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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

'Spring Awakening' revival provides new opportunities for diverse representation, features rising star Austin McKenzie

University of Birmingham's Guild of Students GMTG production of Spring Awakening.

Spring Awakening Reimagined

Deaf West’s revival of “Spring Awakening” is an unlikely twist on a modern classic with an even more unlikely star. Set in 1890s Germany, “Spring Awakening,” which opened for the first time on Broadway in 2006, documents the life of a group of adolescents in a small town grappling with coming of age. The discovery of sexuality, teenage angst and the miscommunication that arises between parents and their children are major themes in the play, as exhibited by songs like “The B*tch of Living,” “The Word of Your Body” and “Mama Who Bore Me.”

Unlike the original production, the revival has been reconceptualized to cater to both hearing and non-hearing audiences. Innovations in lighting and physicality are used to tell members of the audience who are deaf and hard of hearing that a song has begun or ended.

Two of the three main actors, and about half of the cast in total, are deaf; they sign their parts in American Sign Language (ASL) while other actors simultaneously voice their lines for the hearing audience. The success of each performance relies on seamless communication between the hearing and deaf actors, with the deaf actors using the physical cues of other actors and changes in lighting to start or end an action.

During the musical numbers, the deaf actors sign without moving their lips to the lyrics while the rest of the company sings. This is essential to the translation and emotional honesty of the show because ASL relies heavily on facial expressions, which often can be lost or muddled while a person is singing. Facial expressions can be equated to a speaker’s tone and are an important part of understanding a message. There is an added layer of emotional richness in each of the musical's songs, as actors simultaneously sing and sign, creating a beautiful mix of fluid choreography and ASL translations.

The reimagined musical began its previews last September and captured audiences until its final curtain on Jan. 24.

An Interview with an Unlikely Star

The political and social changes that are moving Broadway toward a more inclusive culture with more diverse voices came at just the right time for the musical's lead, Austin McKenzie.

McKenziea college student majoring in ASL and childhood education at Columbia College in Chicago, secured the lead not only because of his talent, but also because he brought together the worlds of the hearing and hearing impaired.

The 22-year-old, who just wrapped up his first run on Broadway as the character Melchior, never planned on becoming a performer. After dedicating his adolescent summers to working at a camp for people with special needs, McKenzie believed his calling was to become a special needs teacher. While doing research for his ASL class in college, McKenzie came across a casting call on YouTube for a small production of “Spring Awakening” in Los Angeles that aimed to make the show accessible to both hearing and non-hearing audiences.

“I thought it would be fun to send in an audition tape for the show, thinking that it would better my chances of being an interpreter one day for them,” he said. “Then they asked me months later to do a callback tape, and then I did another tape. And then they cast me.”

For McKenzie, it has been a whirlwind experience. McKenzie left college early to star in the show’s first incarnation at a 99-seat, black-box theatre in L.A. After a second run at a larger venue and then a move across the country, the cast arrived on Broadway, where McKenzie earned accolades as one of Broadway’s hottest and most unexpected stars of the season.

McKenzie has a voice that is both deep and delicate, lending boyish honesty to his role on stage and complementing his humble personality. He takes his time with his words, thoughtfully starting and stopping. When he speaks, one can hear a combination of wonder and complacency in his voice. Following his year and a half of constantly performing as Melchior and as a leading man, McKenzie is excited to take a step back from the spotlight.

“I’m constantly having to catch up,” he said. “Things are moving two years faster than I am processing, and I’m just trying to figure out what I’m even doing as opposed to where I’m staying. I think my mind thinks... ‘What’s happening?’ more than ‘Where am I?’”

McKenzie, who was constantly working to meet a demanding schedule, often found comfort in the routine of going to work every night and knowing exactly what he would be doing for each second of the show.

“I remember a few days before I moved to Los Angeles for the show, I called my mother and I had all of these questions like, ‘What does this mean? Is this supposed to be what I’m doing with my life? What’s happening?’” he said. “She told me something I think about every night during the show, which is to just focus on what is in front of me. Quite literally. Because I think that when I get in those moments of questioning or confronting overwhelming thoughts, it’s good to just sit and think, ‘Okay what is in front of me? Laundry. Okay. I’m going to focus on doing this laundry.’ And then I’ll think about the next thing I have to do.”

What is next for him is taking a break. McKenzie hopes to relax after the past two years of constant change. He plans to visit his sister, read some books and go rock climbing. Beyond that, he seeks to continue pursuing his new career as a performer.

McKenzie said that for people still searching for their career paths, they should first take a step back and ask themselves what they feel is their purpose in life.

“If you know what [your purpose] is, then you can make the proper arrangements to have your life accordingly go toward that," he said. "If you don’t know what your calling is, I think that you need to do what you love and challenge yourself to take new risks. Because when you do what you love, that’s when life will present its mysterious course for you.”

In the face of publicity and adoration, the actor remains grounded.

“I understand I’m in a unique position, but at the end of the day I want people to know that I’m human and I’m just trying to figure everything out just as much as everyone else," he said.

McKenzie and the show have a bright future ahead. The actor has some projects in the works and just starred in a movie called “Speech and Debate.” The revival of “Spring Awakening” just announced a national tour, receiving much enthusiasm.

McKenzie said he is a clear believer in fate, marveling at his journey thus far.

“Who would have ever thought that this boy, just trying to be an adult, would get to this?" he said. "It’s very strange. It’s very peculiar."