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A controversial musical is performed by youth struggling with similar themes and issues in their own lives.
With opening night on the horizon, the cast of the new-on-the-scene Off Broadway Theater Company’s production of “Spring Awakening” began its rehearsal not with any sort of warm-up song or dance, but seated in a circle on the floor. The cast took turns discussing what the director and this particular show means to them, and many shared they had previously struggled to find directors or a company that would take a chance on them.
It’s not often that productions like “Spring Awakening” are cast with actors the same age as the characters they portray. Based on the once-banned play penned in 1891, the musical adaptation — with modern music by Duncan Sheik and book by Steven Sater — first opened on Broadway in 2006. It tackles such heady topics as suicide, sex, abortion, sexual abuse, sexuality and more among teenagers in 1890s Germany.
Off Broadway Theater Company’s founder and director, longtime San Diego actor and choreographer Kyle Hawk chose to produce a controversial musical with a teen cast not because of any agenda of his own, but because that is what these young actors (auditions call for ages 14-20) asked for.
“I never dreamed of opening a company. It was these kids,” Hawk said about starting a company that catered to modern teenage actors and their tastes. “No one was willing to do it, so I was like, ‘I guess I will be the one.’”
The company launched just last year with a wildly popular production of “Heathers (The Musical).” Surrounded by ample opportunities to participate in more comfortable productions like “Annie” or “The Little Mermaid,” many youth in San Diego sought challenging projects that they could relate to, with characters like them experiencing uncomfortable things they could relate to, said Hawk. Coming out, sex, mental health concerns, failure and more are all issues much of the cast grapples with in their daily lives.
Hawk understands, because he lived it as a teen. When struggling to belong, musical theater and acting gave him hope and a family.
“You might be dealing with life, but then you get to be here. Just make it to 3:30,” he said of his difficult school experience, “and then you can be with your people.” Hawk admits that “Bare: A Pop Opera” — which his company will produce next year — changed his life as a teen. “That was the show that actually stopped me from committing suicide when I was 18 years old,” said Hawk.
Aquila Sol, the actor who plays Ilse, a homeless and troubled female character, insists that art tackling difficult subject matter is what teenagers relate to the most.
“‘Spring Awakening’ is not a show you’re going to leave happy, but it’s a show you’re going to leave thinking,” she said. And for parents, she points to the value of the conversations they could have with their own teenagers on the car ride home.
Last fall, after the company released clips and teasers for their fall production of “Heathers” (set in modern day), internet support for the all-teen cast rolled in. The production became a viral hit, with hundreds of thousands of views of videos and interest coming from across the globe.
Despite following the successful production of “Heathers,” Hawk admitted that ticket sales for “Spring Awakening” were dismal this close to its opening. “I think in general, it’s all fear-based,” Hawk said. “Everyone is so scared to see teens doing this type of work.”
Hawk said that “Spring Awakening” is notorious for its nudity (not included in this production) and a sex scene (also toned down and concealed by choreography in OBTC’s production). “What we’re producing, you could go watch TV and see 50 times what you’ll see [on our stage].”
Another actor, Shae-Lin Carr, said that for her, these stories are best when told by youth, in their own way.
“When you see a 30-year-old actor on stage playing these roles, you can’t connect to it,” she said.
Moritz Stiefel, the character who faces suicide in the play, is a representation of undiagnosed and untreated anxiety, ADHD, and depression, said the actor who’ll portray him, 19-year-old Jack Setran. “He doesn’t even know what anxiety is,” Setran said. “He asked for help and didn’t get it.” Setran found relatability in many aspects of the 1890s character, particularly the ADHD and failure. “That was me,” Setran said. “I can empathize with that.”
After listening to the cast discuss the project, Hawk is moved to tears. “I’m so glad it’s translating,” he said.
“Spring Awakening” runs May 11-19 at Lyceum Theatre.