Spring Awakening: A Director’s Perspective

In an exclusive article for AussieTheatre.com, Yvonne writes about her directorial journey with Spring Awakening…

 Spring Awakening

In an exclusive article for AussieTheatre.com, Yvonne writes about her directorial journey with Spring Awakening…

Yvonne Virsik is the Artistic Director of the Monash University Student Theatre (MUST) and one of independent Melbourne theatre’s most respected directors. She’s received consistent critical acclaim and the love of all who work with her. However, she had never directed a large scale musical and the opportunity to present Spring Awakening as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival has led to many challenges that have been overcome by the passion of a dedicated team.

The opportunity

When the opportunity came up to finally stage a MUST show at The Alexander Theatre, we had already programmed 2011, but it was an opportunity too good to pass up! At times we have bemoaned our insanity and sworn never to take on so much again, but it has been an extraordinary and fulfilling experience and I think we’ve created something special.

The “Alex” is a 500-seat theatre, so we had to choose something big that could attract a large audience and as there were no other musicals planned, our genre decision was made.

The choice

We wanted to do something with great music, real theatrical possibilities and a gutsy story line that had some substance and questioning to it. So, the choice to do Spring Awakening was almost easy – and I‘d been listening to the soundtrack and had become enamoured of the music.

But as the Artistic Director of MUST, I had to direct. Now, I’ve directed many shows – with diverse content in different spaces – and I’ve directed shows with music, but never a big musical.

So when it came to finding a Musical Director, I wanted someone who had a similar language to me or could create a new one with me. When I met with the brilliant Tom Pitts (a recent Monash graduate, front man of indie band The Harlots and member of AtticErractic Theatre), I knew he’d be perfect, even if he had never done a big musical before either.  He was way too busy, but he said yes.

We were off.

Assembling the team

But before we could even audition, Tom and I needed advice from people experienced with weaving singing, music, choreography and acting together in musicals, especially because we knew that our approaches might differ. With a new team of generous advisors (including Matt Lockitt, Jem Splitter and Amanda Schroder), we went for coffee and listened to them argue and agree. This was incredibly helpful and showed us how much passion there is for Spring.

When it was time to audition, we wanted everyone to have a real chance to show us their approaches to the songs and text. Over 150 students auditioned, so making decisions was excruciating, and, as always, we learnt so much about the show and its needs during this process.

And the love for the musical continued with many auditionees becoming involved in production aspects of the show.

Reading the original play

During my preparation period, I studied several translations of Frank Wedekind’s play, which Spring Awakening is based on. I wanted to see if there were sections that we could use to gain more character information and resonances for our production. Ultimately, this ended up being interesting but not so helpful.

Not even looking at the addition of music, the play and the musical are fundamentally different, especially the motivations of the characters and the relationships between them. For instance, in the play Melchior rapes Wendla, while in the musical their sex scene is consensual (even if he does push her a bit and arguably should have considered her naivety and the consequences for her more…).

I learned a lot about adapting plays to musicals and the structure of musicals by comparing the libretto to the play. But as a director, I had to be concerned with bringing the libretto to life and to find the truths and insights within it.

oel Horwood and Jem Nicholas in Spring Awakening. Photo by Sarah Walker

Learning the songs

With our cast in place and my research ongoing, we began with an intensive period focussing on learning the songs. Introducing choreography and pushing actor expression in the songs would be very difficult if they were still learning them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t had to go over them constantly.

One of my discoveries working on a musical is that the need to rehearse seems so much greater with so many elements to combine. This is exacerbated working with a student cast (and god what an exceptionally talented bunch!) who have such an enormous number of commitments, leaving rehearsals with people missing. Trying to choreograph for missing people was challenging, but we got better at it. Then people were missing with flu and tonsillitis and had to rest their voices when they returned, so the singing suffered!

Finding the need to sing

I’ve been told by several wise people that characters sing onstage because it’s the only way they can express what they are feeling. In Spring Awakening characters sing what they can’t share (“There’s a part I can’t tell, the dark I know well”) and generally can’t be heard by other characters.

While a song can take minutes on the stage, the time in their head may be seconds. We all know the flood of thoughts and emotions that can course through us in wink of an eye and I believe that this need to sing and give voice to internal worlds is what makes Spring Awakening such an exceptional platform to present the trials of adolescence.

Finding the need to sing has been a key part of our process. As a director, I’m often focussed on helping an actor find the reason to speak, so this wasn’t much of a leap.

Understanding the lyrics

For some characters, their information is in the lyrics, rather than the dialogue. So understanding these lyrics becomes so very important. It is a bug bear of mine when I can’t understand words being spoken or sung, be it voice problems, mad music mix or the actors not really understanding or connecting to them.

This clarity is something we’ve focussed on in Spring. Some of the lyrics leapt off the page with clarity and others were murky, but understanding them has been key to their delivery.

There was confusion when we started on the song

Erin James

Erin James is AussieTheatre.com's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

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