Spencer Liff puts bodies in motion under some remarkably high-stress conditions, most prominently for the popular television competition show, “So You Think You Can Dance” — an assignment that even earned him an Emmy nomination. But that was a relative breeze compared to the challenge he would later take on, creating production numbers for an ensemble of both deaf and hearing stage actors.
“We worked for hours just to get everyone to stand up at the same time,” Liff recalled recently, sitting in the balcony of Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre. “We had rehearsals from six to midnight. And for 10 seconds, maybe, it would all come together.”
After weeks of practice in a church hall in Los Angeles, more and more of the revival of “Spring Awakening” came together, until the point at which Liff’s associate choreographer, Alexandria Wailes, who is deaf, could watch a run-through and excitedly proclaim: “We have something here!”
What started well over a year ago as a musical-theater experiment — could the Tony-winning rock score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater be seamlessly executed by a cast including actors who hear music and those who rely on other senses? — eventually became a ticket to Broadway. Deaf West Theatre’s revival of “Spring Awakening” opened in September at the Brooks Atkinson to laudatory reviews, and to an expanding comprehension that disabilities can create new possibilities for artistic expression.
The production’s status in that regard is being reaffirmed on Wednesday at the White House, where the show is being spotlighted as an exemplar of the push for greater access in the arts for people with physical and other kinds of challenges. The full cast will perform numbers from the show in the South Court Auditorium, and lead a workshop with Washington students as part of the live-streamed, three-hour event, “Americans with Disabilities and the Arts: A Celebration of Diversity and Inclusion.”
The White House exposure provides yet another significant platform for the work of California-based Deaf West, which first made a splash in the early 2000s with its revival of “Big River,” the Tony-winning 1985 musical based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The Deaf West version toured the country with a cast of deaf and hearing actors, and in 2003 enjoyed a short Broadway engagement.
That show placed on a heavy emphasis on vocal performance, with hearing actors singing the melodies for the characters played by deaf actors. The same technique is employed in “Spring Awakening,” although this 2006 musical — about repressed 19th Century German teenagers expressing themselves in the musical vernacular of our time — depends far more heavily on rigorous movement. (Bill T. Jones’s propulsive choreography accounted for one of the show’s eight Tony Awards.)
Working with director Michael Arden, Liff and Wailes had to come up with an entirely new set of choreographic elements that would look like this production’s own. “None of them are professional dancers,” Wailes said of the Deaf West cast, signing her conversation through an American Sign Language interpreter. “So the movement was already new.”
Added Liff: “It was about finding things that they could all do that looked good, and were appropriate for the show.”
There were other unique issues, the choreographers said, such as the problems that some deaf people have “with balance and equilibrium.” An actress using a wheelchair, Ali Stroker, was also among those cast, and she, too, had to be incorporated into the movement. The hearing actors did not know ASL, and the deaf actors had to be schooled in keeping time. “Explain to a deaf actor,” Liff said, recalling the hours of practice, “to hold a ‘sign’ for three counts.”
Slowly, over several months of rehearsal, Liff said, “We were able to push the boundaries, of turning signing into dance. What we learned were tools that enable us as a company to move together and think together.”
Some of those lessons will no doubt be discussed at the White House by other members of the creative team, including Arden, Sheik and Sater. In the workshop that will follow the performance, Arden and the cast will lead a workshop in how to create a musical in ASL. As a result, through the dance steps of this singular “Spring Awakening,” another small step forward will be taken.
(To watch the live streaming of the event, go to www.whitehouse.gov/live, starting Wednesday at 4 p.m.)