PMA Podcast Transcript: Episode 19, The Awakening of Spring

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Chris: Hello and welcome to episode number 19 of the PMA Podcast. Today we’re discussing The Awakening of Spring by Frank Wedekind. It’s an upcoming play here in the Schwartz Center’s Flex Theatre. I’m your host Christopher Christensen.

Lindsey: And I’m Lindsey White.

Chris: Thank you very much for being here today. We have Carolyn Goelzer, co-director.

Carolyn: Hi.

Chris: And uh, three of the actors in this upcoming play. We have Andrew Dettmer.

Andrew: Hello.

Chris: Bryan Hagelin. Is that how you pronounce your last name?

Bryan: Yeah, that’s right. Hey.

Chris: Hey. And Ilana Wallenstein.

Ilana: That’s correct.

Chris Oh, very good. Wow, I did it.

Ilana: Very nice.

Chris: Well, welcome everyone. Nice to have you on the show.

Ilana: Thank you so much for having us.

Andrew: Thanks.

Chris: Yeah. So, uh, probably jumping right in. How’s the production coming along so far?

Carolyn: We are at a very exciting moment in our development of the play as we approach opening night. We’re going to have our first tech rehearsal tonight. So we’ll be integrating elements of sound and elements of lighting, uh, to the play as we rehearsed it in the space. We’ve been lucky enough to be on the set for a while now and working with some of the masks and some of the other props that have been provided. So this will be a whole other layer of information that we’ll have about the way that this story is going to be told theatrically.

Chris: Okay. That’s a question that we’ll have later in the podcast. I don’t want to jump into it just now, but yeah, definitely want to talk a little bit about the set design and all of that good stuff, but uh, Lindsey I think you have a question directed for Carolyn.

Lindsey: Sure. Carolyn, so, uh, Frank Wedekind wrote this play in 1891, um, in Germany. Can you provide some history about the play?

Carolyn: I know a little bit about the history, um, Frank Wedekind wrote the play, as you said, at the end of the 1800s. It was censored when it was written, um, I believe it was self-published.

Lindsey: Hmm.

Carolyn: He was not able to get a production of the play as written until the 1920s, I believe. So, it was in its time, it was considered quite radical. It dealt with subject matter that was considered taboo and a little too racy for its audiences, and it still feels quite, um, explicit.

Lindsey: Yeah.

Carolyn: And, um, bold in its themes and the way that it deals with its themes in the play. So, um, that’s what I know about some of the history of the play.

Lindsey: That’s great. So in addition to co-directing and acting in the play, you’ve also been leading the cast in some Michael Chekhov acting techniques. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it’s informing the play?

Carolyn: Yes, it would be interesting to hear from some of the cast members about their experiences too.

Lindsey: Of course.

Carolyn: But I can tell you my own background in Michael Chekhov is that I’ve been training for the last three summers in this technique. It’s a psychophysical technique, which means that, um, you take images which are created through your imaginative speculation in your imagination, and you put them in the body, and somehow these images excite behavior that then you can use as a tool in, uh, working on your characters. So because this play is expressionistic and it deals with theatricality in a non-naturalistic way, in many regards, it was a way of being able to move beyond psychology and understanding how a character might think, feel, move, and work, um, kind of a little more perhaps efficiently to get into the visceral expression of what was going on moment to moment in the playing.

Lindsey: Great, thank you. And to each of the cast members, uh, any one of you can jump in. How do you feel about this acting technique, and what are you learning about yourselves as actors?

Ilana: Well, I think one of the main things that all of us have gotten out of the Chekhov work that we’ve been doing with Carolyn, um, is the sense of ensemble, because it’s such ensemble work, uh, and because we have done it every day of the rehearsal process for thirty minutes each rehearsal, um, we were forced, in a way, to all come together every single day six days a week—five days a week?—six days a week. Um, and, and do this work together, which is challenging work. It’s not something that I think a lot of people understand right off the bat. It’s, uh, definitely something that you need a mentor like Carolyn to take you through and to let your guards down in a way, and because all of the ensemble was together doing this work, uh, walking across the stage together, learning, exploring together, I think it really strengthened us as a cast, and I think you’ll be able to see that work within the play, whether you know what Chekhov is or not, you’ll be able to see the group of the ensemble, just that strength, um, is really evident in the play itself.

