The Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood is known as an exceptionally well-educated and progressive community, and next month Shorewood High School will test the limits of the area’s progressive values when it stages “Spring Awakening.”
The Broadway hit, based on German expressionist Franz Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name, deals with themes that are well outside the usual secondary school repertoire, including homosexuality, teen pregnancy, masturbation, child abuse, rape, abortion and suicide. The majority of the play’s characters, however, are high-school-aged, and its mature themes are all too familiar to SHS students, says drama teacher Joe D. King.
“‘Spring Awakening’ deals with critical social issues,” says King, who taught high school drama for 17 years in Indiana before moving to Milwaukee last August. “It isn’t easy to talk about this stuff with teenagers, but the theatrical medium might be a springboard to having those difficult discussions.”
The discussions began March 21, after the play was announced, when SHS hosted an open forum on the production for the school and local community. More than 150 students, parents and community members attended the forum, which was designed to introduce the play and answer questions about its content.
“The forum was so overwhelmingly positive,” says King. “Not one person spoke against the production the entire night. Not one.”
Representatives also attended from various social service groups, including Alliance School, Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, Pathfinders, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and Samaritan Family Wellness.
The outside organizations, whose representatives participated in the discussion, offered added dimensions to many of the topics covered by the play.
SHS gets high marks not only for inviting the groups, but also for staging the musical, says Tom Hanley, director of programs and operations for the LGBT center. A former principal of Golda Meir School, Hanley attended the discussion with the center’s youth program coordinator Marquond Davis.
“Many young people are living through experiences that are too ‘mature’ for them,” Hanley says. “Viewing, reacting to, and discussing realistic and relevant youth theater can provide students with opportunities to express their concerns and questions regarding these issues in an open, safe environment with peers or adults they trust.”
King concurs, citing results of a recent student survey that will raise the eyebrows of students and parents alike. According to the drama teacher, 25 percent of SHS students have had sexual intercourse, but only 20 percent of that number used protection during their last encounter; 30 percent of SHS students feel they don’t belong at school; 35 percent report that they have no adults in the school that they can talk with about problems; and 7 percent identify as LGBT or questioning.
Alarmingly, 21 percent of SHS students have felt so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing usual activities, and 10 percent have made suicide plans. “Spring Awakening” may lead to conversations addressing these topics, King says.
The majority of adults who attended the forum, as well as those King has heard from since, strongly support the upcoming production.
“I’ve received lots of positive emails, handshakes and words of encouragement,” King says.
The open forum, which included small group discussions, generated some of the best responses, he says.
“At the end of the night, one mother rose and asked if we could have more difficult roundtable discussions with our kids in the future,” King said. “If there were dissenters at the meeting, and I am sure that there were, not one spoke against the production.”
One woman did email King to say the police would show up at the production and arrest the staff on pornography charges, but that’s not likely to happen. Unlike the Broadway production, there will be no nudity in the SHS version, and scenes involving sex and masturbation will presented stylistically rather than graphically.
SHS’s “Spring Awakening” has little to do with sensationalism and more to do with the important issues being presented, including those affecting LGBT youth, Hanley says.
“Obviously, the homosexuality theme in any production is important to the LGBT community. It’s their story, or a story they likely relate to,” he says. “But (the play’s) focus on homosexuality in youth is poignant, because it is a subject rarely approached in theatrical productions.”
“Spring Awakening” is a play about the ramifications, not the glorification, of its controversial themes. If theater is about life, then these are aspects of life that need to be discussed among generations, King says.
“Parents aren’t so naive as to think that their kids aren’t dealing with or engaging in sexual activity or thoughts – but usually out-of-sight, out-of-mind thinking prevails,” he says. “This musical clearly points out the perils of parents being disassociated from their teenagers’ struggles.”
Shorewood High School’s production of “Spring Awakening” plays at 7 p.m. on May 10, 11, 12, 16 and 17 in the school’s auditorium, 1701 E. Capitol Drive. Tickets are $10 and available at the SHS box office. For more information, call 414-963-6940 or visit www.shorewooddrama.org.