Oglethorpe University's 'Spring Awakening' Carries 'Mature Content' Warning & Pushes Boundaries Where They Need Pushing Most
A few years ago, I was sure I’d never set foot on Atlanta’s beautiful Oglethorpe University campus again. That’s because Georgia Shakespeare, which staged its productions at the university’s Conant Performing Arts Center, finally gave up the ghost in 2006 after nearly three decades.
This was not the fault of Oglethorpe by any means. But without Georgia Shakespeare, there seemed no reason to return to the campus. The end of those fine productions was a great loss to the city’s cultural landscape, and I kept hoping it might rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix like Atlanta itself. So far that has not happened. But last weekend I found myself making the familiar turn off Peachtree Road onto the school's Brookhaven campus for a decidedly non-Shakespearean production of the Tony-Award-winning musical Spring Awakening.
If I’d taken the time to investigate further, I probably wouldn’t have driven through Saturday’s horrible rainstorm for what turned out to be a student production. Purchasing the tickets online was a knee-jerk decision. I clicked “buy” only because veteran actor and director Richard Garner, co-founder of Georgia Shakespeare, was listed as director. I’d seen plenty of his work on the university campus, most of it featuring Equity actors, and that’s all it took to clinch the deal.
The students did not disappoint. Quite the contrary. They turned out a performance that was both affecting and engaging. And the timing of this production could not be better. You might think a late 19th-century play about adolescent sexual angst would be irrelevant in the 21stcentury. But irrelevant it’s not.
First staged in 1906, this play has sometimes been banned and censored. Frankly, it's encouraging to see challenging work of this kind presented on a college campus in the red-clay, red state of Georgia.
The script dispenses with the usual pubescent anxieties over sexual fantasy and masturbation fairly early in scenes that prove to be absolutely sidesplitting.
But this is a play that reflects the seriousness of today's headlines. Teen suicide, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, religious fundamentalism, and bullying. If that doesn’t sound like an echo of this year's news cycle, I don’t know what does.
The drama was initially penned by German author Frank Wedekind, who was influential in the development of epic theater. If you’re thinking epic as in epic poem—guess again. Epic theater is about reversing theater's traditional suspension of disbelief and showing the audience the world as it is.
The musical adaptation of Spring Awakening picked up an armful of Tony awards in 2006 and was revived on Broadway in 2015. Now here it is again in 2019 in Georgia, where the issues it confronts are sorely in need of thoughtful consideration. This is, after all, a state whose legislature passed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion measures in the country.
If you’ve ever seen Dennis Potter films like The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven, you’ll recognize one of his devices in this play. The characters have difficulty expressing their emotions, so they grab a microphone and blurt out a song that gets to the heart of things. There's a case to be made that this mechanism doesn’t work quite as well in Spring Awakening because the play’s action is set in 19th-century Germany, long before the birth of the blues or rock and roll. If you can accept this anachronism, you’re in for an entertaining evening. It’s that contemporary music and the rousing full-cast ensemble numbers that lift the play’s difficult subject matter into a realm audiences can accept and reflect upon. The overall effect is deeply stirring.
With seasoned director Richard Garner at the helm, the Oglethorpe students turn in outstanding performances. There’s real talent onstage at the Conant Performing Arts Center. Students in the theater's bachelor-degree program work with established professionals throughout the academic year. That influence really shows in this production. It will be interesting to see where some of these performers wind up professionally.
In any case, it was nice to be back on the Brookhaven campus again. I've had to throw away my bias about "student" productions. Most members of the production crew and band are professional artists or members of Oglethorpe's faculty and staff. If what I saw Saturday night is any indication, the work they're producing is a far cry from ego-driven community theater peopled by well-meaning actors who haven't the means or time to make a full commitment to craft. It's not right to knock those efforts. Some theater is better than no theater, and I applaud every effort to keep the art form alive. The thing is, student artists engaged in degree-oriented programs are committed. Whether they go on to professional careers or teaching, their unvarnished level of commitment shows in the work they do.
I’m still hoping Georgia Shakespeare will make a comeback one of these days. Surely an international city like Atlanta can produce the financial miracle and community engagement that will revive it--especially among African Americans who account for more than half the population. But in the meantime, I'll be looking forward to more very fine productions like this year's Spring Awakening (closing October 23-27). Because after all, the play's the thing.
Oglethorpe's 100-acre campus, one of the most beautiful in Georgia, and home of the Conant Performing Arts Center https://source.oglethorpe.edu/2017/10/25/oglethorpe-among-georgias-beautiful-campuses/
He's a closer look at the now defunct Georgia Shakespeare via Georgia Public Broadcasting.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
If you’re reading this website, think of me as a troubadour standing on the street corner, strumming a guitar and singing a few songs. Not everyone who comes this way is able to make contribution. But if you’re one of the passers-by who can, then feel free to drop a little spare change in my hat by clicking either the Donate or the Become a Patron button below.