The Cast of SPRING AWAKENING Talk About Bringing The Iconic Musical to Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre

Darragh Cowley and the cast of SPRING AWAKENING

The cast of SPRING AWAKENING talk to Frankly My Dear UK about taking on the iconic musical

Spring Awakening is the seventh in-house musical at Hope Mill Theatre since it’s opening in 2016. The show has music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater, utilising a contemporary rock sound to tell the story of sexual and adolescent discovery amongst sheltered teens in late 19th century Germany. Director Luke Shepard states that “the cast embodies the bright future of musical theatre talent in Britain”, and I was lucky enough to speak to a few of them.

First up is Adam Dawson, who had just finished in Hair at Vaults in London and is playing Hanschen, along with Christian Tyler Wood, whose previous experience includes the Jersey Boys International Tour and is playing Georg, Luke Latchman as Ernst, who has previously been in A Christmas Carol and Twelfth Night at the RSC, and Tim Mahendran, who is making his professional debut as Otto.

What was your first audition like?

Adam: They were quite generous with me because I was doing another job at the time so they let me send in a self tape, which I think is quite a modern thing, to allow musical auditions to be done like that.
Christian: I was exactly the same.
Adam: I actually only had to come down the once to some material in the room, and we were actually at the same audition, me and Christian!

What was the four week rehearsal process like?

Christian: The whole first week was all music stuff, and obviously all the music and harmonies are quite complex, so the whole first week was literally just sat down learning the music, then the rest was just getting it up on its feet.
Luke: I didn’t know the music beforehand, so I needed that first week, and my experience with musicals is you tend to spend the first week on music.
Tim: It was handy, because when we got into staging and things, we could see what needed work.
Luke: A week was a really healthy amount of time to learn it, get on top of it and start being more quick with it, so by the time we were getting it on it’s feet, we knew where we were going with it and we weren’t fiddling with bits of paper.

The show deals with some very challenging themes, how did you find that?

Adam: I was a part of HAIR in London, so I had to get naked on stage, and I’m finding this more difficult, so it is really challenging. On our first day we actually set out that we were going to attack the material head on, because if you start apologising for things it makes it worse. In rehearsals there was a kind of vibe in the room where everything was acceptable.
Tim: It was a really safe space as well, like the director always said that if at any point we felt uncomfortable, say something.
Luke: There was always a really strict rule that everything that was going to happen in the scene must be discussed before we do it, any fighting, any smacking, any kissing, before we started the scene we had to ask, “are we going to do that?” How are we going to work it out, and we had to map it out before you did it. Stage kissing was new to me so that was quite an intimidating thing, but as soon as you do it the first time you’re just like “OK, fine! Easy!”
Tim: I think another reason it was difficult is because SPRING AWAKENING is a massive task, it’s such a massive story to be told, and if you hold back it makes it worse, because you have this duty to tell this story. It’s said all the time that “theatre is the voice of change” and we are using this story to educate, and that’s why the themes in this show have to be addressed, because they are so severe. We were all in the same mindset with that, and there was a respect for everyone with that, so for the masturbation and sex scenes and various other things, they were all tackled together.
Luke: This show isn’t safe for any character, every character has to go through something!

The cast of SPRING AWAKENING

With the themes that there are in the show, do you feel any pressure to do it justice?

Adam: Luke and I felt in the original version our scene between the two boys could be played for laughs. There are recordings on YouTube and the audience do find that scene very funny. We’ve come from a different angle, because nearly ten years on you have to ask, are they laughing because its funny or are they laughing because it’s two men kissing onstage? We made the conscious decision to find the joy in that scene rather than the humour, because maybe a there’s a boy in that audience going through something similar, and we want to give them a vehicle to explore their own feelings and that was really important to me.
Christian: I feel like all we can do as actors is give our best go at playing the truth of the situation, exploring it as though we are those people, so I think that kind of takes the pressure off in a weird way. I personally don’t feel any inherent pressure to “do it justice” or be really good, I just feel like I’m here to do my job and tell a story.
Tim: I think with this show, some of the material is horrible, and a lot of people in the audience will have gone through similar things, but I think Luke as a director has attacked it with a whole heart and we aren’t losing what we’re meant to portray. It’s very sincere and they’ve been very mature with it.
Adam: If anything, we’re doing it more truthfully or more naturally than it was originally done, it’s less breakaway-ish and more like “this is their life, this is how they deal with it,” rather than the separation of “this is their life, this is an imaginary world.” It’s all part of the same world, it’s not as disconnected.

