Arts, Arts Features

‘Spring Awakening’ Musical’s Journey to the Stage

A rock musical that tackles the sexual exploration and mental health struggles of a group of adolescents in the late 19th century sounds anything but tame—and might seem like an even more shocking choice for a musical performed at Boston College. 

But, Devyn Itula, the director of Spring Awakening and MCAS ’22,  said the show could communicate emotions and experiences that sometimes cannot be expressed solely through words. 

According to Itula, the show immediately spoke to her when she discovered it in her sophomore year of high school, and her decision to direct it for the BC Dramatics Society was influenced by both her personal connection to the show and her desire to challenge herself as a director. 

Although she said she viewed putting on the show as a personal challenge, her production also ran into challenges with BC administrators.

As a student-run organization, the Dramatics Society must get its budget approved by the Office of Student Involvement (OSI). According to Itula, the group turned in its budget in the first week of August for OSI to review before the start of the semester. In the meantime, the Dramatics Society was able to book spaces for auditions and rehearsals, Itula said. 

But when the week of auditions arrived in the first days of school, there was an indication that OSI was not fully on board with the show when the group did not receive approval for rehearsals and performances, Itula said. 

“It wasn’t until our things for our budget and our actual event approvals started getting denied that we were aware that there’s even an approval process for the actual content itself,” Itula said.

According to Itula, the musical concentrates on heavy themes, including abortion, sex, sexual violence, mental illness, and suicide.

The creative team of Spring Awakening reached out to OSI to inquire about the delays in their budget approval. OSI responded to set up a meeting, and the team met with Roatha Kong, OSI’s associate director for student organizations, Itula said.

According to Itula, in this meeting, Kong communicated with the production team that there were concerns about the themes of the musical and that it would need to be reviewed by higher administrators within the Division of Student Affairs. 

The show was then reviewed and approved by Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Formation Tom Mogan and Vice President for Student Affairs Shawna Cooper-Gibson, Itula said.

“Given recent nationwide concerns around college student mental health and sexual assault, Student Affairs staff expressed some concerns about how these themes would be handled in the proposed production of Spring Awakening,” Mogan said in an email to The Heights. “Student Affairs staff members met with the leaders of the Dramatics Society and the Theatre Department to address these concerns.”

OSI approved the musical on the condition that there would be executive oversight from Luke Jorgensen, acting chair of BC’s theatre department, and Crystal Tiala, chair of the BC Arts Council, Itula said in an email to The Heights.  

Itula and Kelly Ward, set designer for Spring Awakening and Lynch ’23, said that Student Affairs was particularly worried about the show’s depiction of mental health difficulties, which many college students might have first-hand experience with. 

To address its concerns, Student Affairs also required that the show be co-sponsored by the theatre department and University Counseling Services (UCS) to offer post-show discussion with the audience, Itula said.  

“Given the Theatre Department produced Spring Awakening several years ago, it was agreed that the department would co-sponsor the production and work with the students to ensure that these issues were handled with care and concern for the audience and for the students producing the show,” Mogan wrote in the email. 

In order to address the sensitive topics in the musical, UCS and the Women’s Center collaborated with the theatre department to hold discussions—known as “talkbacks”—with the audience after each performance. These discussions were an opportunity for people in the audience to speak with Itula, Director of UCS Craig Burns, and Associate Director of the Women’s Center Claire Johnson Allen in a question-and-answer format.

Itula said the involvement of UCS and the Women’s Center was imperative to bringing the show to the stage and their supervision did not feel stifling to the production’s artistic vision.

Advocates from the BC Sexual Assault Network were also present for the discussions along with the show’s intimacy coordinator, Abby Lass, executive director of Cappella Clausura—a music ensemble in Newton that highlights the work of female composers. Audience members that chose to stay for the discussions reflected on the themes of the musical, Burns said in an email to The Heights.

According to Itula, in addition to talkbacks, Student Affairs requested that the portrayal of suicide be excluded from the Dramatics Society’s production. In the original stage directions of the musical, one of the characters commits suicide and, according to Itula, the administration expressed that this could not be included in the the group’s performance. Itula said she likely would not have included the scene even if Student Affairs had not expressed concern.

“I don’t think there was really too much I felt like I had to alter in terms of themes that we were talking about,” Itula said. “It was mostly driven by the fact that I wanted to keep my actors safe in the rehearsal room.”

After working with Student Affairs to address its concerns, the students worked to finish rehearsals and production despite scheduling delays. Ward said that she made changes to her set design as a result of the delayed time frame, and auditions and the rehearsal timeline were pushed back a week, but opening night remained Oct. 28. 

Despite changes to the group’s production schedule, Itula said she strongly believed in the power of the show in telling the story of adolescence and how difficult it is to experience this formative transitional period.

“I would say that this show, I think, is a beautiful depiction, although a difficult one, of how messy life is and the fact that you can’t just put these things in a box and pretend like they don’t exist,” Itula said. “Because no matter who you are, what beliefs you have, or who you identify as, these things touch everyone in some way, shape, or form.” 

The musical ran in the intimate Bonn Studio Theater from Oct. 28 to Oct. 30. Justine O’Brien, stage manager and MCAS ’22, said that she was thrilled to be able to bring the beloved and famous musical to the stage and share it with the BC audience. 

“With the exciting rock-style songs as well as the really hard, like sad moments, I think that the actors’ performances brought [the audience] along on this journey in a really beautiful way,” O’Brien said. 

Charles Viehl, music director and MCAS ’23, experienced the show from the band pit in the theater, which is elevated above the level of the stage. Playing his guitar aloft, Viehl said he still felt the creative energy the cast brought to the stage each night, sharing the show they worked hard to produce. 

“It’s cool to have your efforts shown and to have people enjoy it,” Viehl said. “And to have your art mean something to people is a really cool feeling.”

Photos Courtesy of Leo Wang / Heights Staff

December 7, 2021