A young man and woman dressed in antiquated European garb walk across an ominously lit stage. After an uncomfortably forceful sexual encounter, the young woman breaks into song, belting out an alternative rock ballad about the troubles of teen sexuality in late 19th-century Germany.
Such scenes of a dark and reflective substance, emphasized by the chords of modern rock music, permeate the Pomona College Department of Theatre and Dance’s newest production, Spring Awakening. A musical adaptation by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name, Spring Awakening is considered by many to be one of dramatic literature’s most controversial masterpieces. The production tells the stories of various German teenagers just beginning to question and discover their sexuality in an oppressive society.
“We’ve all had to go places that I don’t think any of us were ready to go at first,” said Katherine Marcus Reker SC ’16, who is playing the role of Marta. “We’ve lost all boundaries in that sense.”
The theater department brought in relative newcomer Giovanni Ortega to direct the ambitious musical adaptation.
“I only started around this time last year,” Ortega said. “They asked me to direct this piece after I directed the Medieval Mystery Play last year, in which I incorporated a lot of live music.”
While Ortega may be new to the Pomona theater department, he comes from a background of music, theater and choreography.
“My first trade is singing, so I was coming from that world,” he said. “My first year of college, I did my first play, and that’s when it opened up this whole world for me. That was my foray into being a creative artist. Since my background includes choreography as well, it really helped to be able to incorporate the music, the acting and the choreography all together.”
Because of the musical’s controversial plot and songs, both the director and the student actors faced a unique challenge in producing this musical adaptation.
“The biggest challenge is dealing with taboos,” Ortega said. “I had to go with an approach of handling everything in a very delicate manner. The darker a piece is, the more delicately you need to approach it with your actors. You’re dealing with really, really hard material, so we need to be sensitive in approaching it and creating a connected and accepting cast.”
Harrison Goodall PO ’16 is playing the role of Hanschen, a teenager who begins to question his sexuality. He agrees that the content is not to be taken lightly, especially within the context of the play’s setting.
“This all takes place in a very confined German society,” he said. “My character is the one who knows who he is and isn’t afraid of who he is, but society isn’t ready for that. His sexuality is questionable, and he does his own thing, and society ostracizes him for that.”
As it did for Goodall, playing such complex and sensitive roles provided an interesting challenge for most of the actors in the production. Most student actors had to prepare for their roles outside of the normal rehearsal schedule.
“It’s been an interesting battle mentally,” Goodall said. “I’m from a fairly conservative background, and I’m doing a lot of things that I’ve never done before. It’s been an interesting journey, going places I’ve never been before and finding the purpose of why we’re doing this. Tapping into that deeper purpose is what I’ve had to do outside of rehearsal to prepare for the role.”
Many of the issues that the characters face are unique to the play’s time period, and the actors sought to make them relevant to a contemporary audience. Much of this was done through modern music.
“I was drawn to this production because it’s a really beautiful blend of music and theater that is different from most musicals,” Goodall said. “A lot of musicals just have big, showy numbers that end in major chords and have 30 people on stage, but this one is more subtle and more rock-y. It’s more like music you would listen to on the radio. That makes it a lot more fun to sing and get into.”
Kristen Rosenfeld, the Music Supervisor from Spring Awakening’s National Tour, was in Claremont for three weeks, teaching the songs to the cast.
“The chair of acting knows a relative of hers, so it was a chance of a lifetime for us to get her here,” Ortega said. “It was awesome. We had a hands-on training, and just to have the real visceral feeling of how it was originally created was incredible.”
Rosenfeld’s musical help and instruction contributed to the production’s aim of making Spring Awakening’s deeper message relatable to students. While the music played a large part in making the production more applicable to a modern audience, the issues at the heart of the play are still fundamentally pertinent.
“Each student will relate to at least one of these characters,” he said. “We want to allow people to feel good about themselves and show them that they are not alone.”
Student actors, too, are confident in the production’s significance for today’s young adults.
“Everything is very modern and relatable, but it’s set in 1890s Germany,” Marcus Reker said. “All the kids sing about issues that are still relatable and relevant, and that’s what makes the show so powerful; you can relate to kids who lived 120 years ago.”
Performances of Spring Awakening are taking place Nov. 20-21 at 8 p.m., Nov. 22 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students, faculty and staff and can be purchased through the Seaver Box Office at (909) 607-4375 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.