Finally, how much input did you have in the creative process of the show?

Tim: a lot more than you normally would, normally it’s just like “at this point you’ll stand here, you deliver a line like this,” whereas we did the scenes how we had interpreted it and then if Luke liked that we’d get to explore it further. Even on the first day when we did a script reading he said to us “we’re all equal, there’s no hierarchy here.
Luke: even with the choreography as well, they’d ask if it’d be easier for me to do this or go this way, so it was very present, this “horizontal hierarchy he talked about.
Adam: It was present throughout the whole process, there was never a point where we were getting close to a deadline and Luke would take charge, it was always “let’s explore this together, let’s find this together”, which was really great.

Cast rehearsals of SPRING AWAKENING

I then got to speak to Beth Hinton-Lever, (Graeae’s Reasons To Be Cheerful) who is playing Thea in this production, Seyi Omooba (Ragtime, Little Beasts) as Martha, Teleri Hughes as Ilse and Sophia Simoes Da Silva as Anna, both making their professional debuts.

How have you found the difficult subjects that the show deals with?

Sophia: It was actually something I thought about before I said yes to the contract, because some of the issues in the show are quite close to home for me, and it was a choice I made to use the show, not as therapy for myself but knowing how much it helped me when I first saw it, it helped me to be able to talk about those issues. I kind of thought about it and decided “you know what, if I can do that for another 14 year old version of me that comes to see the show, that’s all I want.” So the issues in the show are kind of the reason I decided to do it, and even if it hasn’t touched you personally you can empathise and know that they’re prevalent still to this day. The cast we have all get on pretty well too, and it’s safe to say we’ve all got each other’s backs. There’s a funeral scene in the show, and it got to a lot of us one day, and we all just had a big hug, and it’s just things like that, you know? Even if something did hit you particularly hard one day, you’re close enough with the people in the cast, and if you wanted to unload for a moment people would let you and embrace that.

How has this production of Spring Awakening drawn from the original production, and how is it different?

Sophia: I always looked at the original and thought “I can do that” because there wasn’t much dancing, and choreography isn’t my strong point, but our production has loads. I’ve fallen in love with it though, because the movement is so beautiful and contributes so much to the emotion of the piece, so I think we’ve given it something that the original production didn’t have.

Seyi Omooba and Teleri Hughes in SPRING AWAKENING

How familiar with the piece were you before you joined the production?

Beth: Not that familiar. I knew of it, but then I started reading the play and fell in love with it, then I found the music and I just think the music brings it all to life. Obviously there’s all these heart wrenching topics but every song just brings that bit of hope.
Sophia: I was very very familiar! I was a massive fan, it was a big obsession musical for me, there’s videos of me singing “Touch Me” online from years ago, so it’s been amazing to be able to be part of this show, instead of watching from afar.

Do you relate to your characters at all?

Seyi: Yes, 100%. It’s a very deep topic for me, what my character goes through, and it’s a topic that people don’t really talk about, and I think what we go through as women during puberty is not talked about that much and it needs to be talked about a lot more. I feel that with this production we get to touch a lot more on the struggles we have as women and not just what it’s like for the boys. knowing what it’s like for us, we aren’t just “women”, we’re individual women and I think that shows. This show definitely shows that side.
Sophia: I don’t relate to my character personally but the show itself, yes, especially the fact it’s a rock musical. I come from a different background that isn’t really “musical theatre”, and I’ve always loved rock and it’s lyrics, and that sense that it’s romantic but not in the beautiful “Disney” way, which I never felt in touch with but I do with this music. Also when I first knew the show I identified more with the male characters, and now doing this version I can see the strength in the female characters that I didn’t see before.

The show was considered very revolutionary and influential during its original run, how have you taken that into the 2018 version?

Teleri: I still think it’s an influential and revolutionary show. The topics addressed are still topics that are discussed, but not necessarily accepted, and I think they are as relevant as they were when the show first opened. It’s still one of those musicals that pushes boundaries, and it’s great that we’ve been able to do it at the Hope Mill, because it means that we can push those boundaries further and talk about the issues in a way that’s relevant to 2018.

What do you hope that the audience takes away at the end of the show?

Teleri: I hope people are quite touched by it, but even though it’s quite a heavy piece and even though some parts are sad it doesn’t allow you to be for too long because it’s so uplifting, and then it just hits you with an amazing upbeat number, and I hope people come away with those mixed emotions. I hope people enjoy it just as much as we’ve enjoyed creating it!

Nikita Johal in SPRING AWAKENING

Finally, I spoke to Nikita Johal who is playing Wendla. Nikita has previous experience performing in Children Of Eden and Princess Caraboo.

Can you tell me about your character and the role she plays in the show?

Nikita: So she’s quite complex, and she’s very sheltered and that’s obvious from the beginning. She hasn’t been equipped with the life skills she needs to grow up and understand how to do that and deal with certain situations that are going to come up, and that’s ultimately her downfall, but she has a spark. There’s this curiosity in her and a need to know more. She questions her mother about how babies are born, because she doesn’t understand how she’s an aunt, how they could have had a child, and she’s very inquisitive. She’s a great character to play and it’s very exciting because there’s a lot of issues that are dealt with such as teenage pregnancy, abortion, sex, love, death, all of the above!

How have you found the issues Wendla’s story addresses?

You feel a duty of responsibility to be sensitive but also give as accurate a portrayal as you can, so we really worked hard to talk through everything. The scene with just me and Darragh (Melchior) the whole cast would have input into, we had so many conversations about it because we all have different experiences and opinions, we all know people with different backgrounds, so it’s really been useful coming together with that and finding ways to deal with it so you can emotionally disconnect from it as well.

How have you found the rehearsal process?

Nikita: It’s been amazing. I’ve had so much fun, which sounds a bit odd because it’s such a dark piece, but there’s so much joy in it, and we’ve really found those moments of joy, and I think it’s worked because as a cast we have gelled so well, everyone is lovely and the creatives are a dream to work with. Their so enthusiastic about the piece and they all have their own love for it you can feel that in the room and that’s made it a really positive place to work.

Nikita Johal and the cast of SPRING AWAKENING

Did you always know you were going to go into musical theatre?

Nikita: I always knew I was dramatic, I’d jump on a stage at any opportunity, and I was very sporty as a kid and I loved singing and performing, but I never really thought it would become my life. It was something I always did but never thought of it as my life until I got a little bit older and realised there’s nothing else I love more than this, there’s nothing else I’m this excited about doing. You hear about these people who are doing it from the age of three, I can’t really say I had those dreams, I always watched in complete awe, I guess I never really knew I could do it as a job, it was something other people did. It wasn’t until I got to the age where I was looking at university that I realised this is what I want to do. The fact I’m doing it now I’m so grateful for.

Why do you think the music is so important to this particular show?

Nikita: It’s very contemporary, with this great folksy, rocky feel to it which for a performer is amazing to sing, but I think it will really appeal to an audience in 2018. You can listen to the Spring Awakening album and take out all the context in between and you could be listening to a pop-rock sort of album. The real highlights of the show are the musical numbers. A personal favourite of mine is the finale. It’s one of those moments where you have to hold everything back because it’s a beautiful song and everyone is so talented.

What do you want people to take away at the end of the show?

Nikita: I think that we’ll have done a good job if people leave thinking about the younger generations and older generations communicating, as I think it’s still a problem. There are so many issues such as mental health and sexuality that wouldn’t be as such of an issue if we didn’t put up as many barriers. I want people to walk away thinking they should talk to their kids or they can tell their parents things.

How do you relate to Wendla?

Nikita: I can’t say I’ve dealt with the things she goes through, but I relate to her in different ways, in the sense that I was quite sheltered as a child. I come from a family where I was the youngest by quite a bit, so I was quite bubble wrapped and protected. We never really talked about relationships and sex. We’re a little bit more open now but still it’s quite a private thing and we weren’t really an open household in that way, so I’m a bit nervous knowing that they’re going to see me doing this show! It’ a weird thing for your parents to come and see you do, but at the same time I’m so proud of what we have done and I hope they can come and feel the same way.

SPRING AWAKENING runs at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester until 3 May 2018.

About Lucy Moore

Lucy is an eighteen-year-old aspiring actress from Glossop. She is currently studying Music Theatre at the University Of Central Lancashire and hopes to move onto a career in performance. She also has interests in reading, writing and music.