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The word of your body–“Spring Awakening” and ASL

When is it the right time to talk about sex? Is there a lack of sex education and communication among adolescents? “Spring Awakening,” a rock musical adapted from the original 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, perfectly embodies these vital coming-of-age questions present in society and throughout puberty.

First appearing on Broadway in 2006 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City,  “Spring Awakening” went on to win eight Tony awards with its stellar cast of big names including Lea Michele, Skylar Astin and John Gallagher Jr. The hit musical was revived once again in 2015 by Deaf West Theater, who incorporated American Sign Language (ASL) into the play. “Spring Awakening” became a pioneer for deaf accessibility on Broadway while also including deaf cast members and having the first Broadway member, Ali Stroker, to perform in a wheelchair.

UMBC’s Musical Theater Club has chosen this game-changing musical for its spring show this year. The performance has many unique aspects highlighted in its choreography. Choreographers Emma Gilligan, a sophomore Environmental Science major, and Divya Singh, a sophomore Music Technology major, integrated ASL into the choreography of the musical.

For Singh, incorporating ASL into the choreography makes the songs so much more beautiful to watch. In an effort to create accurate ASL translations, the choreographers worked with UMBC’s Sign of Life club and other resources on campus. In the first song of the show, “Mama Who Bore Me,” the main character, Wendla Bergmann, laments her lack of sexual education as a result of her mother’s reluctance. Wendla sings the lines “mama, who gave me,” which has a completely different meaning in English than ASL, translating to “mama, you peabrain.”

Singh notes how the ASL translations illuminate the raw and truthful nature of ASL in contrast to the English lyrics. In addition to this incorporation of signing in the choreography, MTC provided ASL translators for the audience on opening night in order to foster a more accessible and welcoming environment.

However, this spring show does a lot more than just provide accessibility to the deaf community; it also touches on extremely difficult subjects such as domestic abuse, suicide, teenage pregnancy, abortion, discovering one’s sexuality and rape. Pointing out these sensitive topics, the show’s trigger warning suggests that no one under 16 attend the show in order to ensure the audience remains comfortable.

It was also important for the actors feel comfortable as they performed these scenes of intimacy and sexual violence onstage. Anticipating this, MTC worked with Chelsea Pace, Assistant Professor of Movement in the UMBC’s Theatre Department, to help the cast. Pace has extensive experience in portraying intimacy onstage and onscreen and has even developed her own “comprehensive approach for actors, directors, and choreographers to efficiently, effectively, and ethically stage theatrical intimacy, nudity, and sexual violence.”

The final number features the entire cast in the audience singing a hopeful ballad called, “The Song of Purple Summer.” Reflecting on the experiences of the characters involving sex, abuse, life and death, this song leaves the audience with the feeling of hope for the future.

Given its many unique aspects of production, choreography and accessibility, MTC’s “Spring Awakening” is a triumphant success. Costumes, vocals, lighting, sound and music were on point, creating an all around beautiful yet heartbreaking coming-of-age story that no one can forget. 

Musical Theater Club puts on a fall showcase and a spring musical every year. Check out their myUMBC page for more information, and keep an eye out for their performances next fall.