When hormones rush in and parents check out

Director Sylvaine Strike talks about her first musical, ‘Spring Awakening’, whose themes of adolescence ‘are as immortal as spring itself’

25 February 2024 - 00:00
By Andrea Nagel
Leads Scarlett Pay (Wendell) and Dylan Janse van Rensburg (Melchior) play characters trying to understand their physical development and urges in 'Spring Awakening'.
Image: Claude Barnardo Leads Scarlett Pay (Wendell) and Dylan Janse van Rensburg (Melchior) play characters trying to understand their physical development and urges in 'Spring Awakening'.

Theatre, though not considered the most lucrative career to pursue — unless you’re at the absolute pinnacle — is definitely one of the most exciting.

Spending your days breathing life into words on a page by performing them — dancing them, singing them or saying them to a rapt audience — is balm for the soul.

The vibrancy of the profession is palpable when visiting LAMTA (the Luitingh Alexander Musical Theatre Academy), a world-class drama school above the Theatre on the Bay in Camps Bay, Cape Town.

It doesn’t hurt that some of the studio classrooms overlook the beach — and, I was told by Anton Luitingh, the school’s director, that students regularly take breaks to go for a swim in the sea.

I’ve no doubt it helps with the singing and dancing classes. The school’s latest production, which will be on at Theatre on the Bay from March 8 and move to Pieter Toerien’s Theatre & Studio at Montecasino in Joburg from April 12, is Spring Awakening, a musical about teenagers discovering their sexuality in a pious and ignorant society.

Fresh from her much-lauded production of The Promise, an adaptation of the 2021 Booker award-winning novel by Damon Galgut, Sylvaine Strike was asked by Luitingh and co-director of LAMTA, Duane Alexander, to join the production to direct her first musical, which stars the school’s students, graduates and guest artists Francis Chouler and Natalie Robbie.

The original play, Frühlings Erwachen, was written in German by Frank Wedekind in 1891. At the time the content was thought scandalous and was banned in various countries — it was only staged in Germany 1906. Wedekind subtitled his play “a children’s tragedy”, no doubt because of the strong stuff it deals with — scenes of unwanted pregnancy, abortion, a masturbation solo (it could hardly be a duet, wrote English theatre critic Michael Coveney), violence, death, suicide, ghosts — what teenagers go through, apparently.

In 2006, the piece was translated by American singer-songwriter, composer and actor, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater — a Tony Award, Grammy Award, and Laurence Olivier Award-winning American poet, playwright and lyricist — into a modern-day production using the explosive language of indie rock.

Charles Isherwood, reviewing the play in The New York Times in 2006, wrote: “Spring Awakening depicts or discusses adolescent sexuality in a variety of guises, including (possible) rape, masturbation and homosexuality. It explores the confusion and desperation that ensue when the onrushing tide of hormones meets the ignorance of children raised by parents too embarrassed or prudish to discuss what those new urges signify.

“Two of the three lead characters are sacrificed on the altar of propriety: one tormented by shame over sexual fantasies and bad grades, the other, a girlfriend, the victim of a botched abortion.”

Sylvaine Strike, South African actress, writer and theatre director.
Image: Claude Barnardo Sylvaine Strike, South African actress, writer and theatre director.

Coveney, quoted in the production’s programme, says that a rock musical based on a 19th-century play, performed in period costume with songs about adolescent sex, peer pressure and masturbation, would be surprising enough without the eight Tony awards it won.

He says the trigger, so to speak, of Sheik and Sater’s interest in the play was the Columbine High School massacre near Denver, Colorado, in 1999. You might think all this would be a little intimidating to Strike, who’d never thought that musical theatre — not least one with such heavy themes — was her genre.

Her gentle demeanour belies nothing of the sort. In fact, I heard from a member of the crew, that she never raises her voice — and yet the entire cast and crew hang on her every word and direction.

“I was never interested in directing a musical,” says Strike. “But then, working at LAMTA (she teaches gestural analysis and clowning), I got seduced by the medium — by how powerful they can be. The themes in Spring Awakening are massive — and are utterly contemporary, even though it was written in 1891.

