April 1, 2020

‘Spring Awakening’ finds a voice at Deaf West Theatre

At the beginning of Deaf West Theatre’s reimagining of the rock musical “Spring Awakening,” set in 1890s provincial Germany, a naïve deaf teenager, Wendla, begs her prudish mother to tell her how babies are born.  

“I’m an aunt for the second time now, and I still have no idea how it happens,” Wendla tells her mother, signing the dialogue as a member of the show’s band, standing beside her, speaks and, at times, sings Wendla’s words while strumming a guitar. Wendla’s hearing mother, however, tells Wendla that a woman must only love her husband to give birth to a child, signing awkwardly, while speaking her dialogue. It is a lie that will eventually lead to tragic results in this Deaf West Theatre production, which like all the company’s work is aimed first and foremost toward deaf audiences, but also seamlessly combines spoken word with signing to draw hearing viewers as well. 

As with every Deaf West show, the intricate mix of oral and visual languages produces a theatrical experience very different from all others, but even so, David J. Kurs, Deaf West’s artistic director, was hesitant when, in 2013, director Michael Arden suggested tackling the much-produced and lauded 2006 Tony-winning musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.

The musical tells the story of a group of Victorian-era teens who are struggling with their repressive parents and teachers at the same time they are discovering their budding carnal desires, during an era when any discussion of sex was taboo. Based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name, its frank depictions of teen sex, homosexuality, incest, unwanted pregnancy, abortion and suicide made the play so scandalous that it didn’t get its first production until 1906.

Composer Sheik and book and lyrics writer Sater reimaged the story as a musical, still set in 1890s Germany, interspersing the dialogue with vibrant pop-rock songs in which the teenagers express their innermost emotions. The show earned rave reviews on Broadway and has been produced throughout the United States.

It’s this popularity that made Kurs reluctant to stage the musical when Arden came calling two years ago. “The show was very successful and I didn’t want to be competing with the Broadway tour,” Kurs, who grew up attending High Holy Days services at Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf, then located in Arleta, said during a recent interview. The bearded, low-key Kurs, 37, was speaking through a sign-language translator at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, where Deaf West’s interpretation of “Spring Awakening” opens on May 28 following its critically acclaimed, sold-out run at the Rosenthal Theatre downtown last fall.  It continues through June 7.      

“We usually choose plays that have become a little bit stale, which we can then bring Deaf West’s original spin to,” Kurs said. “But ‘Spring Awakening’ was not stale at all.”

Yet upon rereading the musical and Wedekind’s play, Kurs began to envision how the show might resonate with deaf audiences. “It’s about teenagers who are denied a voice, which is often how deaf teens feel,” he said. “Many deaf people have the same experience of trying and failing to communicate with their hearing parents, whether it’s about sex, or attending a class with an oral teacher who speaks, or their relationship with hearing people in general.

“And a lot of deaf people who have had an oral education feel bound and gagged,” he added. “You want to communicate, but you can’t, and this leads to much anger and bitterness.”

Kurs enlisted three American Sign Language (ASL) masters to translate Sheik and Sater’s script plus the musical’s 16 songs — all of which are performed by 27 actors, both hearing and deaf. The deaf actors sign their dialogue and songs while their lines are spoken aloud by members of the band who represent each character’s “voice.”

In Deaf West’s version of “Spring Awakening,” the characters, as well, are both hearing and deaf: Melchior, a rebellious teenager, was envisioned as hearing because of the self-confidence that allows him to attempt to thwart authority figures; his best friend, Moritz, who is distraught over failing out of school, is deaf and a victim of the oralist culture; and Wendla, a deaf teen who falls in love with Melchior in what turns out to be a “Romeo and Juliet” kind of relationship.            

“Ninety percent of deaf children have hearing parents and often feel that they are being raised in a culture that is not their own,” Kurs said. “They feel disconnected from the hearing people around them. Imagine sitting at the dinner table while your parents are interpreting what’s being said. There’s this feeling of separation that happens, like this is not really your home.  And that’s very similar to the deaf characters in ‘Spring Awakening.’ ”

Kurs was spared that sense of awkwardness and alienation as he grew up with two deaf parents and a hard-of-hearing sister in Riverside. The family’s deafness stems from a hereditary gene that affects 5 percent of Ashkenazi Jews, Kurs explained. At public school, at religious school at Temple Beth El in Riverside and at his bar mitzvah, a translator was always by Kurs’ side. And although Kurs was aware of the talmudic restrictions placed on deaf people, he said, “I never felt any resistance or limitations from my Jewish community.”

Throughout Kurs’ childhood, his parents often took him to see plays where an interpreter was present or actors signed, including Deaf West’s first production, “The Gin Game,” which he saw when he was around 13. “I always knew that I wanted a career in the arts, but my good Jewish parents said there wouldn’t be enough opportunities for a deaf person in the entertainment industry,” he said. And so Kurs studied marketing at Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C., but a year after graduation, he moved to Los Angeles and decided to go for a career in theater, despite the odds.

He was helped in this endeavor by meeting and befriending Ed Waterstreet, who founded Deaf West in 1991; in 2009, Kurs was named the artistic associate at the theater, where he produced the musical “Cyrano” three years later. In February 2015, Kurs, who by then had become the company’s artistic director, produced Deaf West’s version of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” in which the brutality and anger of Mamet’s dialogue was reinforced by the rough physicality of the chosen sign language.

For “Spring Awakening,” the ASL selected for the songs was “more poetic” than the signs used for the dialogue, according to Shoshannah Stern, one of three ASL masters who meticulously translated the musical’s script and taught the signs to both hearing and deaf actors.

The sign chosen for the word “bruise,” which is spoken and signed throughout the play to indicate the characters’ angst, “means something painful that is etched into your memory, which you cannot remove, a sort of internal scar,” Stern said. “It is signed by scratching your finger across your forehead or your chest, and we see that throughout the play.”

The only time that the fictional Wendla speaks is when she confronts her mother about her lies regarding the mechanics of sex. When the then-pregnant Wendla suddenly screams, “Why didn’t you tell me?” the moment is made more shocking by her spoken voice.

“Spring Awakening” is not only heartbreaking but also “full of foreboding,” Kurs said.  In the years before Wedekind’s play was written, a conference of educators had decided to support oralism as the single method of educating all deaf people, “so that overnight, deaf teachers lost their jobs, and deaf children suddenly had to learn to speak in a language they didn’t use,” Kurs said. “So we have a story of kids at that time who felt very oppressed as they struggled in their growth.”

Some 40 years after the action in the play, the Nazis would forcibly sterilize deaf men and women as Hitler began to implement his eugenics program. “In the show you feel that something bad is coming down the line, because the adult characters are so dogmatic and inflexible,” Kurs said. “And we in the deaf community are always seeing the oral movement as a form of eugenics.”

Nevertheless, Kurs intends “Spring Awakening” to resonate with both deaf and hearing viewers. “I hope the audience will understand more about deaf culture, the nature of communication, and why the world needs to open their minds and their hearts to understanding the culture of others,” he said. “In the play, there’s not just the divide between deaf and hearing, but between old and young, and these are very universal themes.  People just can’t stay closed in their own little worlds; they need to open up to the possibility of understanding others.”       

For tickets and information about “Spring Awakening,” visit this story at jewishjournal.com.