The lights go out, and the silhouette of the actors supplement the darkness of the Elsie C. Brackett Theatre. The opening song “Mama Who Bore Me” plays, marking the beginning of OU’s production of the Tony-award winning musical “Spring Awakening.”
As the lights illuminate the stage, a new reality is revealed, with actors masked and socially distanced. Although actors remain separated, they submit to a silent form of intimacy while navigating the challenges of the pandemic — a form of intimacy that does not require physical touch to transmit passion through their performance.
The Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre wanted to perform “Spring Awakening” for quite some time, associate professor of musical theatre performance and the director of “Spring Awakening” Shawn Churchman said.
Churchman said the actors were forced to navigate the challenges of the pandemic by talking about what intimacy means in a show about the sexual awakening of teenagers in the 1890s.
The musical tells a coming-of-age story about adolescents as they enter adulthood and experience their sexual awakenings. Although the musical is about teenagers, it also contains adult content, Churchman said, making it perfect for college students to do in a university setting.
“We've had to be very creative and really think about what happens between two people that are attracted to one another, and often the most exciting thing is the space in between them,” Churchman said. “Because what is happening in the space between two people that are attracted to one another sometimes is the most charged. … That has been a challenge.”
There is a love scene on stage between the lead characters where actors use interpretive dance and movements to project a message of closeness and romance three feet away from each other, said Dan Berry, a musical theater sophomore who plays the male-lead Melchior.
“I think (the new form of intimacy) actually creates more tension on stage between the characters, especially because when you can’t release that tension by touching someone, it kind of goes away. … The tension is still there, and it makes for some pretty incredible storytelling,” Berry said.
The directors have also had to adjust the intimate scenes to make sure the actors are COVID-19 safe. The cast has to perform six feet apart, and if they have to touch, they are required to wash their hands. They also wash the chairs between scenes, Berry said.
To avoid touching, the actors might get touched with a prop or a long piece of fabric, director of intimacy Karen Bethel said. In one scene, the cast uses a piece of fabric to bring forward the feeling of connection.
“In one of the big intimate scenes at the close of the first act, we have a plate of Plexiglas between the actors so that they can tell the story of being intimate with each other for the first time, but without ever touching,” Bethel said.
Churchman said cast members have been “living like monks” so everyone can perform. He said taking these precautions and trying to help actors bring a story about intimacy to life while the cast is distanced and masked was the most difficult aspect of directing “Spring Awakening.”
“It has been really challenging to play with intimacy through eye contact and through some symbolic suggestion and different uses of props and whatnot,” Robert said. “So, I think that was most challenging, but definitely the most rewarding aspect.”
Churchman said creating a cast is extremely difficult, and he essentially had to look at the big picture. In order to meld a cast into one cohesive unit, Churchman said casting was based on more than just individuals.
Wendla, the female lead interpreted by musical theater senior Maddie Robert, is sweet and very naive, but her attitude has a vein of defiance. Robert said Wendla is intrigued by death, especially her own, and often feels an urge to experience extreme feelings and sensations, pushing her to take dramatic actions.
“(She) is a very empathetic and simple actress, and when I say simple, I mean she does not cloud up the intent of the character. … Her intentions are clear, and that is exactly the quality that this young woman needed,” Churchman said.
Melchoir, one of the male leads played by Berry, is upset because he knows the society he lives in is keeping information from the youth. He is intrigued with human morality and ethics and often journals his curiosities.
The desire of the show’s characters to criticize their conservative society and their contradicting opinions bring the characters together. There is, however, a sense of shared understanding between them that they have not encountered in others, leading them to experience intimacy for the first time.
“Dan Berry, who is only a sophomore, brings a quality to it that is both masculine, which is important for this role, but he is an open spirit, and his character is a very open spirit,” Churchman said. “He is loving to everyone in his life, and Dan does that very easily. So they definitely fit the roles very well.”
Fifty-six musical theater majors auditioned for the musical in November, Churchman said. Typically, the musical has an onstage band that incorporates rock instead of broadway-style music. Directors asked students if they could play any instruments so they could downsize the band to protect the cast and staff in light of COVID-19.
The cast had the assignment of preparing a rock-inspired song, musical director Vince Leseney said, creating an opportunity for students who love rock music to shine. They were encouraged to play if they could, and some presented songs from artists not associated with musical theater, like American singer-songwriter Fiona Apple.
Robert said playing Wendla has been the most challenging role she has ever played. She has had to figure out how to move around the stage while playing the guitar, acting and singing.
“Stylistically, there are people who try really hard to sing rock music but don't really get it. Some people are more suited to sing more traditional music, and that's fine,” Leseney said. “But this was an opportunity for the students who really love folk, pop and rock music to shine and auditions were great because people really brought their best efforts.”
Navigating the challenges of the pandemic while preparing a musical was interesting, Leseney said, as it was much harder to learn harmonies with masks on. As a music director, he said he didn’t realize how much he relied on being able to see people’s mouths move.
Despite these challenges, Leseney said every performer uniquely contributes to the show.
“Dan Berry and Ethan Clock, who play the two male leads, have such diverse voices. Dan’s voice is very smooth and very empathetic. Ethan’s voice is very raw. He really has that growl, and that screams nature,” Leseney said. “The women … some are more engaging, and some are more repellent vocally. We've got a nice mix of these wonderful folk voices mixed with classic rock-heavy voices.”
The cast's passion for the musical has made rehearsals fun and manageable despite the pandemic-related challenges the cast faced, Robert said.
“Everyone in our cast and crew has been really diligent about staying safe. It hasn't been that stressful — it’s just about working out the challenges,” Robert said.
Performances of “Spring Awakening” will run 26 at 8 p.m., and 3 p.m. Feb. 27. A live-streamed performance will also be available at 8 p.m. Feb. 26 on this website.
Tickets can be purchased on the school’s website for $30. The online discount is $25 and $10 for students, plus a $5-per-ticket fee.
“I think that there's still such great stories out there that can be told,” Berry said. “I think it's really important that we have these shows going up because it proves that we can pretty much get through anything. And, you know, the show must go on despite whatever challenges we face.”