Bryan: Yeah, um, another thing I’d like to say, um, one of my favorite parts about working with the Chekhov method is that it doesn’t expect you to kind of create an artifice. You’re kind of allowed to come in as you are and, uh, build your work from there. Um, Carolyn always tells us, um, be in touch with the way that, with, I guess your body, and don’t try to deny, uh, sorry [laughs].

Carolyn: The fatigue and…

Bryan: Yes!

Ilana: What you’re bringing into the space.

Bryan: Yes, don’t deny what you’re bringing into the space. Take account of it and then learn how to work with it, um, which I think is a really strong, um, way to base, I guess your work. It provides a very strong foundation for the work that you do.

Andrew: And a big thing too is that it’s all interconnected. We don’t just go, “Alright we’re doing our Chekhov work now. Okay, we finished. Let’s go on to the rehearsal part.” It all circles back together, so some of the, some of the activities that we’ve done while doing the Chekhov work I’ve seen, uh, directly manifested in certain aspects in the show, which is, it’s been a very interesting evolutionary experience, watching how our work is transferred from some of our early introductions into Chekhov and then into a full performance avenue.

Chris: There’s a number of themes in this play, pretty, pretty heavy themes, related to adolescence, coming of age, that are as relevant now as they were when the play was written. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? I know it’s...we might as well, uh, I guess the first thing I should say is age appropriate? Like what are we looking at in terms of letting, uh, the listening audience thinking about bringing the kids. What age should they be, or what do you think Carolyn?

Carolyn: I don’t have children.

Chris: Mhm.

Carolyn: So, I, it’s easy for me to sort of put a number on that.

Chris: Okay.

Carolyn: I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you one thing: they are adult themes, we would consider them adult themes. They’re also very serious themes, so there’s tragedy in the play, so things don’t always have a rosy consequence or ending. So that’s, in some ways I think, that’s part of the reason to consider who you might bring—

Chris: Mhm

Carolyn: [continued] to see this show. Uh, there’s, there’s some themes of suicide, of abortion, of rape, um, masturbation. So, you know, there’s a variety of elements that are explored theatrically as part of the storyline for this play that, um, are the reason why it was censored in the early years.

Chris: Mhm.

Carolyn: However, they are relevant. Um, we’re living in a time now where we’re questioning what is fake news. What is the complete story? Am I getting it? Do I trust the source of the information that I’m receiving information from? How do I find my way to the truth, or to, um, an authentic personal response that I can feel secure about? Uh, so, you know, I think that in the storytelling we’re confronting a lot of those questions, and they feel very modern to me, very contemporary.

Chris: Okay.

Bryan: Um, I would say also that even though all of the themes about, like, growing up and sexuality are, um, kind of more mature adult themes, they are themes that children who are growing up and reaching adolescence are dealing with in their everyday, their own lives, and, um, to kind of censor that off as, “you’re not an adult, so you shouldn’t come see this play,” I think is a mistake—

Chris: Okay.

Bryan: [continued] because I think that touches on exactly the kinds of, the messages that our play is trying to send.

Chris: Okay.

Ilana: I would, I would also, um, just like to talk about the relevance of the play. It’s one of those things that’s so fascinating that it was written so long ago and yet it’s still relevant. Um, going off of both what Bryan and Carolyn said, um, I mean, at its core it is a play about education and about the distance, but also the closeness, um, between childhood and adulthood, uh, and so I think that it will always be relevant, uh, but one of the things that is strikingly relevant is that this has been the year of the Me Too Movement.

Chris: Mhm.

