December 17, 2019

Facing Life Through Theater in “Spring Awakening”

For over 50 years, the Oakwood Theatre Department has produced challenging plays that don’t shy away from controversial or difficult subject matter. In the words of Sabell Bender, who led Oakwood’s Theatre program for over two decades, plays have the potential to “give young people the faith to make ‘what is’ better,” and she considered the opportunity to confront conflict as “the essence of theatre.” From classics like Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof, to a 2015 12th grade production of Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore, Oakwood students have embraced this challenge. This winter, Oakwood students carried this legacy on with Spring Awakening, a seminal work of modern drama that deals with profound and challenging subjects.

“When I presented the idea of doing Spring Awakening to Secondary Campus Principal William Perkins Tift and the Administrative Team, and said ‘you understand that this show is controversial and explores complicated and provocative ideas,’ the response was ‘Well good, let’s explore them,’” explains director Rich Brunner. “The musical’s author, Steven Sater, says that the issues and problems in this show are all things every teenager in every school in the world is dealing with; you can either ignore them or deal with them. Thanks to the support of the Oakwood School community of teachers and administrators, we’ve chosen to deal with them.”


Written in 1891 by German playwright Frank Wedekind, but not performed until 1906, Spring Awakening was a rebuke of 19th century repression. It follows a group of teenagers as they struggle with puberty, homosexuality, pregnancy, and assault, all with little guidance or support from their elders. The play has often been banned or censored in the century since its debut. In 2006, a rock musical adaptation premiered on Broadway, written by Sater and with a rousing soundtrack by Duncan Sheik, garnering critical and audience praise, and winning several Tony awards. It is this version that the Oakwood students staged.

“We live in a society where huge portions of the country are not very much different than the people in this show,” Rich says. “Through either religious ideology or political ideology, they don’t want their kids to be educated in the ways of the human body, and the consequences are disastrous, which is what happens in the show. Ignorance is not bliss.”

Students involved with the production echoed his sentiments, noting that the play addresses issues that are still relevant to their lives.

“This show in particular, it’s for students, it’s not just a spectacle,” said Seth, a senior and the play’s lighting designer. “It deals with issues that we face every day, and facing them is important. I would say and this is more realistic than anything you see on TV or Netflix today.”

Sasha, also a senior, who plays all of the adult “female” roles in the play, put it simply: “It’s about high schoolers, so why can’t you do it at High School?”


Rich made it clear that students were not thrust into these intense roles without adequate preparation. Every physical interaction was handled as if it were precise choreography. He asked the actors when they were ready to run through some of the more intense scenes. Parents and faculty members were informed about the show’s content, and the actors had to get signed approval from parents.

Syd, a senior who plays Wendla, credited Oakwood with providing a measure of safety despite the weighty subject matter. “This is the first show I’ve ever done ever at Oakwood and I was really scared and I don’t feel scared anymore,” she says. “That’s thanks to everyone else being so incredibly supportive.”

The closeness of the source material to what the students are experiencing in their daily lives proved a creative challenge for some. “It’s almost like when you’re writing a personal essay. You have to write about yourself and you’re like, ‘how do I do this?’” mused Iona, a senior who plays Ilsa.

“I think the idea that this show is entwined with our lives is really exciting for me,” remarked Alex, a senior who served as house manager and poster designer . “It’s almost surreal because you have to find a way to present experiences that you have all the time, but in the mind of another person. It’s like taking something so ordinary and imbuing it with some extraordinary quality that your character has.”


The show is ultimately about hope that this is the generation, that these kids are the ones that bring us out of the ignorance that has been so pervasive in our current environment.

Rich Brunner

Beau, a senior who plays the role of Melchior, asked “It’s very relatable, but how do you make it come across naturally? How do you find your skin in that skin?”

The challenges didn’t end with the actors, but extended to the costume and lighting designers who had ambitious problems to solve as well. Instead of setting the play at the turn of the 20th century as it was originally written, Rich envisioned it in the near future of 2032, in a dystopian landscape inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Costume designers Eden and Sonia created sleek, minimal costumes, with different color schemes depending on the social class each character belongs to. With over 50 complete or partial costumes to design, they reworked other garments, saving time and money instead of making everything from scratch or purchasing all new outfits.

A musical production with dance numbers proved a formidable challenge for Seth, who got his start with lighting in 7th grade. “With this kind of show I wanted to make it more like a dance show so you have lights at all different heights to highlight the figure more instead of just make sure they see their faces,” he explains.

This year, the school installed a new lighting set up which provides more possibilities as well as decisions to make. “With all these really controversial moments on stage, I wanted the opportunity to either backlight or front light or side light depending on how Rich wants to portray the moment.”


With its cautionary themes warning against silence and shame in the face of trauma and self-discovery, both the director and students involved remarked that it fits in with Oakwood’s broader culture and philosophy.

“Yes, we’re doing something provocative, but we’re not doing it to be provocative. We’re doing it to be informative, and I hope that there are hundreds of conversations about all this stuff,” explains Rich. “The show is ultimately about hope that this is the generation, that these kids are the ones that bring us out of the ignorance that has been so pervasive in our current environment.”