A newly pregnant girl, no more than fourteen years old, is dragged by her mother into a dark corner and passed to a doctor with bloodied hands. Confused, she weakly fights his hold to no avail, wailing to her mother who’s already turned her back.
The audience gasps as she disappears behind the stage curtain, awaiting the next scene of the performance.
Had her cries been heard through a computer screen, the audience might have never felt her anguish as they did just a few feet away in the audience. The impact of an in-person show, missed by actors and audiences alike, has finally made its return.
The BFA Music Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening” comprised of the BFA junior class and a few BA theatre students was the class’ first in-person show since 2019, reintroducing an audience to their McClintock building that welcomed students just over two months ago.
Set in 19th-century Germany, the musical follows a group of students as they navigate their budding sexuality and relationships amidst their socially conservative environment. Despite the students’ excitement, the musical’s focus on themes of assault, domestic violence, and suicide made for a challenging performance.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the program online for the past school year. Performances moved to Zoom, with actors addressing each other from isolated boxes on screens. Rather than have a whole team behind them to take care of the technical aspects, actors were shipped the necessary equipment, limiting the performance and camaraderie of the productions. Now, students are shedding these technological barriers and returning to the stage.
Matthew McCoy, who played one of the leading roles of Moritz, said he didn’t feel like he was acting when class was moved online.
He radiated joy when talking about returning to in-person performances, animatedly talking about his favorite moments leading up to the opening night. He settled on a moment between him and Armand Akbari, who plays Melchior.
“We have a scene where he has to light a cigarette that he [Akbari] rolls for me, and every time that he got as far as striking the match, it wouldn’t work,” McCoy said. “Every time it would not work, and I have to be very serious because I’m in a lot of emotional distress, and he made it very hard for me.”
Akbari, who played the lead role of Melchior, had to perform many emotional scenes in succession, including getting his classmate pregnant, escaping a reformatory, and the death of his best friend, all leading to his attempted suicide.
“You just want to do it justice,” Akbari said. “You don’t want to overdo it because this show is very didactic and they’re [the audience] learning a lot and it’s very in the audience’s face, so you can’t do too much with it.”
Mentions of sexual assault were especially sensitive to the audience in light of such cases recently gaining attention on campus, a fact that the performers remained aware of.
“Even our director would sometimes say like the final moment and ‘Those You’ve Known’ is sort of a call to from the past to now due to the fact that a lot of these themes are unfortunately still very prevalent today,” Akbari said.
The performance’s content also took a toll on actors. Allison Belinkoff, who played Ilse, said she had to figure out ways to cope with the heavy material after hours-long rehearsals.
“I think there were a lot of people that really struggled with it, but at the end of the day, we have to remember that we’re acting,” Belinkoff said. “So you can only go so far with it, and obviously you have to go so far with it in order to do the role correctly. But it’s very much like when you’re in the world of the player in the world of the play and when you’re outside, like, that’s me. That’s not my character.”
Belinkoff’s performance of Ilse, a girl who fled from her abusive home to the local artist colony where she faced even more abuse, was so compelling that it noticeably impacted her family in the audience. She recalled her grandmother covering her face with both hands whenever something upsetting happened onstage.
While the performance marked a soft return to normalcy, the COVID safety protocols that allowed the production to happen remained stringent. As the opening night neared, actors had to test three times a week and rehearse in masks until the dress rehearsal. Akbari and Belinkoff shared how they had to describe to each other what emotions they were acting as they practiced. Without these measures, the show wouldn’t have been possible.
“I think every single department and every single member of the team has been so committed to doing whatever changes necessary to make it possible to return,” said Production Stage Manager Arturo Fernandez Jr. “We were trying to be as safe as possible and invite the creative design elements and really encompass it into the design of the show, and everyone was for it, from the choreographer to the director, to the designers, to the crew.”
The theater, typically seating dozens of family members, friends, and theatre lovers, was condensed to just 61 seats this time around. Ironically, the smaller performance worked in the actors’ favor, especially when performing such complicated themes.
“You know, we wanted more people to come see the show and see like how hard we were working,” said Brandon Borkowsky, who played Hanschen. “I do believe that the intimacy from the small stage does benefit the message of the play and the soul of the play.”
Borkowsky said he often found himself debating whether he was doing justice to the subjects at hand, or just exploiting them for his artistic benefit. While his vexing character frequently overstepped boundaries, he took special care to do justice to the topics discussed in the musical.
“There’s a lot of touchy subjects for me too, but I try to do my best to dedicate a lot of the performances to people that I love that may have had those things happen to them,” Borkowsky said. “And so it becomes real to me because it means something so important.”
The difficulty of “Spring Awakening” didn’t dampen the actors’ joy at performing on stage again after nearly three semesters. For many, being back on stage reminded them of why they chose to dedicate their lives to performing.
This year has seen a broad return of theatre, from USC’s stage to Broadway. The pandemic closed the curtains on 41 of New York’s stages, putting those on and off stage out of work. The stars returned to the stage on Sept. 14, with the Tony Awards hitting the silver screen on Sept. 26 with a similar message: theatre is back.
“I’m so excited to be back and be performing,” McCoy said. “It’s so nice to like, get to do what we are here to do when we had a year and a half off of not doing it.”