Spring Awakening: Lighting for the Deaf

by Bryan Reesman
in Inside Theater
Spring Awakening production photo by Joan Marcus
Spring Awakening production photo by Joan Marcus

The Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening has been revived on Broadway after six and a half years, but unlike many resurgent productions on the Great White Way, this one has had a whole extra dimension added to it. What started as a story about teenagers and adults (parents, teachers, and clergy) clashing over the way they communicate (specifically dealing with sexual repression) has now become a tale of deaf students and speaking adults at odds with each other over the same issues.

In both cases, suicides and deaths result from poor treatment and parenting. But the original time period and place, late 19th Century Germany, remains the same, even as both productions have used modern rock music to help express the angst and anger of the beleaguered teens. Steven Sater’s book has not changed so much as its context, which was revisited in two L.A. productions by Deaf West Theatre before being transferred to Broadway.

Ben Stanton
The original reincarnation was done at a 99-seat black box theater before being staged at the 500-seat venue at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. The Broadway production’s lighting designer Ben Stanton says he and projection designer Lucy Mackinnon were brought on board for this second L.A. production, then found out only a few months later that it would be going to Broadway. “It was trial by fire — a fast tech and a fast preview process,” recalls Stanton. “But in addition to figuring out what the play was and what the looks were to be, I also learned a lot about what’s important to people who can’t hear when they’re watching a performance. Then we had to very quickly get our ducks in a row and revamp the whole thing and do a more complete version for Broadway.”

‡‡Spring Awakening production photo by Joan Marcus
Spoken and Signed Parts

Reinventing Spring Awakening as a tale about conflict between deaf and speaking people actually works, with both spoken and signed parts being integrated into the show. “The original Spring Awakening had nothing to do with sign language,” says Stanton. “It’s based on the novel and the play of Spring Awakening, [which is about] kids who are not treated with a lot of respect or understanding and bad things happen as a result. That was still the story here, but Deaf West Theatre has an ingenious way of making theater where they try to seamlessly weave American Sign Language and deaf performers into plays and musicals. I think it’s particularly exciting when they do it with musicals, and in this case Spring Awakening was just a perfect fit, because deaf culture has experienced its own sort of mistreatment and misunderstanding and has suffered a lot as a result. It’s kind of a parallel story that worked really, really well. It makes it feel like it was always intended to be for a deaf theatre company.”

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Interiors and Exteriors

While there are both interior and exterior locations for this tragic tale, the industrial set provides an omnipresent and antiseptic backdrop for the production. Stanton also thinks it wants to be foreboding and intimidating, “but because the play actually takes place in quite a few locations it also wants to be somewhat universal,” he says. Even though the story takes place inside (schoolrooms, homes) and outside (forest, lake, garden, graveyard) “we never physically leave this interior industrial space. In and of itself, if this play just took place in this prewar industrial building, it would’ve been a breeze to light because the set took light very beautifully, and it was somewhat neutral and took a lot of colors very beautifully.” But the combination of intimate interior spaces and larger exterior spaces required the ability to convey different scenarios and moods. “I worked a lot with the projection designer Lucy Mackinnon. She gave us a lot of the exterior locations by creating these beautiful abstract sketches, drawings, and illustrations that were placed on the back wall.”

The lower center part of the backstage wall was where many supertitles were placed, showing the actual dialogue between speaking and signing characters so both hearing and non-hearing audience members could understand what was going on. With musicians in or in front of a nook and ledge at stage left and a large staircase present at stage right, plus a walkway running overhead upstage, the center was naturally a place for the supertitle projections. But many other projections ran up the length of the wall to the top and were overlaid over people at times.

“It was a really good collaboration,” Stanton states, of working with Mackinnon. “There were times when I took the lead in toning the walls, especially when we were in the interior spaces and the walls made more sense. I could use them as a sort of a cyclorama. In the musical numbers, I often used them as color fields and color washes in the more abstract moments.”

When they went to exterior spaces, Mackinnon took control “to give us the location,” he says. “There was snow, there was rain, and they were all in this chalk motif. The first projection you see is in the school room, and it’s actually super titling some of the signing. It’s on the chalkboard and in chalk handwriting. Then that chalk influence carried out throughout the rest of the play, and everything is derived from the sort of chalk texture. There’s nothing photo realistic at all, it is all hand drawn and a really interesting way to not literally put us in a graveyard, but to give us an abstract gesture of a graveyard, which I thought was really smart. When she was up on the wall with projections, it was a lot easier, because I was no longer responsible for transforming the industrial space into a garden. She was telling that story, and I could focus on the direction of light and lighting the people and what was happening downstage.”

Spring Awakening production photo by Joan Marcus
Expanding Awareness

Given the revived show’s focus on conflict between speaking and signing adults and teens, director Michael Arden, according to Stanton, wanted to have some scenes done completely with dialogue and others done only with signing. “I think that was the director’s way of helping the audience to understand what it feels like when you can’t understand something,” explains the LD. “So if you are a hearing audience member, there’s an entire scene in the first act of the play that’s done completely in sign and is dead silent. It is between a father and son, but they don’t speak any of the words. It’s incredibly powerful because you get this moment of feeling of what it might like to be deaf when people are speaking around but you can’t understand what [they’re] saying.

