into the sexuality, that brings out the primal body. It just flows out in an intense passion that they can’t contain because it’s so new and it just—whoomph!—who knows what can happen?”
Garner goes on, “The play talks about religion and people being drones to that, but in our society, right now, we are still drones in so many ways—to technology.” Underlining Garner’s point, Duchesne adds: “We’re having out-of-body experiences all the time. And when we are actually able to be ourselves and come back into our bodies, we don’t know what to do.”
Where do these young artists find the courage to explore that confusion on-stage? “On our files at the end of term,” Strong explains, “it always says, ‘Be prepared to take emotional risks, not physical ones.’ Like, ‘Be aware of the space you’re in, but then let yourself go. Unleash yourself. This is a place where the faculty and your fellow students are going to contain you, and you can be as messy and exploratory as you want.’” Referring to a desperate sexual encounter between Melchior and Wendla, Strong continues: “We can all sit around these guys at the end of Act 1 and know that what they’re doing is really sensitive—it’s about them having sex for the first time. And we can protect and contain and they can go where they need to go.”
Spring Awakening is at Studio 58 from Saturday (February 2) to February 24.