THE WORD OF THEIR BODY
"Everything is quiet, and you don't hear hardly anything… just the very light noises in the background. It gives me goose bumps. It gives me goose bumps right now."
Sandra Mae Frank describes the beginning of her show, when the young and naïve Wendla Bergmann takes the stage by herself in Spring Awakening. Haunting violin strings are heard slightly in the background as she puts on her favorite dress, one that makes her feel like a fairy queen, but that is too small. She's now "in bloom."
Through American Sign Language, she conveys that she lacks understanding. "No way to handle things…" she signs. It's not long before a drum beat drops and a full guitar section pulses through the theatre — backing a quintet of adolescents in harmony. Audiences are transported to 19th-century Germany by way of one of the most angst-ridden and rock-driven musicals of all time.
However, for profoundly Deaf people like Frank, the musical — and the rest of the world — is always quiet.
The 25-year-old actress was born hearing, but premature; she was three months early. At about the age of three, her father noticed that she was experiencing hearing loss; she was soon diagnosed profoundly Deaf. Her parents learned ASL, and she grew up in a mainstream program before graduating from the Kentucky School for the Deaf. She attended Gallaudet University, a private school in Washington, D.C., for the Deaf and hard of hearing, where she earned a degree in theatre.
Her co-star Daniel Durant, the musical's sleepy-headed Moritz, is also Deaf (with a capital "D" he ensures, identifying himself as part of the Deaf community — he's never heard sound before in his life). Both of his biological parents are also Deaf, but he was adopted by his aunt on his father's side and now has two hearing mothers. They embraced American Sign Language and exposed Durant to Deaf culture at an early age. He's also 25 and was born in Detroit before moving to Minnesota and later spending a year at Gallaudet. Durant has just recently arrived in New York, and an interpreter accompanied him on this interview.
"It is the most challenging experience of my life," he signs, referring to his starring role in Spring Awakening, which opens on Broadway next month, following an acclaimed year-long run in Los Angeles. Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, a force in the Deaf community for decades, has signed on for the show's Broadway run to play Adult Woman.
"IT'S ALWAYS AWKWARD… RIGHT?"
The challenges are numerous in this new take on the 2007 Tony-winning tuner. Both Frank and Durant have hearing-actor counterparts, Katie Boeck and Alex Boniello, who function as the voice inside their heads that is incapable of escaping — much like the internal musical monologues written by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. Working with a set of precise cues, Deaf actors are developing a relationship with music while hearing actors are learning to sign. All are working to communicate with each other and the audience.
"It's always awkward, right?" Durant signs. He is a striking young man with piercing green eyes and is very expressive when he talks, as if he is welcoming you into his world. "When you meet somebody who doesn't speak the same language, you're always a little awkward. You're kind of shy, saying, 'Hi, hi, hi.'"
Collaborating with his hearing castmates, he says, "They were trying to speak, and I try to lip read. They'd go, 'Oh, that's the sign for this word?' … Some Deaf actors are really adept at using their voice or lip reading, so we would all work together to help teach them signs. And, really, how do you improve? By living that language. That's what we all did."
Austin McKenzie is the connective tissue of it all — in both 1891 Germany and present day. He's the hearing actor who plays Melchior, although he went to college to become an interpreter, so he speaks both languages of Spring Awakening.
"I have such a convenience and such a blessing to be able to communicate with Sandra and Daniel so easily," he says by phone. Observing a hearing and Deaf actor in the cast connect, "I wish I could say this in a way that doesn't sound cliché, but it's so mesmerizing and beautiful, and I love getting the opportunity to watch that. It's like watching a baby say their first words because you're so happy that you can finally see the gears beginning to flow and get oiled in their brain. They're starting to understand things."
The process began over a year ago, when the show began rehearsals in what McKenzie calls an "old, abandoned church" in Los Angeles. They were preparing for a run at Inner City Arts in downtown L.A. beginning in September 2014. McKenzie was in a music rehearsal with only the hearing cast members, and he wondered, "Who else knows sign language but me?"
It was not long before he realized he was the only one who could communicate with both parties. "It was going to be a very peculiar situation — and an exciting situation," he says, "because everyone who didn't know sign language was experiencing so much for the first time. It's not just that they have to learn the language, they have to learn about a community that they've never been exposed to."
