For a hit musical, Spring Awakening is particularly bleak. The Tony Award-winning piece by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (based on Frank Wedekind's 19th-century play) delves into teen suicide, physical abuse, incest, and a failed abortion. Still, the whole piece "is ultimately hopeful," says Peter Rothstein, the director of a new Theatre Latte Da/University of Minnesota co-production opening this weekend on the Rarig Center's Stoll Thrust.
"The piece sets up an initial conflict between purity and authority, but where the show twists is that everyone has gray areas in their lives. The hero learns he is gifted, but still makes mistakes. There is a place where everyone finds themselves in this swirl of gray," says Carl Flink, the department chair of the University of Minnesota Theatre Arts and Dance Department and the choreographer for Spring Awakening.
The piece features the talents of both Theatre Latte Da's professional actors and students from the University of Minnesota Theatre Arts and Dance Department program.
"I wanted it to feel like a co-production from top to bottom. We literally have half and half student and professional designers and assistant directors, which I think is extraordinary. I never had the opportunity to be a voice at the table or alongside a production when I was a student," Rothstein says.
Tom Sandelands Photography
"We really seek projects where both entities can work," Flink says. "Peter's got performers at the age level you want in Spring Awakening. We've gotten layers of our students to work side-by-side with professionals in a substantive way. It's a very different experience between being an observer and being immersed in it."
Rothstein's first experience with the musical sparked his interest in producing and directing it for Latte Da. "I was in New York and it was a Wednesday matinee. The audience was almost all students, and it was hands down the most volatile theatrical experience I've ever had. The audience was having their own dialogue with it," he says. "We always want the audience to be a second character, but here there were three -- they were having their own conversation."
Rothstein also saw a show that was more malleable than most modern Broadway productions, allowing both he and Flink to put their own stamp on the proceedings. The work itself is not a traditional musical-theater piece. The songs are not there to advance the action, but instead act as the free and alive interior lives of the repressed students in late 19th-century Germany. The conceit for the original production was to have the actors pull out microphones for the songs, as if they were in a modern rock show.
Tom Sandelands Photography
Rothstein didn't want to go in that direction. He thought the microphones could act as a crutch for the performers.
"It allows them to hide behind an artifice," Flink says. "We want to use the words and physical language to convey an emotional state, and something that does propel the story forward in a nonlinear way."
"We were getting to the end of a Friday-night rehearsal and I knew we couldn't dive into 'Totally Fucked,' so I arranged a music list and had a little rave/slam dance for half an hour. At the end of that, I had them sing the song. Singing it with that level of exhaustion was very cathartic," Flink says.
Considering the subject matter and the nudity in the play, Flink is ready for the complaints. "As not only an artist, but an educator, it is critical not to deflect away from difficult and challenging material. And one purpose of the co-production with a community partner is to show that these questions don't just happen in the sealed ivory walls of a campus. With the audience Latte Da will bring in, this becomes a much more public discussion," he says.