Deaf West’s Spring Awakening: On Its History and Why It Matters

Spring Awakening is back on Broadway this fall with a newly imagined production by the Los Angeles-based company Deaf West Theatre. I’m here with a friendly reminder that this production exists and to tell you a little bit more about what makes it so important.

For some context, Deaf West was founded by Ed Waterstreet with the mission of creating a theater with total access for the deaf community by incorporating American Sign Language (ASL) into its productions. Through the use of ASL, the theatrical experience is also enhanced for hearing audiences. Waterstreet has stated, “I do not want to create theatre that is about deaf issues, but rather exposes conflicts between the deaf and hearing worlds.” Deaf West had another successful production, Big River, move to Broadway in 2003. The cast of Big River was awarded the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre in 2004. Now, with Spring Awakening, Deaf West returns to Broadway with a new production that will speak to many people in different ways.

Deaf West creatively utilizes the talent and teamwork of deaf and hearing actors in their production of Spring Awakening. Originally performed in a 99-seat Los Angeles theater, the show gained rave reviews and a fast push to move to Broadway for a limited run. Michael Arden, who previously worked on Deaf West’s productions of Big River and Pippin, directs this re-imagined production.

The original Broadway production of Spring Awakening (and Frank Wedekind’s 1906 play of the same name, which the musical is based on) told the story of teens discovering sexuality in 1891 Germany. Deaf West’s production gives the story a new life with the added element of using ASL to help tell the story. The teens struggle to be heard and to communicate with their parents and other adults. Using ASL to explore this idea not only expands the theme of lack of communication but also acknowledges the challenges of communication in our current society. The use of ASL is not just an accessory; it becomes the root of the story. This production also educates the audience about Deaf culture in the late 19th century Germany through the portrayal of oralism and the banning of sign language during this time.

The main characters that are deaf have a hearing counterpart who speaks and sings for them. The actors work in sync for every sign and every note. It seems almost effortless, but it is made up of a series of intricate cues for the actors. This video displays their incredible technique and the way that the choreography beautifully incorporates ASL:

Watch this video on YouTube.

One of the reasons this production is important is because the company is contributing to the growing diversity in musical theatre. Consisting of more than 20 actors who are making their Broadway debuts, including Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin, the company is composed of deaf actors and hearing actors and/or musicians, as well as an actress who uses a wheelchair. It is giving opportunities to and creating a platform for the visibility of deaf actors and actors with disabilities. Personally, I am excited that other people with a disability will see themselves represented and know that they can be on that stage one day or achieve anything they want. Visibility is incredibly important not only for those underrepresented, but also for others to understand them. One of the cast members expressed that they hope the production proves to hearing people that the hearing and the deaf can easily work together. This company and production can bridge a gap between different cultures. The show is already encouraging audiences to learn sign language in order to communicate with the actors at the stage door:

With a limited run until January 24, the show is already receiving so much love from the theatre community. I believe it will be an experience to remember. Meanwhile, watch Andy Mientus’ vlog as he gives a behind the scenes look at the show:

Watch this video on YouTube.

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