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Deaf West Theatre has a hit on its hands with 'Spring Awakening'

A scene from Deaf West Theatre's production of
A scene from Deaf West Theatre's production of "Spring Awakening."
Tate Tullier
A scene from Deaf West Theatre's production of
A scene from Deaf West Theatre's production of "Spring Awakening."
Tate Tullier

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“Spring Awakening” is a 2006 Tony Award-winning musical that’s based on the 19th Century play by Frank Wedekind. It features modern music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Steve Sater.

In October, 2014, the coming-of-age story had an acclaimed revival in Los Angeles — with a twist: It was performed by a cast that largely can’t hear. And now that production by Deaf West Theatre is moving to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts, with the same director and much of the same cast. 

The Frame contributor Collin Friesen spoke with Deaf West company members last fall about their staging of “Spring Awakening.”

How does the company pull it off?  For starters, there are two extra subwoofers under the seats so the deaf actors can feel really the beat of the music. Some deaf actors have other actors, also on stage, sing and speak for them. But thanks to some clever use of microphones, you stop noticing about a minute in. Some lines are projected on the walls of the theater and all the actors sign as they go.

Austin McKenzie, 21, plays Melchior, the young male lead. McKenzie can hear, but he learned sign language while working at a summer camp. Still, singing, dancing, acting and signing — it’s a lot for your first professional production. Although he figures if he can make this work, the next role should be a snap.

Maybe the mechanics will be easier, I won’t have to worry about what my hands are doing all the time. In college, all of my teachers were so tedious on my hand usage, so it’s nice now I can finally use my hands.

The female lead is Sara Mae Frank, who plays Wendla. Deaf since birth, she moved to L.A. just for the play. Speaking through an interpreter, she says her hearing colleagues have picked things up fast, which in turn helps her.

Sometimes I take my reaction off them, see their facial expression, their movement. The lines are made to match up with choreography. I take some [reaction] off the light cues, but not that much. A lot of the cuing happens within the show. It’s all about trust.

Deaf West had to use Kickstarter to get this production up and running. Artistic Director DJ Kurs says many deaf theater companies around the country have shut their doors.

I think there’s a lack of funding in general. In the '90s, there were seven or eight sign language theaters. Now we’re the only ones who are producing professional sign language theater.

"Spring Awakening" has extended its run through June 14 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts in Beverly Hills.

This story has been updated.

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