Warning: Contains spoilers on Spring Awakening
From June 15th -17th 2015 I had the honour of playing one of the greatest female roles in modern musical theatre. Wendla Bergmann in Spring Awakening.
Even though we had a very limited season and the rehearsal period was long and stressful, as I reflect on the journey, I have no regrets on undertaking this character. I’m closing the chapter on the biggest role I have played to date, and I want to share some of my thoughts on Wendla and what she has meant to me.
Spring Awakening is a 2006 rock musical based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name. At the time of its 1906 premiere, Spring Awakening was so controversial in its unapologetic depiction of teenage self-discovery with themes of rape, abortion, sado-masochism, homosexuality, suicide, etc that it was deemed pornographic, and subsequently banned or censored. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s take on the classic resulted in a wonderful juxtaposition of period drama and contemporary rock. With a thrilling score and clever staging (ok, maybe I am a little biased), Spring Awakening swept the 2007 Tony Awards, winning for Best Musical, Book, Original Score, Supporting Actor, Direction, Choreography, Orchestrations and Lighting.
The strangest thing about Spring Awakening and how it is treated in musical form, is that the contemporary influence shouldn’t work at first glance, but it honestly does. And the reason it works is because the story, characters and subject matter have stood the test of time and are instantly relatable. For me, the heart of the story is a cautionary tale about what can happen when people simply don’t communicate effectively. In Spring Awakening, the parents and other authority figures in town refuse to be honest with the teens about life and what they are going through physically, and this results in tragedy.
When I first found out that I had been cast as Wendla, I won’t lie, my first emotion was fear. I was terrified of the enormity of the task set before me. I had so many doubts it was hard to know what to think.
Can I really do this?
Can I carry a show?
How can I do this show, and this character justice?
But I was about to discover a lot about Wendla, and in turn, myself.
Despite popular opinion in the musical theatre world, Wendla is not a Disney princess (disclaimer: I’m referring to the early age princesses who literally did nothing. Snow White, Aurora etc. Belle, Megara, Jasmine etc are awesome). She’s told she’s a delicate flower, but inside, she’s Black Widow. This is a strong female, and she’s smart. Wendla has a brain, she’s just never been given permission to use it. And this is a big part of the tragedy of Wendla. There is wasted potential in a short life. And finally, she is not a victim. She’s a victim of circumstance, but that doesn’t make her weak.
Once I’d realised that I wouldn’t be playing a fourteen year old Barbie doll, I was able to delve deeper into Wendla’s story and what happens to her throughout the show.
During the run, we had a matinée performance for schools, because Spring is now on the HSC syllabus. Unfortunately for these poor kids (some were in Year 10), the teachers forgot to advise them on some of the content, and it’s safe to say they were pretty shell-shocked by the end of the performance. We did a Q&A session afterwards to nearly five solid minutes of silence before they finally began asking questions.
Their first question? “Are youse two together?” one asked, referring to myself and Logan, who played Melchior (the looks on their faces when I pointed out that my partner was actually sitting at the drum kit with the rest of the band was beyond priceless). They wondered how I had coped simulating sex onstage with someone who I was not romantically involved with. Quite honestly, the hayloft scene was not the most confronting for me. (Interestingly enough, neither Wendla nor Melchior expresses love during their romance. The only character to say “I love you” is Ernst) I had wondered initially how I would cope with it, but in the end, it was much easier than I had expected. This was due to a few reasons. Firstly, I was very comfortable with Logan (Melchior), since we’d worked together before. Also, I had total faith in the directors, knowing they would never make me do anything I was uncomfortable with or that was distasteful without serving the base story.
Later, some of the students and their teacher approached me to ask more questions. They hated Wendla’s mother for not telling her the truth about where babies come from. Then they were worried that I had gotten hurt during the scene where Wendla gets beaten and seemed genuinely shocked when I explained that I was never actually touched by the stick. But what seemed to upset the students the most was Wendla’s death from a botched abortion. Even though it’s never seen by the audience, the mere thought is enough to make one’s blood turn to ice.
Wendla’s fate is nothing short of horrifying, and worst of all, it’s through no fault of her own. She seeks knowledge, and is denied it. She gets seduced into having sexual intercourse despite having literally no idea about what she’s doing, and ultimately winds up being punished for something beyond her control. With such a huge emotional journey throughout the show, I knew most of all I wanted to play Wendla with dignity and strength.
There’s a brilliant video series on Broadway.com called Character Study, where they film an actor getting doing hair/makeup before a show and discussing what makes their character tick. My favourite of these is stage legend Tony Sheldon discussing his role as Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. “The scariest thing about playing Bernadette I think is letting people down who have actually lived her experience….they have to be honoured,”
(The full video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpIaFH7f0Gs)
His words have resonated with me ever since. I had a responsibility to Wendla and to people who have a similar story. Wendla is a fictional character, but make no mistake, her story is not unique. I did the research on the medical procedures of the day and it was beyond awful. I’ll admit, I even had nightmares about what I uncovered. But I’m still so glad I did my homework, because I don’t think I could have done it justice otherwise. I didn’t take this role lightly either way.
We didn’t get many reviews for Spring. Some were complimentary, one was rather critical. But in the end, it didn’t matter. The audiences loved what we did, and considering all the difficulties in bringing the show to the stage, I was very proud of my performance and the rest of the cast.
It’s now time for me to say goodbye to Wendla Bergmann. She’s been a good friend to me these past few months and I’ll miss her. She’s taught me so much about justice, life, death, innocence and bravery. I hope I did her story justice.
To sign off, one audience member asked me what my favourite song in the show is. And I would have to say The Guilty Ones, for the lyrics if nothing else.
Something’s started crazy
Sweet and unknown
Something you keep in a box on the street
Now it’s longing for a home
And who can say what dreams are?
Wake me in time to be lonely and sad
And who can say what we are?
This is the season for dreaming
And now our bodies are the guilty ones
Who touch and colour the hours
Night won’t breathe, oh how we
Fall in silence from the sky
Then whisper some silver reply……