Ilana: This has been the year of talking about sexual assault, talking about, um, how women, and, and, all people, all survivors, obviously including men, including non-binary individuals, um, have had to deal with trauma, um, and have had to deal with powerful people, uh, treating them in ways, um, that they need to be held accountable for, and so this play actually deals with that in a way that I wasn’t expecting it to. Um, and it deals with both sides of the story. It deals with, um, talking about how the lack of sex education can lead to, um, more traumatic experiences for people, and then, uh, also, obviously deals with the issue of rape. Um, and I also think that one of the ways that David Feldshuh, the director, has dealt with it has been really interesting. Um, and obviously you’ll have to come see the show to see it all, but to have a rape in the script, um, I think is pretty rare, and so to have to deal with that on stage as actors and as an audience is incredibly powerful, but to me it has been healing, in a way, to be able to talk about those things as a community and to put it into our art.

Chris: Hmm, okay. So Ilana, when you talk about the rape being in the play, is this something the audience sees on stage, or is it something that is alluded to?

Ilana: So the way that it is in the script is that the text is actually of a rape happening. The way that David has, um, staged it is less, um, inherently...

Chris: Graphic?

Ilana: Yeah, less graphic, absolutely.

Chris: Okay.

Ilana: Um, and it’s still certainly triggering. I would absolutely say that if someone is thinking about coming to see it and is unsure if they would be able to deal with kind of seeing those, um, images, or thinking about that, or hearing that kind of event happening, then it’s definitely something that they should think about before coming to see. Um, at the same time, um, it’s hard, it’s always hard to deal with something like rape in media, um, and it’s always difficult to do correctly, uh, and it’s always gonna be hard for survivors to see or hear about that. Um, I do feel that the way that David and the cast has dealt with this subject matter is empowering and is careful.

Chris: Okay.

Ilana: Um, I think that what happens after the rape is more important and more beautiful because of what happened, and in some ways that’s what we have to think about moving forward with the Me Too Movement, is that what happens after the rape can be beautiful and powerful and can be about coming to terms with your grief and your trauma and moving on.

Chris: Okay, thank you. Andrew, you had something?

Andrew: Yeah, having spent so much rehearsal time working on specifically the rape scene and some of the other controversial scenes over the past couple weeks, we spent a lot of time going through different iterations of the scenes, going for different tones throughout, and that process has been about finding the right balance between expressing the violence of it and the horror of it while not crossing that boundary of being disrespectful or too racy with it. Um, so while there are difficult scenes in this, I think we’ve found, we’ve worked very hard to strike that balance and find a way to tell it respectfully.

Chris: Okay, thank you. Uh, Carolyn, earlier you were talking about the set, uh, and I recently, I don’t know, it was before they moved the set design into the Flex, but I was really quite astounded by, quite taken aback, like “Ooh, this looks really interesting.” Let’s talk about that.

Carolyn: So the set is on two levels. There’s an upper level and a level that’s at the deck, and so there’s literally a separation, a chasm, between the adult and authority figures, and the young people, who are, whose stories we learn about in the play. And because of the way that the set is constructed, we never actually make eye contact. The authority figures and their charges, these young people, never actually look at each other in the play. So we have a stylistic approach that makes this communication abstracted in such a way that it actually reflects the conflict itself, which is the separation between these two generations and the inability to communicate across these age barriers. So, um, it’s a wonderful conceit and there’s a relationship that the audience will be able to experience that we in the cast actually live as actors in the telling of the story itself.

Chris: Okay.

Bryan: Um, the set also has like, ladders all against the walls, which is really interesting. Kent, our set designer, and David, our director, um, said that the inspiration for that actually came from like, the early inspiration for it came from like children’s playgrounds. So, um, throughout the show, like, the children, the children characters, we like jump around and play on these ladders. So we’re like, in a way, trying to climb up to adulthood, um, in a way, like playing and enjoying our childhood, and in a way, like, we can kind of get behind them, and they almost act as like, um, imprisoning us. So, um, there’s a lot of different ways that these ladder pieces are used, throughout the, um, throughout the show. So I think that adds a really good texture to the set as well.