"The issues the play deals with are immortal,” she adds. “Like spring itself. There will always be the age of adolescence to contend with — and the issues are always the same — self-acceptance, comparison with others, academic pressure, parental pressure, and of course, sexual awakening, which always happens at this age and always will.”

The reoccurrence of these themes in every generation appealed to Strike: “I’ve found some musicals to touch lightly on things, to always have a happy ending — and there’s a place for that — but they can make you feel disconnected, uninvested. But in this musical you get the escapism through the music — which is beautifully composed with brilliant lyrics — while you engage with the seriousness of the story.

Strike was also compelled by the stage production, which didn’t require massive sets.

“And there are no costume changes,” she adds. “It’s set in a conservative, religious rural town somewhere — it could be anywhere — and sexuality starts to blossom, there’s this hormonal efflorescence — between men and women, or men and men, or women and women ... and then there’s abortion and teen suicide. It all sounds quite terrifying ... but the play tries to make clear the power of communicating as parents and children, and what goes wrong when there’s no talking, no help, no support.”

The oldest member of the cast is 23 and the youngest 18, so the actors are really at the right stage of their lives to connect with the material.

“It was only a few years ago that they were teenagers,” says Strike. “They’re close to the age they’re acting, which is unusual for musicals. The songs they sing make the tough material more digestible. That the actors break into song allows a release of emotion. It makes it palatable.”

She admits that the humour also helps lighten the narrative. “The humour that permeates the script appealed to me immensely,” she says. “The work I take on rides that fine line between darkness and light. Anyone who’s seen The Promise will understand that. Humour is essential.”

Front row: Austin Tshikosi (far left), Dylan Janse van Rensburg (centre) and Jayden Dickson in a scene from 'Spring Awakening'.
Image: Claude Barnardo Front row: Austin Tshikosi (far left), Dylan Janse van Rensburg (centre) and Jayden Dickson in a scene from 'Spring Awakening'.

Strike adds that the set design also played into the themes of light and dark. Niall Griffin designed the sets with the idea of “Handmaid's Tale meets nursery rhyme” in mind, and there are eight Victorian benches on stage. That’s all.

“It’s about something sweet and beautiful covering up something dark,” she says.

All the students are so exquisite — they’re at the prime of their lives. They’re so attractive to each other and to the audience. They’re in uniform — which tries to make them all the same, to dull down their beauty — but they’re blossoming out of that uniform.

Strike’s theatrical focus has always been on movement. She graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in drama in 1993, after which she studied mime and clown in Paris at Jacques LeCoq School.

“I work from a very physical space,” she says. “Characters are defined by how they place themselves in the space, where the alignment is — the pelvis forward, the spine in a certain way. Everything is physically manipulated. Subconsciously, we’re always reading body language.

“Actors aren’t reliant on a wig or a prop to change them — they can change roles just by changing the way they move. The experiences the kids in the play have you can ‘read’ in them physically. There’s a jadedness that comes across in the movement by the end.”

She adds: “The sexuality, heartache, and rebellion we excavated during the rehearsal process always came first and foremost from the body. This was apt, seeing that the impulses of adolescence also spring from this turmoiled yet effervescent well.”

Left to right: Scarlett Pay, Tatum Coleman, Nandipa Nyivana and Gemma Bisseker, part of the cast of characters that came alive through the story's impulses.
Image: Claude Barnardo Left to right: Scarlett Pay, Tatum Coleman, Nandipa Nyivana and Gemma Bisseker, part of the cast of characters that came alive through the story's impulses.

The director raves about her 21-strong cast (16 of them are undergraduates) and about her team of creatives, all three women of immense talent: musical director Amy Campbell  and choreographers Anna Olivier and Naoline Quinzin.

“Whether we explored the private agony of self-consciousness; the damage of self-doubt; the wreckage of hormones on both mind and soul; the pain of parents’ inability to accept a child as they are; or the blossoms of sexuality — my mantra was to find a physical way to manifest these feelings and to create characters that came alive through these impulses.”

Booking is through Webtickets. Spring Awakening contains mature themes, partial nudity, sexual situations and explicit language. No under 13s.