“For most of the play, the words are both being signed and sung or signed and spoken simultaneously, so that hearing and non-hearing people get it,” continues Stanton. “In those cases, Lucy was responsible for putting the text on the wall or on another surface to help the people who couldn’t understand that particular moment. There were times when either stuff was only signed, or times that stuff was only spoken, so she had to jump in. When you’re doing supertitles for different characters you have to differentiate, so sometimes it was about placement on the walls. Sometimes she would have higher or lower titles for different characters or different handwriting for different characters.”

Stanton reveals that there was a learning curve involved in lighting a musical for people who can’t hear. He hired a deaf assistant LD named Annie [Wiegand] who delivered a plethora of notes to really help him understand what it is like to be watching a musical and needing to follow the dialogue. She gave him very detailed notes about the balance on people’s hands and faces.

“I’m used to caring about people’s faces,” he notes. “For deaf people, seeing the face is really important because the expressions help a lot, but you also have to have the hands be just as prominent. It also had to do with a lot of costuming. If you are signing in front of your chest, what you’re wearing has a huge impact. It was really interesting to figure out how to tell the story. I’m glad that I did it in Los Angeles as well, because I had a lot to learn about lighting for a deaf audience.”

Spring Awakening production photo by Joan Marcus
He says the workhorses of the lighting were ETC Source Fours with scrollers on them, and over stage they had two moving lights systems, a wash light system and a profile system made up of Vari*Lite VL3500 fixtures. “Most of the moving lights lived above the stage as down lights, and we had two wash fixtures in each Box Boom position,” he says. “There is a large break in the wall on each side of the set, and I put four VL2500 washes in that position on each side so we could have directional light to establish time of day. Source Fours were the bulk of it, but we lit a lot of the show with moving lights as well.”

While the main lights were in the grid or overhead, some were built into the back wall, including practical light bulbs that were part of the set and added a nice texture. Stanton also had a lot of LED lighting built into the walls so he could uplight different architectural surfaces and create color.

“We had a lot of color blasts upstage,” he says. “We had a lighting trough down stage, but it just had birdies in it, footlights in it, nothing particularly fancy. There’s no lighting in the floor or anything like that. In a way, we were trying to be somewhat of a minimalist production. It seemed like the most important thing was to showcase the performers and tell the story. Even though it’s a rock musical, and I had to have the ability to light rock ‘n roll cues and have the ability to put us in a bunch of locations, I was trying to resist going into super special effects land. In a lot of ways, it was a DIY aesthetic — a simple set, simple props — and I wanted to limit my palate to make it feel as organic as possible in the space that we were in. I did stash a bunch of lights upstage on different surfaces, but building more stuff into the floor felt a little too far outside of the world that we were creating.”

There is a lot of white light onstage, which makes sense given that the story takes place in the late 1800s. Stanton tended to save the color for the musical numbers given that the story is a period piece with period costumes, but the music and its performers are distinctly modern. “There’s this kind of tension that I like between the scenes and the songs,” observes Stanton. “There is this cool exchange between the inner emotional life of the teenagers, which is modern-day rock ‘n’ roll, and the text and the scenes, which feel a bit more period. I was constantly trying to go back and forth between a super simple white light palette and a sort of more aggressive, colorful space that the teenagers lived in.”

The overall Spring Awakening experience for Stanton was inspiring, fascinating, and eye-opening “as far as how different people perceive things,” he says. “I think the revelation was working with my assistant, who is deaf, and all of these talented actors who are deaf. I wasn’t able to learn sign language very well in the short time that we spent together, but I learned a ton about deaf culture. I just feel very lucky to have been a part of it. It’s an amazing thing to have somebody who can’t hear give you lighting notes because their eyes work so well. My assistant Annie would say, ‘Did you bump that up by 10 percent?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘It’s too bright now.’ That 10 percent could be too bright because the hands look dark. I couldn’t get anything past her because she could see it all. When you’re in the middle of building a musical day in and day out, it’s hard sometimes to get perspective. I thought it was really interesting to think about ways of changing your perspective. It was a really rewarding and fascinating experience and a lot of fun.”

Gear

224   ETC Source Fours (750W; 7 x 10°, 8 x 14°, 103 x 19°, 35 x 26°, 34 x 36°, 29 x Par NSP, 8 x Par MFLs)

18     Par 16 (Birdie) 120V JDR 30°

16     Vari*Lite VL3500Q Spots

20     VL3500 Wash fixtures

8       VL 2500 Wash fixtures

1       Altman 6x12 w/Iris

2       Lycian 1290 followspots

4       Autoyoke 19° (750W)

20     Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast12 TR V2 fixtures

88     Wybron Coloram scrollers (62 x 4”, 25 x 7.5”)

2       Hazers

2       Fans

1       Fog Machine