Acceptance on stage
From today until Saturday, the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (YAF) will perform their production of the Broadway musical Spring Awakening. Set in late 19th-century Germany, the show follows the lives of several teenagers as they start puberty and discover their place in the world.
The show is based on an 1892 play by the controversial playwright Frank Wedekind. The play was originally banned in Germany, as it featured sex, homosexuality, abortion, child abuse and teen suicide.
In 2006, Spring Awakening was adapted into a rock musical, and received rave reviews on Broadway. The show went on to win eight Tony Awards in 2007 and stayed on Broadway until 2009. This will be the first production of the show in Hong Kong.
Spring Awakening will be performed in English (with Chinese subtitles) at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. It's suitable for ages 12 and above. Parental guidance is recommended for children aged 6 to 11.
Dealing with the taboos
For the past 18 years, Lindsey McAlister has created musicals as the artistic director of YAF. After putting on numerous versions of the shows usually performed by teenage casts, she needed something different, something more challenging.
'I suppose you get to the point where you run out of musicals and you start looking for new inspirations. And so in the past three years, we've sort of tried to do things which are a little bit more mature, a little bit more edgy, such as last year's Rent,' McAlister says.
'I want to make issue-based theatre as well as make theatre that's entertaining. It was Maria [Wong, YAF's performing arts manager], who gave me the music to listen to, and I just instantly fell in love with [it],' she says. 'Even though we thought that it would be quite a tricky musical to put on, we didn't shy away from the challenge.'
As well as enjoying a challenge, YAF felt that, by choosing Spring Awakening, they might bring some of the issues addressed in the play into the open, and spark discussions between children and their parents. McAlister expressed her disappointment that issues considered controversial 100 years ago, such as homosexuality, abortion and child abuse, are still thought of that way today.
'The idea for the show is not to shock anybody, but to educate and entertain. And so the way we're actually doing it, even though there might be things that people might gasp at, it's not meant to sensationalise anything. It's actually meant to be performed in a sensitive, very honest, truthful way.'
In the original musical, there were explicit scenes of nudity and sex. Obviously, some things can't be done in exactly the same way as the original, since the YAF cast consists of 35 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18. But when asked if things would be toned down, McAlister answered with an empathetic 'no'. There'll still be scenes which some may consider controversial, such as boys kissing one another.
If you think McAlister's cast would be bothered with portraying such personal moments on stage, think again. In fact, some are downright excited by it. Max Percy, 17, who plays Hanschen, says: 'I knew before that my character had the ... boy kissing scene. When I learned that I got the part, as strange as it might sound, I went 'Yes!''
The cast acknowledges that, as modern teenagers, they are better educated than their characters about the issues they face, but they are still able to relate to their fictional personas.
'There's an attachment to the characters in this play because they are teenagers growing up and going through puberty, and everybody goes through that, whether you want to admit it or not. It's an unavoidable thing we all experience,' says Tori Nassberg, 18, who plays Ilse.
'You can't help but identify with them. And that's what we're hoping with younger members of the audience, to almost identify with a few cast members and characters in the show,' Max adds.
The 'awakening' the characters go through mirror those the cast themselves may have experienced. 'It's very, very authentic watching them work and how they express themselves, how they characterise; it's very honest because it's them now,' says McAlister. She appreciates that not everyone in the audience will agree with the idea of this production. But she says a lot of the feedback so far has been positive. Parents of cast members have come up to her and told her that, after being involved with the production, their children have been more open about discussing puberty, sex and relationships with them.
Tori's mother, Nancy Nassberg, is very supportive of the show. 'It's definitely a good way to approach those subjects through this play,' she says. 'Because, first of all, music is a universal language and hopefully they'll walk away with a message to open up dialogue, or to confront issues over what they're feeling, or pressures from school. [They'll] know they can reach out and start a dialogue with their parents or their teachers or seek help somewhere where it can be beneficial to them.'
As further support for those who want to seek help or find out more information about the issues addressed in the show, YAF will put a list of hotlines for groups such as The Samaritans, Suicide Prevent, Mother's Choice, and the It Gets Better Project in the show's programme.
What those involved say about the show
'The show actually sends an important message about communication with your parents, and the dangers of what happens when you don't. Obviously Wendla's mum wasn't honest with her about how babies are made, which results in her getting pregnant.'
Tori Nassberg, 18, Year 13, German Swiss International School, plays Ilse
'I think my parents were more excited about the fact that I was getting a lead role this year than about the content initially. They knew [my storyline involved] sex on stage, and they were a bit worried about that, but I think I was a lot more worried than they were. I was quite nervous to do it, but Lindsey did such a good job that I wasn't uncomfortable with anything that I had to do. Maria went through this laborious process of finding a way to position Melchior so that he didn't have to touch me in any way that I wasn't comfortable with.'
Megan Leung Sze-wing, 17, Year 13, Canadian International School, plays Wendla
'I have to say that I really appreciate that Lindsey chose this musical because it's more controversial [than most]. So instead of doing something that's happy-go-lucky, this actually gives you more chances to talk about current issues that are very important today.'
Olivia Kong Hiu-ting, 19, a Year One student at Chinese University of Hong Kong, is a dancer in the show
'My initial reaction was 'Why would they choose this show?'. But after speaking with my daughter, I'm more accepting. Through her participation in the show, she has learned that these types of problems exist. I think most importantly it reflects on the problems teenagers face, and [so it] can help them.'
Derek Chan Kai-wing, a teacher at Pentecostal School, and father of Jodie Chan Wing-yan, a deviser in the show
'I think a lot of the issues we're talking about have just come to the forefront within the past couple of years in Hong Kong. Prior to that, sexuality, abuse, pressure in school, teenage pregnancy - a lot of the issues have been out there, but people just didn't want to address them, or it didn't affect them. I was talking to someone last week and I was astounded to find out that we have three suicides a day in Hong Kong. Spring Awakening addresses this subject. So this is a way [to help] someone realise they can go and speak to someone, seek guidance or talk about their problems. It'll be a great thing if we can prevent at least one suicide a day.'
Nancy Nassberg, mother of Tori Nassberg