Autumn 'Awakening'

Stanford stages coming-of-age musical in renovated space

Teen suicide. Academic pressure. Consent versus sexual assault. Questions about identity, health and love. These issues are likely all-too familiar to teens and college students, but they're not new. Frank Wedekind explored these topics back in 1891 -- the very year Stanford University was founded -- when he wrote his oft-censored play "Spring Awakening." The hit musical of the same name will be staged in Stanford's recently renovated Roble Studio Theater Oct. 27-Nov. 5, and the show's directors say its themes still resonate.

"It's a play that deals with the anxieties and concerns of young people in a world that seems to constrain them, and how they reach out beyond those constraints to a feeling of resiliency and hope," said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry J. Elam, Jr., who's also the production's artistic director.

Playwright Steven Sater's adaptation of "Spring Awakening" (with music by alt-rocker Duncan Sheik) tells the story of a group of young German teenagers at the end of the 19th century. The characters rage against their parents and teachers for keeping them ignorant about puberty and sex and for forcing them to conform to rigid social norms. At the crossroads between childhood and adulthood, they delve into self discovery and begin to question authority, with sometimes-tragic, sometimes-hopeful results.

"I love that it centers on these kids who feel that they don't have a voice and they don't have anyone to talk to and ask questions about topics we wish we could talk about right now," Stage Director Ken Savage said. "Even though it's set in 1891, the issues are still alive. This idea of what's taboo to talk about openly: sex, gun violence ... it's always going to be a musical that's relevant, unfortunately."

Savage, a recent Stanford graduate who was involved with numerous productions and granted several student awards, said "Spring Awakening" holds a special place in his heart: It's the first show he ever saw on Broadway.

The show may especially strike a chord with Palo Alto and Stanford students, both Savage and Elam suggested, as the adolescent characters are, like many of them, high-achieving students coming from a background of privilege and parental pressures.

Stanford's done "Spring Awakening" before, staged in Memorial Auditorium in 2013, but this year's production, with a cast of 20, will be a more intimate affair. The new black-box theater will be configured so that the audience surrounds the stage on three sides.

"The way that the set is designed, there's going to be a lot of engaging the audience by breaking the fourth wall," Savage said.

Elam, who, as artistic director was responsible for choosing the play as well as choosing Savage as stage director (along with the Theater and Performing Studies Department selection committee), said that the issues brought up in "Spring Awakening" are more relevant to Stanford students than ever. He will be moderating a panel discussion on suicide and sexual assault in "Spring Awakening," alongside several experts in adolescent psychiatry (the program also includes a list of campus resources for help and support).

The production is "an awakening of sorts for our department," Elam said, celebrating the reopening of the historic Roble arts complex (which underwent a $28 million renovation this summer) as well as being part of a larger emphasis on arts of all kinds on campus.

"It's deeply important to us, and to me, as administrators that Stanford is a strong place for art," he said, "where Stanford students can excel in art in addition to becoming engineers."

The involvement of Savage, as a recent alumnus now working as a theater professional, sets an inspirational example for current art students, he said.

"I think what we also have the benefit of is the vision that Ken is bringing to this version of 'Spring Awakening' for Stanford and the wider community in 2016," he added. "Our vision is that the cast should look like Stanford today. The cast is purposely diverse. You wouldn't find that in 1891 but you certainly do at Stanford today."

Savage and the cast had many discussions about the difficult themes in the play and how they relate to their own lives.

"Each cast member is able to resonate with some character in this world. Often times these are stories that they've shared with us that they've never shared openly," he said. "What we wish happened is that all audiences and all people get this opportunity to say, 'Let's spend a couple hours and lower our barriers and speak without a filter.' It really epitomizes why we do these shows together."

What: "Spring Awakening"

Where: Roble Studio Theater, Stanford

When: Oct. 27-29 and Nov 3-5 at 8 p.m.; matinees Oct. 29-30 and Nov. 5 at 2 p.m.

Cost: $5-15. For sold-out shows, patrons may join the wait list one hour prior to performance.

Info: Go to TAPS.

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