Sexuality, choices and youth culture in freeFall Theatre’s Spring Awakening

By : Steve Blanchard
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Since it debuted on Broadway in 2007, Spring Awakening enjoyed a bevy of Tony Awards, a successful Broadway-style tour that continues today and huge record sales of its rock-infused soundtrack.

It has also gained traction among local theaters and this July, freeFall Theatre will take on the now famous production and restage it for its intimate space on Central Avenue.

“For this production, the theater space is set up as a round, which seemed the most appropriate, the most intimate, for this show,” says director Eric Davis. “This is a very exposed room and no culture to hide anything. The audience sees the theatricality and the audience watches the audience watch the play.”

And the beginning of theater, Davis adds, began with circles of people around campfires, which provided the most intimate atmosphere. Despite it being a large Broadway production originally, Spring Awakening will work perfectly as an intimate production, he says.

“It’s just so relevant,” Davis says. “Questions about sexuality and its consequences still exist today among youth. In this story we have a girl who is raised and not told where babies come from. She doesn’t know she can get pregnant. How can we expect our youth to understand consequences if we’re afraid to talk to them about those very subjects that make us uncomfortable?”

WideAwakeCapThere is also, of course, an LGBT element to the production. “Hanschen,” played by Scott Daniel, is a sexually aware young man who preys upon the younger Ernst, played by 20-year-old Emanuel Carrero. Their relationship can sometimes provide comic relief, but the two actors do not play their roles as farce.

“Their interaction is taken in a light way and it breaks up some of the score,” Daniel says. “We’re not schtick, but people will laugh.”

The young Carrero, who is a student at the University of Tampa, agrees.

“The characters are an essential part of the story and its structure,” Carrero says. “The show is a call to action for the audience to talk about subject matter they may not be comfortable with.”

While the show is by no means a children’s show, the characters are all mostly school age. But the adult content is strong, including a “masturbation” scene on stage, featuring Daniel and several other male members of the cast.

“There is some intimidation there portraying that scene,” Daniel says. “But we feel safe with Eric’s direction. That moment, when we’re all supposedly masturbating together on stage, essentially doing a circle jerk, I’m not afraid. It’s something we’ve all done. Granted, not in front of an audience, but these characters are not in front of an audience. They are learning who they are.”

For actor Chris Brent Davis, who plays Otto, an adult character, the bond among the cast members has helped create a comfortable atmosphere and a stronger united front to present material that many may not always feel comfortable with.

“It’s an incredible cast and it weaves in rock music,” Chris Brent Davis laughs. “What’s not to love? But I was anxious at first, but not because of the content. I’ve never played an adult character before this. I’ve always played children. It’s fun to be pushed and the choreography and staging is difficult and we all emotionally invest ourselves. That’s the true challenge.”

The challenge is also presenting the LGBT community in a light that is not so flattering, according to Daniel. He says his character and his “preying” instincts on a younger, gay classmate doesn’t reflect so well on gay culture.

“It’s honestly a very big switch from my life (playing the character of Otto),” Daniel says. “I am very confident in who and what I am. My character is not.”

And while he understands the conflict of the gay characters in Spring Awakening, Daniel admits he’d like to see a mainstream play with gay characters that aren’t outcasts or presented negatively.

“Where’s the story with two normal leads?” he asks. “Why isn’t there a Neil Simon-style play out there with two men as the leads? Look at Rent and Jeffrey-not every gay man is living with AIDS. I understand why those plays portray that,  but we’ve moved so far forward, especially recently. It’s time to update the way the LGBT community is portrayed on stage.”

But until those not-yet-created roles come along, all three young men, all of whom happen to be gay, are thrilled to be part of such a popular show in such an intimate theater. And director Eric Davis is confident theater members and the local audience will appreciate the vision he and his cast has brought to Spring Awakening.

“Our actors are young but they are mature enough to have life experience and can understand these roles,” Eric Davis says. “These tough things are parts of life and we all have to learn how to deal with things in an appropriate way and to teach our children that. How do you reconcile our children coming into bloom and having questions and our society recognizing their need to learn? That’s what makes this so relevant.”

And the past success of the production has helped freeFall continue that discussion, and Eric Davis describes the show as its own marketing machine.

“Regardless of your gender or your sexual orientation, you can relate to Spring Awakening,” Eric Davis says. “It is always better knowing about things before you deal with them and that’s why families should see this show together and can then have those conversations that begin with, ‘I don’t ever want you to feel…’ It’s a teachable moment.”

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