LOL So I’ve actually been meaning to post about this since the end of April. Yeah, running behind! Sorry about that. What can I say? Things have been busy! Finished up classes, had an awesome visit with family :-), and then did a very successful gig at the Open Tuning Festival! LOL And then, after that, I’ve been just plain tired. And am still supposed to be getting work done on the first of my comps for my doctorate! Which I am, though probably not as much or as fast as I should. LOL Oops!
Anyway, I heard about this production back at the Cripping The Arts Symposium. And I’ve wanted to post about it ever since, because it sounds absolutely awesome! Heck, I’d love to see it! 😦 Though, apparently, its Broadway run is finished now. Bummer! But I’ve heard there’s a national (U.S.) tour planned? That’d be awesome! I really hope it’ll make some stops, either here in Canada, or somewhere in the States close enough for me to go. I’d love to support it! Anyway, it’s by the Deaf West Theatre Company out in California (San Francisco I think), and it’s their take on the musical Spring Awakening. It’s apparently been a huge hit, too, even winning a whole whack of Tonies! LOL How did I not hear about this before?
So Deaf West are a company that do their shows, including musicals, in both English and ASL simultaneously. Apparently they’ve done Big River and Pippin previously. But what makes their production of Spring Awakening revolutionary is that they’ve allowed it to directly address ableism. And the brilliant thing is that they’ve done it without altering any of the original script or lyrics! Spring Awakening was not originally written for Deaf/Disabled performers, nor was it intended to address issues such as ableism. But Deaf West have taken it and made it work!
The musical is adapted from a play from the 1890s about the challenges of coming of age in an ultra-repressive society. Thus, it’s characters deal with their emerging sexualities, and broader desires, in a context in which to even discuss such things is strictly forbidden, and obedience to systems/figures of authority regarded as the marker of well-adjustedness. And the musical preserves the “Victorian” setting of the play. But it makes it more than a simple period piece by, between scenes, having the characters grab microphones and sing their thoughts and feelings in a contemporary rock idiom. So it’s already intended to speak as much to our own time as to history!
Then, Deaf West took the radical step of, rather than creating a world on stage in which everyone magically knows Sign, as they’ve done for previous musicals, deliberately making some of the characters Deaf and some hearing, adding a layer to the issues around communication and silence already present in the story. They were inspired to do this by the Deaf history occurring around the time the original play was written and in which the musical takes place. For, just prior to that, in the 1880s, the body in charge of Deaf education (which, I’m assuming contained no Deaf people at that time) decided that children should be taught to speak and lip-read, and that ASL should be suppressed. And this, too, ads a new layer to the issues around normalization and conformism already addressed in the musical. You can read more about the original play, its musical adaptation, and Deaf West’s awesome reworking of it here.
The brilliance of this production is that, by picking a story which already addressed issues of intergenerational communication, normalization, conformism and resistance, Deaf West were able to create a musical that’s accessible to both Deaf and hearing actors and audience. And, because this was done so organically, it resonated with both audiences all the way to 8 (I believe) Tonies! And, contrary to much of the commentary I heard from folks at the Cripping the Arts Symposium, I don’t think this is just because it happened to be the 20th anniversary of the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) at the time. I think it’s because the story itself in its musical adaptation was a natural fit. So, when the audience saw/heard it, the universal design didn’t feel like an adaptation or an add-on, it felt like an organic part of the story-telling. And, while that’s easier to achieve with new shows, because it can be written in right from the get-go, it’s much harder to achieve with a revival of an existing show!
So, naturally, I’m now absolutely dying to see what could be done to create a universal design production of Phantom! Because, like Spring Awakening, it’s a story about the consequences and effects of exclusion. So it, too, should be a natural fit! But there would, admittedly, be some major challenges. One of the big ones, of course, would be that it’s very much a story about music and singing. So I have no idea how ASL could be organically incorporated! Also, the show’s original aesthetic – Victorian high romance, yet at the same time very sparse and almost minimalist – would present some interesting challenges to physical accessibility. And that aesthetic is a great part of what Phans love about the show because of the way it works a richly layered symbolism into the experience. So it’s really important, IMHO, that that symbolic richness and aesthetic be respected! (ahem, 2015 touring production directed by Lawrence Connor that totally trashed said aesthetic, and not even for the good reason of trying to make the show accessible.) So it’d require real creativity to adapt POTO for universal access! 🙂 But I’d love to see some one take a crack at it. Because, a musical about the need for justice and inclusion shouldn’t exclude in its design and staging! #POTOWalkTheWalk