Kids and parents collaborate to stage “Spring Awakening”

They raise funds and explore timeless issues of communication.

The entire cast and production team of Spring Awakening. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Wendla desperately begs her mother to tell her how women conceive. Martha has no one to confide in that she is being sexually abused by her father. Moritz’s father greets the news that his son has failed in school with a selfish diatribe of what will people think. These characters from the musical “Spring Awakening,” teens in late 19th century Germany, struggle to find a sympathetic ear among the adults in their lives.

As do many of the Island’s teens.

Fortunately, a synchronicity of sorts has recently occurred on Island to address that very issue. A group of Island teens found relevance to their own lives and those of their friends in the Steven Slater/Duncan Sheik production of “Spring Awakening” — so much so that they pulled together to mount the production on the Vineyard. Meanwhile, a group of Island organizations drew together to form the Island Wide Youth Collaborative (IWYC) in response to the recent rise in awareness of stress and mental health issues beleaguering Island youth.

Recent MVRHS graduate Sam Permar relates how the Island production came about. “When I was in seventh grade, I saw the show in a national tour. I fell in love with it. Since then, it’s been my dream to do the show. It was the most thought-out and detailed expression of young adults’ emotions and experiences. In a lot of other shows they seemed more touched upon and not so real to me. But this was the first time I saw something that really stuck with me because of how real it was and how scary.”

The musical, a multiple Tony winner, follows the German teens through the isolation and issues of their lives, including homosexuality, teen pregnancy and abortion, sexual abuse, suicide, and the angst of dealing with blossoming bodies and sexuality. The issues these adolescents experienced more than 110 years ago (the current production was taken from a play written by Frank Wedekind in 1890 or 91) mirror the obstacles current teens face in their everyday lives.

In his senior year, Sam Permar approached his mother, psychologist Jane Dreeben, and suggested that, because his peers were all about the right age to populate the roles in the show, it would be a good time to produce the show on the Vineyard. Jane had also seen a touring production and agreed. “(MVRHS) did ‘Cats’ last spring and he (Sam) and a number of high school students were involved in that show. Part of what came out of that show is that there is really an extraordinarily large and capable group of actors and performers and singers. They could all sort of do everything. ‘Cats’ was, to a large degree, a student generated and run show. So we were like ‘what would it take to do it?’”

Sarah Ortlip-Sommers, a good friend of Sam’s and also a cast member of “Cats,” joined the conversations. Her mother, Michele Ortlip, enjoyed a long-time career in show business, casting many professional stage and film productions. “Jane Dreeben approached me,” Michele recalls. “She said, ‘How can we put this play together?’ We (Sam, Sarah, Jane, and Michele) discussed it and decided that even though it happens in the 1800s, the issues in the play of communication between parents and their children are very relevant.”

Early on, due mostly to Sam’s prodding, it was decided that the production would be a benefit. He modestly demurs, “It wasn’t only my idea. We decided to do it as a fundraiser within the first few weeks of the process. When we were talking about the creative side, we thought what if we somehow did the show as a benefit for adolescents who are going through these exact struggles on the Island? We could creatively express those struggles, but also benefit those people.”

“It seems as if all of the stars aligned for it to happen together,” Michele recalls. “While we were discussing the play and its relevancy to today’s youth and parents, M.V. Community Services, the Youth Task Force, the YMCA, and the regional school system were forming this coalition. We met with the Youth Task Force who immediately came on board as a sponsor.”

The coalition became the Island Wide Youth Collaborative (IWYC), whose goal is to coordinate services among providers of professional support for young people on the Island so that the services remain consistent, convenient, and Island-centered. What could have been more apropos than the Collaborative supporting the show and vice-versa?

Donations of rehearsal space, poster design, ticket printing and other incidentals came from the IWYC. Soon, it seemed, everyone began talking about the production, and other organizations became involved.

And, although the concept reached out to encompass the Island, it also became very much a family affair. Eric Johnson, professional musician and owner/operator of Tisberry Frozen Yogurt and father of Sydney Johnson (cast as Thea), volunteered to be music director at his busiest time of the year. Sam Permar’s older sister Tessa choreographed, with Sophia Nelson (who played Ilse) assisting. Sam acted as assistant director to Michele. Darby Patterson’s (she played Martha) father, Geoff, designed and worked lights.

However, even with a proliferation of adult involvement, it remained the kids’ show. “The whole process was student driven,” Jane relates. “The young people did most of the process of creating the show. Michele and I very consciously asked them to do a lot. At times we functioned more as mentors than leaders. They were involved in decisions on every level.”

More importantly, parents and teens were communicating. Given the controversial and troubling nature of the subject matter, parents of the participating teens were called to alert them of the shocking scenes that are inherent in the play and many discussions were held during rehearsals.

Barbara Dworkin Binder and Robert Dutton played all of the adult roles and few of them were sympathetic characters. Barbara, lured out of a ten-year retirement from acting, explains, “You had a heightened awareness of everyone who was on stage with you because of the communication. Some of the material was difficult to watch other people do, and to act. We felt terrible for the characters we were playing. You want to elevate your children. These parents were squashing and shaming. We always had a lot of open discussion about how we were feeling, why we were feeling that way. It’s hard to understand the kinds of things some of the characters went through and especially for the teenagers to understand this kind of cruelty.”

Michele concurs. “It fostered a lot of discussion with our kids and the kids that were around. During rehearsals there was a lot of, ‘What is this scene about?’ I would say there was a lot of growth.”

At this point, being so close to the production’s end, it would be difficult to project how the play affected communication between the teens and adults in the audience, but undoubtedly it opened some doors. And maybe, just maybe, the play’s support for the IWYC won’t just be financial.