Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As a live art form, it instantly becomes part of the time in which it’s performed. Cultural context matters. A play presented five years ago might resonate quite differently in the social environment of the here and now.
Think, then, of the new Selma Arts Center production of the musical “Spring Awakening” with the present in mind. There have been many versions of this show produced since its Broadway debut in 2006, but only those opening in the past few months have been performed against the backdrop we find today: an unprecedented national discussion about sexual harassment. And add to that a broader debate about the dynamics of consent in sexual relationships.
Those who know the show are aware of a key plot point: an explicit sexual encounter between a young teen girl and a boy a few years older whom she’s known for a long time. (Note: Much of this story focuses on this plot point, so consider this a spoiler alert for what’s ahead.)
Is the encounter consensual?
Ah, that’s a tough one.
“Yes and no,” says Kindle Lynn Cowger, who plays Wendla, a naive girl of about 15 growing up in a 19th Century town in Germany.
The original play on which the musical is based (written in 1890 but not performed until 1906 because of concerns about the subject matter) was less ambiguous: The encounter was clearly depicted as rape.
That was the original intent of the contemporary musical as well. According to broadwaywikia.com, creators Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik had originally intended for Wendla to be raped but “decided to change that plot because he wanted the scene to be more loving between the two characters.”
For Cowger, there are several relevant details to consider. For one, Wendla simply doesn’t know what sex is. Her mother won’t tell her. When her sister gives birth to her second child, Wendla’s mother tells Wendla the “stork” has visited her sister for the second time. When Wendla presses her mother further, the only fact of life she can wring out of Mom is that in order for a woman to conceive a child, she must “love her husband with all of her heart.”
The other detail is that Wendla is very trusting of Melchior (played by Kai DiMino), the boy who wants to take their relationship to a more intimate level. He most certainly knows what sex is. He assures her everything is OK.
“She doesn’t understand what’s going on, so she lets it happen,” Cowger says of the encounter. “If she did understand what was happening — if her mother did tell her — I think it would be a different story.”
◊ ◊ ◊
For director Dominic Grijalva, the premise that a group of teenagers are desperate for knowledge about sex — but their parents keep them in the dark — might be straight out of a 19th Century story, but it still has relevance today.
“There was much left unsaid when I was in high school,” he says, considering his own experience. “I remember being pulled out of P.E. for two weeks and being stuck in a room where some stranger had us sign abstinence membership cards. That was the extent of it. It all felt so unsatisfying and fake.”
Win two tickets to the second weekend of Selma’s “Spring Awakening”: To enter this giveaway, leave a comment on this post telling us why you’d like to go. Deadline to enter is 5 p.m. Monday. If you win, you can choose from any of the following four performances: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3; or 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4. Only those 18 and older can enter.
Wendla represents the naivete and thirst for information that we all know too well from our adolescence, he says. She lives a very sheltered life, and her parents withhold everything they can about sex and reproduction in order to keep her “safe.”
“Thoroughly unsatisfied and frustrated, she spends much of the show constantly attempting to expose herself to anything she can through her peers in order to quench that thirst. This overprotective upbringing mixed with the undying desire for more ultimately leads to a few dangerous situations with regrettable, very real consequences.”
Even today, experiences with sex education vary widely. For most students it starts as early as middle school, Cowger points out. Still, not all children absorb such lessons in the same way. One reason Cowger feels a strong connection with Wendla — “I have never related so much to a character in my entire life,” she says — was Cowger’s relative lack of sophistication compared to other kids when she was in school.
“That’s how I grew up,” she says. “I was naive. People called me the goody-two-shoes.”
Grijalva says that parenting styles differ, too.
“What this show does so well is lay all those topics out in the open, unapologetically, which gets the conversation going,” he says. “So, in a way, I hope parents bring their children to the show to get that conversation happening. It’s important, and it beats having to start it yourself!”
◊ ◊ ◊
The pivotal scene in question comes during the song “I Believe.” In full view of the audience and the rest of the cast, a carefully choreographed depiction of sex unfolds, each movement timed exactly.
Grijalva worked with the actors individually at first. Not only are the movements simulating sex, they also have to be timed to a song that the rest of the cast is singing behind them.
“So, Kai has to undo Kindle’s dress and only has a certain amount of time to get to all those buttons,” he says. “Kindle has to know when to say each line and they have to be delivered in the exact order written, otherwise we run the risk of convoluting the tone of the scene.”
Cowger never felt awkward during the rehearsal process. It helped that she trusted her scene partner.
“I am absolutely comfortable with Kai,” she says. “He is one of my dear, dear friends.”
Through it all, Grijalva was well aware of the #MeToo movement unfolding around him, and it was important to him to honor it. Key to that was making Cowger a full partner in the process.
“In a time where women are marching hand in hand demanding the respect they deserve, this story serves a purpose in showcasing the importance of a woman’s choice,” he says. “It was very important to me to make sure that my actors were comfortable with what we were doing, that it served the story honestly, and that they agreed with me on the direction we were taking it in. This is a delicate and specific process that has taken a few weeks to get just right, but the result is intense and worthwhile. I’m very proud of how it’s grown and how they have handled it.”
Still, this all had to be balanced with an important fact: “Spring Awakening” relies on provocative material for its dramatic spark. When a director and cast contemplate such issues as harassment, rape and consent, there can be a risk in toning that material down to the point where that dramatic impact is diminished. The encounter between Wendla and Melchior is meant to be ambiguous. She is conflicted. Reworking the show to remove that angst would change something vital at the core of the narrative.
Another reason Cowger is so enamored of her character is the strength with which Wendla faces her burdens. In the second act number “Whispering,” she recalls her encounter with Melchior and takes ownership of the results:
Summer longing on the wind
Had a sweetheart on his knees
So faithful and adoring
And he touched me. And I let him love me
So let that be my story
For the hope, for the new life
Something beautiful, a new chance
Hear its whispering
For Grijalva, it’s all about texture and nuance.
“What I enjoy about the character of Wendla is that she doesn’t play the victim,” he says. “There is a coming of age arc for her that is tragic and beautiful. She accepts the consequences to her actions. No longer as the meek young child, but as the wiser and more responsible adult she will now aspire to be.”
“Spring Awakening,” through Feb. 10, Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma. Tickets are $19 adults, $17 students and seniors. Must be 18 or older to purchase a ticket. Under the age of 17 must be accompanied by an adult.
To subscribe to the email newsletter for The Munro Review, go to this link: