'Spring Awakening': 10 Things to Know About Choreographing for Broadway's Deaf Actors

6:00 AM 10/10/2015

by Ashley Lee

Hollywood, take note: disabilities can be spotlighted in even the most unlikely medium, as Spencer Liff outlines his process for the revived musical.

John Marcus/BBB

“People don't do musicals with deaf actors for a reason,” said Spencer Liff when he first signed on as choreographer to Deaf West Theatre’s revival of the Tony-winning Spring Awakening two years ago. Since then, the praised Los Angeles production has opened on Broadway for a limited engagement with a cast of both hearing and deaf actors, singing and signing to Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s rock songs of adolescent unease. And besides picking up American Sign Language, Liff learned a few things about choreographing for an underserved audience, uniting a cast on and off stage and, most importantly, turning what may seem to be a shortcoming into a standout attribute.

“We’re taking advantage, certainly, rather than trying to hide what they've got going on,” he explained. “When you watch our show, it feels a bit like watching a foreign movie with subtitles — for the first few minutes, you're incredibly aware of the signing, and trying to figure out how to watch. But ten minutes in, I think it washes over you, you stop thinking about the disabilities, and you just watch it.”

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Liff about the 10 things to know regarding the revival's specific choreography:

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    The Choreographer Never Signed Before

    Joan Marcus

    Liff joined because of director Michael Arden, a fellow Broadway regular with whom he’d collaborated on other L.A.-based theater. “I had never seen a Deaf West show or never signed. We started a workshop two years ago, thinking we'd get five or six songs done in two weeks – we ended up getting two songs done,” said Liff. “I’d be so mentally drained, but there’d always be little glimmers that day of what the show would become, when I'd have to hold back tears because it was so beautiful. That was enough to keep me going.”

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    Translation Aren't Literal and Exact

    Joan Marcus

    Liff worked with ASL masters through each step of the choreography process, first evaluating the lyrics’ literal translation, with its sentence structure often rearranged so the signs landed on the said word. “When the signs weren't interesting-looking enough, I'd ask for other options,” said Liff, who’d then teach the routine to the cast in a circle for two days. “Michael and I would then talk about staging, and I'd see if I can add other parts of the body or a turn. We’d negotiate how much I could do that still works within the confines of an actual language.”

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    Not Every Gesture Is Sign Language

    Joan Marcus

    “So many lyrics are suggestive metaphors, so you cannot do a word-for-word translation, so we get the feeling across using gestures that aren’t sign-based but help tell the story,” said Liff, listing the “Oh my god” lyrics in "Touch Me." “That's not a pretty sign to look at, so we created a hand touching themselves and another hand pulling them back, as if they're not supposed to. We’re able to stay in the gestural world but come up with our own vocabulary. And when we can create signs with two different bodies, that's where I got to be the most creative.”

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    Actors Couldn’t Make Excuses

    Joan Marcus

    Rehearsals were exhausting for everyone equally. “People don't do musicals with deaf actors for a reason — you'd usually say, ‘Everybody, stand on the one count, move your foot on four.’ That takes thirty seconds with only hearing actors, but it’s an hour of explaining now,” he recalled. “But I never treated [deaf actors] differently — they were expected to do it perfectly and there was never any coddling. I screamed at those kids if they did something wrong. That put everybody up to par, and they knew they couldn’t say, ‘I can’t do that because I'm deaf.’”

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    Facial Expressions Were Ready

    Joan Marcus

    “[Deaf actors] are the most expressive, open, beautiful performers to watch because they spend so much of their life expressing themselves — when you do a sign, and do something with your eyebrows or look a different way, it means something else,” said Liff, as some characters are played by a deaf actor but voiced by a hearing actor nearby. “They're so captivating — you can't take your eyes off Daniel Durant as Moritz. It was a great discovery process of learning how to take these kids and what they excel at, and make that the highlight of the show.”

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    Cues Are Constantly Everywhere

    Joan Marcus

    How do all the performers remain in sync in a performance? “Deaf actors are constantly cued: every four counts, they're looking for another cue from a hearing actor onstage. We use lights in the rails, hand signals, things the audience would never notice. Some are cued to start signing in perfect time by an actor across the stage who just folds their arms,” answered Liff. Beforehand, “we practiced breathing together, meditating and really being one body onstage — a lot of them using less senses to do so.”

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    Shouting and Songs Are "Seen"

    Joan Marcus

    “I watched the show with earplugs to see what the deaf audience sees,” Liff added. “We were missing a differentiation between music and speaking, so whenever a song starts, there's a shift to a heightened place, like having the bodies just sway. And when Wendla says, ‘I have never felt anything,’ she’s screaming with such emphasis on that word, so everybody signing it is like the reverb. Those benefit all our audience members, but they were essential to experiencing it as a deaf audience member. I had to make the sounds visual.”

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    No Disability Is Hidden

    Joan Marcus

    Along with deaf actors, the company also includes Ali Stroker, who's in a wheelchair. “She was down for anything, like moving a prop or setting a chair. Everybody has something incredibly special to offer, so it's finding their strengths — as you would in any performer — and putting those front and center. Ali is dancing and moving with everybody else, and just like the sign language, you don’t see her as in a wheelchair after a few minutes. You only see an actress onstage.”

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    There Are 25 Broadway Debuts

    Joan Marcus

    “That's a feat in itself because Broadway gets to be the same people every time. I did five shows in a row, and got three without auditioning!” Liff laughed. “A year ago, they had completely different lives. Our lead Austin McKenzie wasn’t gonna pursue acting; some of our deaf kids have never done shows, they heard about this and drove across the country to do a show for no money. And now we're on Broadway — that feeling is bigger than anything, knowing that the life experience they've gotten from this is so much more than anyone ever expected.”

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    The Musical's Message Remains

    Joan Marcus

    Liff only saw the original 2006 production and Bill T. Jones’ Tony-winning choreography once. “I remember loving that choreography, and when it won, that affected me because I learned I don’t have to put double-pirouettes and kicks to be called a choreographer, I just have to focus on serving the story.” Still, he wants the revival to send the same message through its new movements. “Hopefully you're affected, and you see the need to communicate with each other — with your parent or kid or just your friends — to understanding things, and to be heard.”

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