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Cast of Spring Awakening Visit the White House

On November 18, the Broadway cast of the Deaf West Theatre production, Spring Awakening, visited the White House to perform during the Disabilities in the Arts festivities, but not before having the chance to make a one-hour visit to Gallaudet’s Eastman Studio Theatre for a question and answer session and an informal meet and greet with Theatre and Dance program students and other guests. The Gallaudet visit was a homecoming for David J. Kurs, ’98, Deaf West artistic director and producer, Sandra Mae Frank, ’13, Amelia Hensley, ’13, Daniel Durant, E-’14, and current student Joshua Castille, as they joined fellow cast members Marlee Matlin, H-’87, Miles Barbee, Treshelle Edmond, and Alexandria Wailes as panel participants

Ethan Sinnott, associate professor and chair of the

Department of Theatre Arts, embraced their visit to Kendall Green, which was arranged on very short notice. “It was nothing short of electric.  It became quickly clear to me that this milestone visit by Spring Awakening, with a strong, visible, youthful Gallaudet theatre alumni contingent in its cast, provided our students with a huge shot of positive energy as well as inspiration and validation for those with career goals in professional theatre,” said Sinnott.

In welcoming the cast to Gallaudet, Sinnott said that Spring Awakening, as well as other notable successes like Nyle Dimarco,’13, one of the final four contestants on America’s Next Top Model and an actor on the television series Switched at Birth, and Miranda Medugno, ’14, Gallaudet’s first-ever Helen Hayes Award winner for her role as Helen Keller in the musical Visible Language, has proudly put Gallaudet in the limelight.

“This is the year to celebrate Gallaudet theatre,” said Sinnott. “We want to look back with pride at these moments and know that this was the beginning of very serious momentum that really is going to drive us forward.”  

Panelists shared stories on what motivated them to pursue careers in theatre, what is needed to overcome barriers facing deaf actors, and what it is like to perform on Broadway.   Frank, who plays one of the lead roles, has enjoyed the inclusiveness of the Broadway acting community. “We are just like any other actors: deaf, hard of hearing, hearing, or in a wheelchair. We are actors. That is my skill; that is my talent,” said Frank. “We all have strengths, we all have weaknesses… We have a lot of hearing actors that come see our production. They see us as equals; they don’t see us as people with disabilities. It is just a beautiful thing.”

A rock musical performed in American Sign Language and English, Spring Awakening is a Romeo and Juliet-modeled coming-of-age story featuring a group of teenagers exploring their morality and sexuality within the repressive culture of late 19th century Germany. It first appeared on Broadway in 2006; Kurs and Director Michael Arden wanted to do a revival of the musical using a deaf and hearing cast. Both see thematic elements of the story being relatable to the deaf community.

The audience, which included cast members of the Theatre and Dance Program’s production of Julius Caesar, directed by Sinnott, were able to get advice from the panel. Hensley, and the other panelists, shared stories reflecting a desire to perform that carried over from their childhood experiences.

“At times, I thought theatre would not be good for my future and that it would be hard for me to make a living… “I realized that money really doesn’t matter that much. I just had to follow my passion, so I did,” said Hensley. “Don’t think about the money, just follow your passion.”

Following the discussion, and meet and greet with the audience, cast members left to attend the Disability in the Arts event at the White House, where they performed two musical numbers from Spring Awakening: “Mama, Who Bore Me,” featuring Frank, and “Touch Me.” Following the performance, Claudia L. Gordon, Esq., a member of the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees who has served as an adviser on disability issues for President Barack Obama, moderated a panel discussion with Manheim, Matlin, Kurs, Frank, and Durant, along with fellow Spring Awakening actors Abi Stroker, and Austin McKenzie, and Arden.

While this is the second Deaf West production to appear on Broadway, Spring Awakening has offered a number of firsts, including Broadway debuts for the Gallaudet alumni performers.

Manheim, like Matlin, is an accomplished television and film actress. She once worked as an American Sign Language interpreter and has used her American Sign Language (ASL) skills in television shows such as The Practice and Law & Order. Manheim and Matlin, along with 18 other cast members, are making their Broadway debuts.

Stroker, in making her debut, is considered the first actress in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway. When asked about this distinction by Gordon, Stroker responded, “It is an honor, and it’s not just a win for me. It is a win for my entire community and for all of the work that has been happening for a long time… I hope that this is just a beginning of a floodgate of opportunities for people with disabilities on Broadway, on screen, and on television.”

Arden, who is directing Spring Awakening, made his Broadway debut in 2003 with Deaf West’s revival of Big River, playing the role of Tom Sawyer. Big River was the first play on Broadway to incorporate ASL and English with a cast of both deaf and hearing performers.

During the White House panel discussion, Frank was able to share how important her training was while at Gallaudet. “The college experience gives you so much background about everything that is happening in theatre, not just the acting side of things, but how to translate the lines, how to understand the meaning of the lines in the first place, how to think about what is going on from the director’s perspective, the lighting perspective, all of those things and how they get incorporated,” said Frank.  “For me as a deaf actor, to be able to incorporate all of that knowledge and all of that background makes such a difference.”

Spring Awakening, currently running at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City, will close on January 24, 2016.

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