No pre-show announcement boomed over the speakers of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre—it would be rather pointless to make a verbal announcement where some of the audience, or even a majority of the actors, would not be able to hear.
Instead, brass bells that let out loud clangs and deep vibrations were hit against signs that illustrated the familiar theatre protocol. The revival of Spring Awakening, presented by Deaf West Theatre, a company based out of Los Angeles, features deaf performers and utilizes both spoken word and American Sign Language to deliver the story.
The Deaf West production illustrates all of the same themes of sexuality, repression, and indoctrination as the original production but has more subliminal messages regarding ableism. Ableism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities. Gee, that is awfully neatly packaged, is it not? For the purposes of this article I am going to opt, instead, for an Urban Dictionary definition:
Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities. Ableism can take the form of ideas and assumptions, stereotypes, attitudes and practices, physical barriers in the environment, or larger scale oppression. It is oftentimes unintentional and most people are completely unaware of the impact of their words or actions.
Ah, much better. Like any sort of “ism,” ableism is not always easy to spot. It can be as subtle as not having wheelchair accessible ramps, or as outright as using the r-slur to describe anything unpleasant. The revival of Spring Awakening serves to highlight these subtle areas, and challenges the notions of everyday society.
This production, however, does not challenge ableist notions just merely by existing—it is ingrained and weaved throughout the whole show. The cast is made up of actors who are both hearing and non-hearing, abled and disabled. The adolescent characters interact seamlessly, never forcing one of their cohorts to attempt “overcoming” their disabilities. Every person on stage signed, regardless of being deaf or not. Those who could not speak had an actor that spoke their lines, and the two would often interact in ways that display that they are one entity and not merely representations of one another. The show does not serve to inspire pity for those who are deaf or disabled, but instead spark thought and discussion regarding how our culture and society do little to consider those who are not as privileged. Just as one should not pity Wendla for being uneducated about her body’s natural reproductive system and instead be angered at the system that denied her access to the necessary education, parallel feelings should be stirred regarding ableist notions.
While the adolescents are representative of a culture of cooperation, the adults represent a society that is deeply-rooted erasing any sort of minority. There is one potent scene featuring the male students and the teacher, played by Patrick Page. Page forces every student, regardless of whether they are hearing or not, to recite Virgil in its’ original Latin form. While having the physical capabilities of speech, the deaf students’ vocal skills are undeveloped as a result of their deafness and never being taught the sound of spoken language. Their annunciation is labored, and their voices often high-pitched. They were physically punished if they were caught signing, and mocked for the sound of their voices. This is the embodiment of ableism—forcing an individual to perform tasks that are difficult just to cater to an able-bodied society. The sad truth is that these are incidences based in reality. Michael Arden, director, addresses these issues in the Director’s Note in the playbill. Arden tells of a time where the deaf were forced to learn “oralism”—the forced use of speech and mouth mimicking and lip-reading was the norm, and where deaf people were sterilized. “Though much has changed since the time of Wedekind and the Milan Conference,” Arden writes, “We still live in a world where beliefs, cultures, and individuals are silenced and marginalized.” Arden himself is not unfamiliar with playing marginalized characters; he took on the task of directing Spring Awakening after playing the role of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Similar to the Disney film of the same name, the production questions why those who are not able-bodied are ostracized—even made to be monsters—by a society that fails to understand them.
While disabled characters are not uncommon in theatre or media in general, having non-abled bodied individuals portray these characters is uncommon. Most recently, a discussion was raised about the casting of Daniel Radcliffe in a production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, a show about a physically disabled orphan who dreams of becoming an actor after hearing about a film crew making a documentary in his area of Ireland. There were many people who tried to defend the casting by asking, “Well, would someone who’s disabled be able to work those hours? Aren’t there laws about that?” Considering the character’s disability was a clubbed arm, no; there are no laws saying they have to have special work conditions. This is also indicative of ableist notions—not just the casting, but also the suggestion that someone who is physically disabled cannot do the show because of their “condition.” Are there some people who cannot do certain tasks as a result of their disability? Of course. Does this mean that finding an actor without some sort of physical disability is impossible? No.
While strides have been made toward more inclusivity of those with disabilities in the world of theatre, there is still a long way to go. Spring Awakening strikes a perfect balance of highlighting ableism without making a trope out of people with disabilities.