(NOTE: “Spring Awakening” performances continue through Nov. 19; details below)
By Amy Isler Gibson, executive director of Watershed Arts
Eugene’s youth have exceptional access to participating in the performing arts, through community theater, dance and music programs as well as curriculum and performances in public and private schools throughout the area, from early childhood through high school and beyond.
At the high school level, we have a particularly glorious history of edgy, risky, truth-telling plays. One was the fabulous presentation of “The Laramie Project” at Sheldon High School in 2013, proposed by the students themselves after a gay student left their school as a result of harassment. Another, “The House of Yes,” a dark examination of mental illness and family dysfunction, will be produced at South Eugene High School in February.
One of the bravest of all — “Spring Awakening” — is onstage now at the South Eugene High School Theater. It is like no version you have ever seen — fresh, honest, alive — performed by students who are clearly aware that they are baring their own, very current souls, and perhaps the audience’s, too.
Here is a play that addresses, without overcrowding and in a seamless, intimate way adolescent issues of budding sexuality with its confusions and identity questions, homosexuality, masturbation, pregnancy, incest, impulses toward violence against both self and others, the risks of illegitimate abortion, depression and mental health, suicide, grief, rage, rebellion and more.
Above all, embodied by every youth character in the large cast but especially lead character Melchior Gabor (played with both authority and humility by Sage Siepert) is the courage to face down shame. Siepert’s role, along with those played by Hannah Montgomery and Hunter Ignatius especially, examine and celebrate the difficulties of being an embodied, thinking, questioning youth, made even harder by adults who are more concerned with image and the repression of that very self.
Longtime SEHS drama teacher Pat Avery deserves much of the credit for continuously advocating that his students can handle some of the deepest issues of our times with maturity, grace and talent.
“Spring Awakening” had to be advocated for and embraced by the South Eugene school community, from students, teachers, staff, parents and even grandparents — some of whom did not find this an easy play to support — to the highest levels of the Eugene School District administration.
Students involved in the production have said that the depth and respect in that discussion resulted in just one rule — anything but nudity — that offered a powerful message of trust and confidence in their maturity, in many ways the opposite of the one given by the teachers and parents in the play itself.
They also believe that from cast to technical support to those who did not participate actively in the play, the dialogue that took place throughout the student community taught many students to accept themselves and to reach out to others who are struggling, including one student who said, “Two years I was suicidal myself. This group of people has helped change everything for me. Now I belong.”
“Spring Awakening” operates on many levels. Every aspect of the play, from plot to set design to choreography to costuming, lighting and sound and posters by graphic design students at the school, makes clear that this play is about every person, onstage and off.
The chorus who dance and sing express the most intimate inner voices of the leads. The set design portrays the abstract, angular windows in German Expressionist style that signify hope as well as inner turmoil, including fencing symbolizing the intellectual and emotional cage imposed on adolescents as they struggle to become authentic.
Moments in that play that focus on shame and darkness are illuminated with neutral lighting, the soul’s attempts to free itself and embrace joy in vibrant, neon colors. The sung reference to “Purple Summer” glows at the end as the young adults try to reconcile and embrace who they are inside and all they have lost and gained.
It is almost a shock to learn that the original play was written in 1891 in Germany, by German playwright Frank Wedekind, under the title “A Children’s Tragedy.” The play aroused an outcry and immediate condemnation, closing almost as soon as it opened.. It was adapted more than a century later, in 2006, for the Broadway musical stage by Steven Sater, where it won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
In advance of committing to do “Spring Awakening,” a group of SEHS students traveled to The International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb., in June to see a strong version of the play and ask themselves if they were up to the task.
Fortunately for them; fortunately for our entire community, the answer was, “Yes.” This show is an example of what art can really do: to motivate us to examine ourselves, our world and how we treat ourselves and each other. The production drew support from many organizations, from the Eugene School District to Planned Parenthood to Sexual Assault Support Services and more.
These young actors are aware of the irony and fit of doing this play on the eve of an election that has shown us all some of the darkest aspects of humanity that are reflected in this play. Their message to the community is, “Don’t come to fill up our seats. Come because this is one of the most important things we will ever do and you will ever see. But come!”
High school can be a bitch or a joy, or both. In any case, growing up is almost inevitably a wound. The play ends, “Oh I’m gonna be wounded, 0h I’m gonna be your wound, oh I’m gonna bruise you, oh you’re gonna be my bruise.”
The message is that if we all join hands, maybe we grow from our wounds. These students, this play, director Pat Avery and everyone who made it possible deserve your attention and the salute of our entire community.
Salute yourself while you are at it. That would make these students very happy. Do not miss this play!
Where: South Eugene High Theater, 400 E. 19th Ave.
When: 7 p.m.on Nov. 10-11 and 17-19; 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 13
Note: Rated MA-14 for sexual content and language; no one under 14 years old will be admitted without adult supervision
Tickets: $15 general admission, $10 for students and senior citizens, available at the box office or online at southeugenetheater.org/