Interview: Get Ready to Get Wounded: EPIC Players Theatre Brings "Spring Awakening" Back to the NYC Stage

EPIC Players' production of Spring Awakening will run at A.R.T./New York Theatres, The Mezzanine Theatre, from May 9-19, 2024.

Use code ‘SPRING’ for 30% off Spring Awakening tickets for May 9 – 19 at @artny72

My Whole Life’s a Test

In Spring Awakening’s most well-known, and often most-censored song, “The Bitch of Living,” a group of disaffected teenage students belt out lyrics describing their individual sexual awakenings and, more than that, their awakening to the idea that life is, perhaps, meaningless. Of course the sexual lyrics take the focus for the prurient, but the song’s expression of longing for some meaning to all of the pain is what sets the tone for the whole show. Indeed, the existential teenagers express, “God, my whole life’s, like, some test.” And the song ends with the gapping and emptying realization: “And, knowing this is it. God, is this it? This can't be it. Oh, God, what a bitch.”

Last week I attended a rehearsal of EPIC Players’ upcoming performance of the hit musical Spring Awakening that has, over the years, garnered a devoted fan base. The show is still as powerful and painful to watch as the first time I saw it fifteen years ago. But in the hands of EPIC, it took on new resonance for me. EPIC’s mission is to create “professional performing arts opportunities and supportive social communities in the arts for Neurodivergent and Disabled artists.” They do this through staging “inclusive mainstage productions, musical cabarets, original showcases, skills-based classes and career resources” with the hope of increasing “critical employment opportunities, pioneer increased inclusion in the arts, and break down social stigmas surrounding neuro-diverse communities.”
Photo by Zui Gomez
During a break in the rehearsal, Assistant Director Gabe Girson and actor Sydney Kurland, who plays Wendla, took some time to sit down with me to answer a few questions about EPIC and their rendition of Spring Awakening; director Travis Burbee also provided answers afterwards via email.

The main question I wanted to ask the cast and crew was why Spring Awakening now. Why stage such a beautifully hopeless show in 2024, at a moment of peak hopelessness? Well, they had some answers and some pushback, which I was thrilled to hear.

Why Spring Awakening now?

Gabe: “People feel seen by this material.”

Travis: “This show may take place in 19th-century Germany, but its subject matter is more relevant than ever. We live in a time where people are actively being attacked and having rights restricted because of who they are. Women’s autonomy and access to healthcare is being taken away. Abusers of sexual assault are often not held accountable, and queer communities are being unjustly slandered. The information in our education system is being censored, and gun violence is a constant threat. Spring Awakening is a show that is meant to challenge you. Sometimes, to make the world better, we must take a hard look at the darkest parts of it.”
 
Why Spring Awakening for a neurodiverse cast?

Gabe: “Neurodiverse people go through sexual awakenings too. It is a universal show.”

Travis: “EPIC deliberately chose to produce a show with intense subject matter precisely because it challenges perceptions. Our aim is twofold: to demonstrate that Neurodivergent actors excel in diverse roles, and to assert the sexual agency of the Disabled community. Too often, society infantilizes the Disabled, withholding crucial information about sexuality. Yet, the reality is grim: instances of abuse, depicted in our production, occur disproportionately within this community. NPR reports that individuals with intellectual disabilities face sexual assault rates over seven times higher than those without disabilities—a staggering statistic seldom discussed.”

Tell me more about EPIC and your mission.

Gabe: “When there is a stigma with an actor, people get hesitant. And the theater scene does not like to take risks. But EPIC provides a springboard for our actors.”

Do you see parallels between teens in late nineteenth-century Germany and teens in 2024?

Gabe: “The show has seen many iterations since the nineteenth century. The current show’s composition is contemporary if the content is not always so. What’s different now is that we have an openness to our society that was not there in the nineteenth century.”

Travis: “There are many parallels between teens of today and the teens in this story. Communities across the nation are making efforts to restrict information to teens and children as well as access to healthcare. This is especially harmful for marginalized communities, such as trans and queer individuals. Too often, as we see in Spring Awakening and in our modern news feeds, this can have grave effects on our youth. Not just sexual abuse but even death or suicide.”
 
In many ways we live in cruel times, but in other ways we live in gentler, kinder times. Spring Awakening speaks both to cruelty and gentleness. What is your approach to staging these contrasting elements in the show?

Travis: “There are several things we’ve done in our production to heighten moments and honor the high stakes of the show. A central aspect of our set is a raised garden bed. This is used as symbolism throughout the show and brings a raw and rough element to the intense moments. We are bringing in several other natural elements such as flowers and even rain. There will also be a lot of bold, strong lighting that will create dynamic scenes and make an impact.”

The show is low on hope until the end—like really low on hope. Do you see hope in the show?

Gabe: “I have hope for Melchior and his future.”

Travis: “A theme of hope that is coming out in our production, is the hope these teens bring to each other. The group has a strong sense of ensemble and you see the love and care these characters have for each other. Even when things are darkest, they are able to find healing in their peers.”
Photo by Zui Gomez
Without spoiling things for readers, do you have some favorite scenes or songs?

Sydney: “The show hit me as a teenager because of its power and the agency it provides our people. And access to information is powerful.”

Travis: “‘The Guilty Ones,’ the song that opens Act 2, has become a favorite moment for me. The audience will experience Wendla and Melchior processing their experience after they have laid together alongside the rest of the ensemble sitting in church for a sermon. These two settings juxtaposed are very powerful and moving.”

Why has this show had such staying power? And why has it been so frequently banned and censored?

Sydney: “I am terrified of the censorship we see happening around us today. I also do not like the low-quality media with sex and violence for its own sake. It is important to show characters going through big changes in their lives, and the music in the show makes it feel quite relevant.”

Travis:Spring Awakening continues to be a popular show because it is something we can all connect to. We have all had moments growing up in which we were confused or hurt due to changes we experience as teens. This show speaks so soundly to those feelings of being lost or alone in those circumstances. There is something so healing about experiencing these things that are usually very private in such a public way. Spring Awakening is not a show that shies away from making a statement. For that reason, it will always be something that people will make efforts to restrict and silence, just as the adults do to the teens in the show.”

How do you create an environment welcoming to not only a neurodiverse cast and crew but also a neurodiverse audience? And what do you want the audience to take away from the show?

Sydney: “I wanted to bring an agency to the character of Wendla that I have not seen in previous performances.”

Travis: “We consider all of our performances relaxed performances. That means that if audience members need to verbalize or step out of the theater during the performance, that is ok. When purchasing tickets, we ask if anyone has any access needs so we can plan to address things in advance before they even step into the theater. In addition, we have many tools available to make the show accessible: fidget toys, noise canceling headphones, assisted listening devices, captioning services. We also have a few ASL interpreted shows.”

What are the challenges in bringing a show to life like this one in our current social/cultural/political moment? Again, thinking of our twin cruel/gentle reality here.

Travis: “This show is intense, and that intensity can be difficult to sit with over months of rehearsal. There are many things that happen to these characters that parallel experiences members of the cast have from their own lives as well as things happening in the world around us.

The sensitive material of this show is not something we take lightly. In addition to our regular support in the rehearsal process, we also worked with a Mental Health Counselor, an Access Coordinator, and an Intimacy and Fight Director to support our cast through the process. It has been such a pleasure to work with this passionate cast and dedicated crew.”

Anything else you want to add?

Travis: Spring Awakening first came to me in high school—a time when I was a closeted teen desperately trying to please my religiously conservative family. The songs gave voice to so many feelings knotted up inside of myself that I had no way to express or process. An entire group of characters felt as lost and confused as I did. These voices understood the pain of trying to follow impossible rules, of having to hide. They helped me find the strength to rebel and choose my own path. I’m honored to be telling this story with such a passionate cast and dedicated crew.”

You’re Going to be Wounded

One of the constant refrains in the show is the idea of being wounded and wounding others. But wounding takes on layered meanings. The characters are certainly physically and emotionally wounded, but their gentle sexual experimentations with each other are described as wounding too. It is one of the nuanced uses of language that makes the show so relevant in our own time when we need more nuance. And speaking of being wounded, there are many instances of violence against teenagers in the show. I was curious and worried about how these scenes would be staged. I will not ruin anything for those of you who will see the show, but I will say the scenes are creatively not violent while still packing the emotional punch of being beaten by an adult as a child.

And abuse runs through the show. Perhaps the most difficult scene is when Moritz’s father suggests that he commit suicide because he has failed his midterm exams. I had to hold back some tears at this scene, and I wondered what it was like for the cast and crew to perform and view this heavy material during rehearsals—especially after seeing a cast member across the room tearing up along with me. But EPIC has prepared for this. Not only were there several ASL interpreters throughout the room, but Taupa Fogo-Toussaint, who is the emotional support coordinator, was there to make sure the rehearsal room was a supportive space. It struck me as a gentle approach to tough material but also as a creative space where a diverse cast is coming together to tell a really powerful story about people screaming to break free of constraints. There is a gentleness to this approach to performance that I wish I saw in the world.
 
I hate the whole “as a _____ person” beginnings to things. But in this case, I am going to do it because it matters here. As a neurodivergent person, I sat there thinking, “Oh my god! This show was written for people like us—people who feel like our ‘whole life’s a test.’” EPIC’s tackling of this show specifically is not just because it is a great show. It is a show that deals specifically with neurodiversity and disability and adults who do not get it. At one point, Fräulein Knuppeldick (Shoshanna Gleich) calls Moritz (Reuben Baron) a “neurasthenic imbecile” who is holding back Melchior’s (Will Ketter) intellectual development. It is said as a laugh line mocking the adults, but it hits at the core of how neurodiverse people and people with disabilities are still widely stigmatized.
The song “My Junk,” sung together by the students, gets to the heart of what I think EPIC is trying to do with this performance. Sorting through their sexual and emotional desires for each other, they sing, “We've all got our junk, and my junk is you.” Of course, the point of the lyrics, the show, and this performance of Spring Awakening is not about the diversity or abilities of its characters or cast. That diversity is a given, as director Travis Burbee pointed out. It is about giving teenagers space, freedom, and support. All of the adult characters in the show are truly awful. Melchior says that they are all living in a “parentocracy.” Yet, the young characters ask, “How are we supposed to know what to do if our parents don’t tell us?” This yearning for freedom in such a stifling, emotionally manipulative environment is, for me, the hopeful core of the show. There is freedom, and there is hope in the show. But get ready to see some wounding before it comes.

I will be back here after the show opens this week with a full review. So, stay tuned and definitely book your tickets!

-Joseph L .V. Donica

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