At the first full-cast rehearsal, "We were scared sh*tless," he admits. "We all were. And, I think that's probably why this made such a great company because we all started in the same room, having the same exact feeling. We were able to connect to our fears. All of us were doing something new. There were people who never learned sign language, who were going to be signing full monologues on stage. That scared them. There were people like me, who never thought they were going to act — surely I never thought I was going to be on Broadway — and I was terrified that I wouldn't do justice to anyone, and there were people in the production team who were weary if this was going to work or not. Let's just say that I was scared sh*tless of everything.
"He will never admit to it — he will never take credit for it — but a big part of me getting over that was Michael…for everyone."
Michael Arden is the creative mind behind the re-imagined Deaf West version of Spring Awakening. He takes a break from performing (most recently, he starred as Quasimodo in the acclaimed Paper Mill production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to direct.
That first full-cast rehearsal for Spring Awakening was the first time Durant met Arden. He remembers, "We sat down, we did a table read, we had the actors who were voicing for us. Eye contact was imperative [for] all of us to read through the script and sign and voice and stop and talk about it… Sometimes, that would take a long time. I'll never forget that first table read was so long because we were all trying to [work] together… It probably took about a week or two to really find our rhythms of how hearing people and Deaf actors… how we all work together."
Frank communicates closely with Katie Boeck to create the character of Wendla, a now-iconic role originated by "Glee" star Lea Michele. While Frank signs and physically takes place in the action around her, Boeck is off to the side — singing, speaking and communicating Wendla's language and feelings to the audience.
"We bonded immediately," Frank explains, "She was learning different things and talking about different body movements and memorizing all of these different aspects. And, for me, I was following my intuition — following rhythm and beats and following the highs and the lows and trying to really figure out the music. Our choreographer [Spencer Liff] was really very aware and used sign language and really helped to blend the two — music with sign language — so it really worked out well."
THE GUILTY ONES
Although a rock show at its core, Spring Awakening happens to be a perfect fit for those who can't hear its words, let alone its anthemic score by Sheik that boasts "The B*tch of Living." In the history of Deaf education, during the late 1800s (when Spring is set), schools began to use the oral method, which only allowed the use of speech as opposed to ASL, and students were often punished for signing.
Within Spring Awakening's classroom walls, students are being reprimanded for thinking outside the box, especially Moritz, who (in this version) is Deaf. "Trust in what is written," the students are taught. But, the radical Melchior (in this case, a hearing person), encourages his friends and himself, "To trust my own true mind and to say 'There's a way through this.'"
Durant explains that in the show, "If I try to sign, the teacher is scolding us — limiting our language, limiting our access to communication, limiting our first native language and how hard it is on us, so that's so powerful to be able to show that to the audience."
McKenzie says, "There are some direct lines that are a little spooky of how weird it is that it makes sense. There's this whole line where Melchior says in one of his journal entries, 'Are they deaf to everything their loins are telling them?' … And then there are just these beautiful moments where they say things like, 'I hear your heart'… In a very simple way, [they] make this work.
"It's so perfect because what you have is a story of children who cannot be heard by their adults and a story of children who are learning to hear each other and hear the word of their body — beyond physically hearing… It's, story-wise, so beautiful to see a Deaf girl and a hearing boy meet and be able to hear each other's heartbeats." BECOMING ONE
At times, interaction at the stage door is overwhelming — cast members and fans are trying to communicate, but it's unlike any other experience; there is a language barrier that separates them. Frank occasionally uses her cell phone to communicate with theatregoers, while Durant is anticipating what people will say and trying his best to lip-read. But, everyone is moved.
For this interview, Frank was speaking by phone from L.A. using Convo Relay service, a Deaf-owned company that provides Video Relay Services to connect with the Deaf community. Here she video chats with an interpreter who then relays the message in English to the listener. "I'm really excited about how we've been able to meld the Deaf community and the hearing community," she says. "They really feel like they can finally enjoy theatre on their own premises, instead of always in the hearing perspective."
Durant says, "A lot of times, Deaf people might think, 'It's all for hearing people.' But, [with] this, they realize what's possible. There's a sense of the visuality and the musicality in the signs that is exciting for them."
Both Frank and Durant, who make their Broadway debuts in Spring Awakening, had aspirations of performing from early on, and they never viewed being Deaf as an obstacle.
"Oh, my moms… They were overwhelmed," Durant signs with a smile, reminiscing on the time they saw his performance. "They were so proud of me. I mean, they've seen me grow up and the growing dream I had of becoming an actor. Finally, to see me succeed at something that's a musical, where I'm completely Deaf, they were just… They couldn't stop thinking about the play."
Frank's family felt the same. After all, she says, "I felt like this is meant for me."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)