BWW Interviews: Claudia Stefany of Elmwood Playhouse SPRING AWAKENING
The Elmwood Playhouse has been busy at work rehearsing the hit musical Spring Awakening. Broadway World talked to director Claudia Stefany about the experience of bringing this musical to Westchester County.
How did The Elmwood Playhouse go about choosing Spring Awakening as their first musical of the season?
Claudia Stefany: We have an elected committee of Elmwood members who choose what plays and musicals we do as a comprehensive season each year. Directors, who have been pre-qualified, submit shows they have a particular passion for directing and that are a good ‘fit’ for our theatre. We try to keep in mind several things: our audience (subscribers as well as potential new folks), our physical plant itself (which is a 99 seat house with very specific limitations), budgetary demands (we are a small nonprofit), richness of story, characters and subject matter (with as much cultural diversity as possible) and to some degree, our talent pool. Just because we’re producing a particular show doesn’t necessarily mean actors will show up to audition. Our committee chose SPRING AWAKENING principally for 2 reasons. We are trying to cultivate a younger audience who may have never been to Elmwood before. We are lucky enough to have a strong subscriber base, but we felt it was time rock the boat a bit and bring something fresh, contemporary and bit edgy to our audiences. Secondly, it is strong material with a great score. I didn’t submit SPRING AWAKENING myself but when I was asked if I’d be interested in directing it, I jumped at the chance.
What a great way to engage a younger audience at your theater. Generations always feel they have their rock musical to define them and many believe this goes into that category. What are your personal feelings about this show?
I totally agree. As I’ll talk about later, my cast who range in age from 18-24, are true believers that this show changed their lives on many different levels. When I saw the show on Broadway I frankly wasn’t bowled over. It’s not that I didn’t like it. I just thought there were too many ‘bells and whistles’ particularly in regard to the intense lighting, nudity and use of handheld microphones. In fact, when a friend gave me a video of the Off-Broadway production I said “So THAT’S what the story is about! “ I truly had no clue. I then read the play by Frank Wedekind that it’s based on and fell in love with the young people and the story. They are funny, heartbreaking, narcissistic real teenagers. That in a nutshell is why I was so excited to get my hands on it and have it produced at Elmwood.
It is based on such a controversial 1891 play as you mentioned. How do you handle those moments in the musical?
VERY carefully! All joking aside, there are several dicey topics I thought long and hard about. The semi-nude lovemaking, the homosexual kissing and in some respects the language were all issues that I knew I was going to have to handle with kid gloves. As I said earlier, the Elmwood theatre only seats 99. It was formerly old Lutheran church that was converted into our existing theatre in 1959 and it is a VERY intimate space. I knew the nudity wasn’t something that I truly thought needed to happen even on Broadway. You know what they’re doing without it literally being in your face and honestly, I didn’t’ think it added anything but shock value. That being said, I haven’t cut the legs out from under the scene by any means. I’m saying the scene stands on it’s own and it’s my job as a director to serve the story first which I feel my actors and I have. As far as the scene between the 2 homosexual boys goes, I have chosen to make it a very sweet, guileless scene between 2 young men exploring what it’s like to be intimate for the first time. If it upsets people, that is their prerogative. It is an essential part of Wedekind’s original play and guess what? There are homosexuals in the world.
What kind of research did you have your cast do to prepare for this show?
We were lucky enough to have a former student of mine Scott Galina, who is now a senior at SUNY Purchase, serve as our dramaturge on this project. His attention to detail truly brought our cast up to speed on not only the history of SPRING AWAKENING (the play and the musical) itself, but of the historic references, the verbiage of the text in terms of the use of colors, seasons, etc. and a glossary of words and phrases from Wedekind’s original play. It was truly a wonderful reference for me but for my cast as well. Also, Steven Sater wrote a book entitled A PURPLE SUMMER - Notes on the Lyrics of SPRING AWAKENING A NEW MUSICAL (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books- 2012) which I found invaluable in deciphering some of the very heady song lyrics. OH! I forgot to mention the forward in the Jonathan Franzen German to English translation of the original play SPRING AWAKENING. Lots of very helpful information especially regarding the punctuation and how groundbreaking it was at the time. I used it to a great degree when trying to help my cast understand the scene work especially in regard to the humorous nature of the script that I sometimes feel gets a bit ‘lost in the sauce’ or at least has in other productions I’ve seen of SA.
Do you find it a challenge for a community theater to tackle a show like this?
SPRING AWAKENING isn’t any different or more challenging for a community theatre to tackle then any other play or musical really. I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by amazingly talented, passionate, committed, generous folks both on and off stage who all work at Elmwood for the love of theatre. Theatre is our avocation not our vocation and honestly, sometimes it’s these kinds of individuals who are more creative and innovative because the budgets are smaller. Money doesn’t always equal artistry, theatrical or otherwise.
Very well said. It is a Tony Award winning musical and helped launch the career of Glee’s Lea Michele – do you believe this helps in marketing a show that may not be an old standard?
It certainly does help and we have included ‘Winner of 8 Tony Awards’ in our press releases to generate interest but just because something wins scads of awards doesn’t necessarily make it successful or a good fit for our audiences. I saw a production of SA in Ridgefield, CT recently that had an audience talkback with one of the original Broadway cast members which I’m certainly sure helped them sell a ticket or two though.
There is some amazing music by Duncan Sheik used to tell this powerful story. How has your cast taken to the sound of this show in rehearsals?
My remarkable cast were young teens and pre-teens when SA came out and for them it was a life altering show. Some of them have told me stories about how they would get together with their friends and sing all the songs in somebody’s basement or family room. Back in my day it was A CHORUS LINE. Those songs spoke to me as these songs did and still do to them. It’s powerful stuff when the words to a song or the message of a show moves you and you see yourself and your view of the world reflected on stage. That’s why I go to the theatre. To share universal human experience and be moved by it. It doesn’t get much better then that!
Are there any warnings used to your audiences to prepare them for what is in store for them with this show?
We have included in our press releases and will follow suit in our program and in a lobby display state(d) the following:
Spring Awakening is intended for mature audiences only, contains strong sexual content, language and adult themes. Parental discretion is advised.
In fact, I asked our Board of Directors permission to only let actors 18 and older audition, which we did and am convinced was a wise decision.
I applaud you for choosing and offering this musical to your audiences and wish you the best with it!
Thanks so much, Gregory! I truly appreciate the opportunity to speak to you as do my cast/production team of SPRING AWAKENING and the entire Elmwood Playhouse community. It’s been my pleasure. I hope you can see it.
Spring Awakening runs November 16-December 15. Visit http://www.elmwoodplayhouse.com for ticket information.