When I get my period, am I dying?
How are babies made, really?
Like it or not, these questions come up in every person’s life. Some people get straight answers, while others do not. How to pass knowledge about sexuality from one generation to the next is a question that will continue to plague people for as long as ... well ... as long as there is sexuality.
The issues of parents, children, sex and communication are addressed in “Spring Awakening,” a play written in the late 19th century, turned into a rock musical in 2007 and now being brought to the northern Nevada stage for the first time by the theater department at Truckee Meadows Community College.
“This really is an awakening for all generations,” said Paul Aberasturi, chair of TMCC’s Visual and Performing Arts Department and the play’s director. “Generations from teen to adult are represented in the show. Every adult was once a teenager, which often is forgotten.”
Written in and set in 1892 Germany, “Spring Awakening” is about teenage boys and girls and their growing bodies and curiosities about life and love. After being performed in various forms for a century — often after undergoing censorship — in 2007 rock star Duncan Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater took Frank Wedekind’s play and made it into a rock musical. That year, “Spring Awakening” took home eight Tony Awards out of 11 nominations, including best musical, direction, book, score and featured actor.
The play marked a turning point for Broadway, Aberasturi said, when musical theater embraced a new generation of audiences.
“Even Stephen Sondheim, the guy who I wrote my dissertation about, said we’re moving on,” Aberasturi said about the legendary Broadway composer’s reaction to “Spring Awakening.”
Sondheim was no stranger to conflict and love in his work — “West Side Story” and “Sweeny Todd” are evidence of that — but his handling of the subjects come from a more innocent vantage point. “Spring Awakening” tackles sex, pregnancy, abortion, suicide, rape and abuse in a very direct, naked way.
No one knows that more than Megan Smith, a 24-year-old theater student at TMCC and the University of Nevada, Reno who plays the main character, Wendla. The play opens with Wendla singing “Mama Who Bore Me?”, a song that reflects the way her mother has kept her ignorant about the ways of adulthood she suddenly is facing. Smith takes her character and the audience through a whirlwind of youthful discovery, a journey that leads Wendla to a tragic end.
Smith’s character is the one that is largely responsible the warning “Brief nudity and strong sexual content” on the play’s program. While those elements were at first scary to her personally, Smith said the rest of the cast was so supportive and good to work with that her fears quickly dissolved. The play’s message about open communication between parents and children could be performed without the strong language and nudity, Smith said, but it would not be as strong or as striking.
“If we were able to have open communication, we wouldn’t get in a lot of the situations we find ourselves in,” Smith said.
Lisa Berleman, a 22-year-old TMCC student, said playing the role of 16-year-old Thea has been like a trip back in time to middle school and high school. She describes both herself and her character as the types of teens who walked the straight and narrow — the teacher’s pet type who knew what was going on when it came to sexuality but didn’t really know.
“(The play) puts you back into memories you don’t think about every day,” Berleman said.
An important and unique element of “Spring Awakening” is its use of the songs not to progress the story, Aberasturi said, but to deepen the audience’s understanding of each character’s emotions. Some of the song’s titles speak to that and to the direct handling of the subject matter: “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” “Touch Me,” “Totally Fucked” and “Abortionist Underscore.”
While much of the play deals with the destructive and animalistic aspects of what sex can be like in the hands of uneducated teens, not all hope is lost. The play ends with one character coming back from the brink of suicide to live on. The play closes with “The Song of Purple Summer,” which Aberasturi says refers to the sky’s color during fall when there still are signs of life before the world plunges into the depths of winter:
“And all shall fade
the flowers of spring
the world and all the sorrows
at the heart of everything
but still it stays
the butterfly sings
and opens purple summer
with a flutter of its wings”
The rights to “Spring Awakening” recently became available for amateur productions, and Aberasturi, Smith and Berleman agree that it is best performed by college-age actors.
“You have to have already gone through it to go back and perform it,” Berleman said.
For older actors to portray the roles of the sexually curious teens is “too distant” and “too creepy,” Aberasturi added.
“ ‘Spring Awakening’ is such an important show for colleges to put on,” Smith said. “It is still so relevant today.”
Performances of “Spring Awakening” take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17, 18 and 19, and at 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 20. The performances will take place at the Nell J. Redfield Performing Arts Center, 505 Keystone Ave. in Reno. Tickets cost $17 for adults, $15 for students and $10 for TMCC students and seniors. Buy tickets online at www.showtix4u.com or by calling 789-5671.