Love and adolescence take center stage in FIM wynorrific musical, Spring Awakening

FLINT, Michigan — With a jam-packed ensemble cast, musical numbers that are as emotional as they are evocative, and costume designs that tread the fine line between boarding school chic and BDSM, FIM Flint Repertory Theatre production of the 8-time Tony Award-winning play, Spring Awakening, is nothing short of remarkable.  

Heralded as an “electrifying fusion of morality, sexuality, and rock & roll,” Spring Awakening puts love, adolescence, and the consequences of our actions center stage.

Yet, it does not only shock the audiences with its heavier themes of teenage pregnancy, abortion, masturbation, queer love, consent, and rape but contextualizes the human experience and grounds the idea of what makes being alive such a wyonrrific experience which means something both beautiful and horrific.

Flintside had the opportunity to talk with Derek Van Barham, director, choreographer, collaborator, and one of the Windy City Times 30 Under 30, about spring awakenings, Rock & Roll, and some behind-the-scenes aspects of creating something that “people could not get sitting on their couch at home.”

Flintside: When I think about the title 'Spring Awakening,' it elicits a warm feeling of teenage blossoming love and angst with warm, bright colors. Yet, awakenings can be terrifying. How do you feel Spring Awakening plays on these layered themes?

Derek Van Barham: “During rehearsals, two words that we started with were the word awesome, this idea of awe, which can be completely overwhelming and terrifying. This beautiful word came around in the last couple of years called wynorrific. The definition of that word is something that is both beautiful and horrific at the same time; the idea of being attracted to something but also terrified by it which is what the show is about. I see something that I want and desire, and that feeling scares me. [These] two words we led with to keep that tension.”

Flintside: You’ve mentioned that Spring Awakening is 'a show about physical sensation.' In the context of a world recovering from the impact of COVID-19, how does this exploration of physical sensation resonate with the audience?

Derek Van Barham: “You’re one of the first to mention the COVID connection. We are coming out of a couple of years where touch almost felt illegal. Specifically for our production, there’s a lot of internal awakening. Characters in the show experience feelings they don’t understand and that next level is added when they connect with someone else. Our production is ensemble-driven. We tried to build that ritual communal aspect of touch, but expression and feeling of, if I feel joy [or sadness], that can radiate out to the people in the room around me.”

Courtesy photo“Rock & Roll always seems synonymous with the younger generation — the noise that’s upsetting the parents," says Derek Van Barham. Flintside: In a world that is evolving in terms of gender and sexual fluidity, pronoun identification, and consent, how does Spring Awakening tackle these themes?

Derek Van Barham: “When the play was written, there was a [desire] to tackle as many topics as possible. There’s a big emphasis on [how] things are punished in the show. They have sex at the end of act one, but there’s masturbation, a queer relationship, abortion, sexual abuse, suicide. That’s why it’s always been such an evocative script and the musical amped up this idea that every kid’s going through something.”

Flintside: How did you all practice self-care with these major themes at play?

Derek Van Barham: “I think one of the silver linings of the pandemic and the shutdown was that everybody came back carefully. I think actors do a great job, more so than in the past, of asking for what they need. I think we, as creative team members and Flint Rep as the producers, do a great job asking them to ask us for what they need. I think rehearsal rooms, in general, now are more supportive, collaborative places. We do a lot of checking in. Lots of general transparency and constant open communication about how everybody’s doing.”

Courtesy photoThe idea of something being both beautiful and terrifying or 'wynrrofic' is one of the critical themes of FIM's Spring Awakening musical. Flintside: The exert of this musical hints at Rock & Roll. In what ways does music play a part in illustrating a spring awakening?

Derek Van Barham: “Rock & Roll always seem synonymous with the younger generation — the noise that’s upsetting the parents. What’s cool about this is they kept a lot of the language the same as the original play. But then, when creating the music for it, it juxtaposes time periods as if back in 1891, inside all these kid’s heads, they were already hearing the sounds of Rock & Roll. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s still so popular; it doesn’t feel dated.”

Flintside: As a director, how do you balance what’s too risqué and not enough with something as intimate as this play?

Derek Van Barham: “I always want to make sure we’re doing things that people could not get sitting on their couch at home. I’m attracted to movement; anytime we can get close to the audience, that always feels exciting. For the content in this show, I wanted to make sure the audience always stayed engaged and never checked out. I never want them to be concerned about the actor’s safety. For the violence and intimacy of the show, we pulled from dance and the physical vocabulary we had already created to achieve the emotional impact of those moments without making the audience shut down.”

Courtesy photo"I hope it has that feel of joy at the end, whether spiritual, sensual, or emotional. It’s something we created together that we then get to share, and there’s joy and a little sadness in that.” - Derek Van Barham Flintside: What about a production of this caliber keeps you coming back to tell its story?

Derek Van Barham: “There’s always new stuff to uncover. It’s one of the first shows that I fell in love with. I’ve always had respect for it. I’m just now doing it, 20 years later, because the first production was so iconic that I wasn’t sure what else could be done. Working with Flint Rep, in early conversations, there were darker elements that had never been explored. There’s that idea of the horrors of adolescence, highlighting that terrifying 'I don’t see you, I don’t listen to you, but I hold power over you' relationship. The secondary one is reminding the cast to always keep that tension between the idea of an awakening being both wonderful and terrifying.”

Flintside: In closing, what have you and the cast learned from doing this show?

Derek Van Barham: “It was a very rewarding and ultimately cleansing experience. The show starts and ends with this idea of thanking the space, acknowledging the space, acknowledging the audience, the room we’re in, the lights up above us, and the stage we’re on for letting us do this show. The image of the spring awakening is the flower blossoming, and that’s what’s happening to the kids — what happens to all of us. With a show like this and the way we built it, I hope it has that feel of joy at the end, whether spiritual, sensual, or emotional. It’s something we created together that we then get to share, and there’s joy and a little sadness in that.”

Spring Awakening is now showing at the Flint Repertory Theatre’s Elgood Theatre. Tickets are on sale now.
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Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.