Chris: Okay.

Carolyn: Talking about the costumes a little bit, uh, we’re using masks as the adult characters, so there’s a certain anonymity or facelessness about us as a collection of characters. The younger people are unmasked, so they are much more exposed, um, and seeable, in a way, than the older characters are. On the balcony, on the upper level, the adult characters are also constricted, so we have very limited use of our ar...of our ar...arms. Oh my gosh, that was hard to say.

Chris: [laughs]

Carolyn: Of our arms, and we also are, um, only seen from the waist up, so there’s a sense of sort of a disconnect or a disembodied effect, I think, from having those constrictions. And one thing that’s sort of been psychologically true for me is as I’ve been working with these constraints in constructing my characters, I’m aware that this older generation has been shackled themselves by certain expectations that have funneled them into these roles that then they end up playing and restricting their young charges with as well, so we sort of see an intergenerational condition that is passed on by, by faulty thinking about, uh, what we might be in a society, and who we might be to each other.

Chris: Thank you.

Lindsey: Can you discuss the role of music in the staging of this play?

Ilana: Sure, so one of the things that David mentioned early on is that he’s really interested in getting music into the storytelling of the play. Um, I myself love musical theatre, and so I, uh, am always really excited to get more music into the Schwartz, um, and I think it’s really important in the storytelling, it’s a really important tool. So Jeremy Pletter, who’s a local music director, um, resident musical director at Running to Places, and has directed, music directed local shows at local high schools and middle schools, has come to help us out, um, and he’s playing an interesting role because it’s not a musical. It’s not, uh, the music isn’t already written in, um, but [clears throat] he’s been working with David to find, uh, to find different songs and places that sound can help to, um, tell this story in a more vivid and interesting way. So as an actor and as a singer, I’ve been going through a lot of, and I think a lot of the cast has been going through a lot of different variations of what it’s gonna look like, and we’ve been really kind of crafting this as it goes, and at the moment we have these German lullabies that are sung at various points throughout the play. Uh, and again, it helps to show this childhood that is being destroyed, or um, this innocence as well, this quality of innocence and togetherness, and uh, it’s been incredibly exciting to be able to work on music within the play itself since it’s not in the script, and to be able to see where it makes sense and where it doesn’t make sense, and to be able to sing with my fellow castmates has been an incredibly exciting experience and just a lot of, um, fun, a really bonding experience. You know, voices are always helpful to tell a story in my opinion.

Chris: Hmm. Out of curiosity, when you say they’re German lullabies, in German or in English?

Ilana: Yes, uh, there are two currently. There’s the Brahms’ Lullaby, which we’re singing in German—

Chris: Okay.

Ilana: [continued] and then there’s one about a moon that we are also singing in German.

Chris: Okay. Want to sing a little bit now or no?

Ilana: Oh my goodness, uh [laughs].

Chris: You don’t have to. I’m kidding. Put you right on the spot.  

Ilana: I’ll give you an outro later.

Chris: Okay, perfect

Lindsey: Oh, wonderful.

Chris: There we go.

Lindsey: Yeah.

Chris: Oh, this is always, this is kind of my favorite question to ask people. What do you hope the audience takes away from this play? What do you hope the audience experiences? What do you hope people are stepping out into their, they’re stepping out of the Schwartz, they get into their cars and now they’re driving home and having these conversations about it. What do you hope those conversations sound like?

Bryan: For me, my hope, um, specifically through my performance and my character is that, um, nothing is ever unfixable. No failure is too big, um, to kind of recover from. Um, I think, uh, at a really stress-inducing environment like Cornell, um, I think that at an environment at Cornell which is so high pressure and so focused on performance, it can be very difficult for a lot of us who, um, kind of, we assign our value of us being here on whether or not we can perform at a level that we, for whatever reason, feel that we need to. Um, and that can be really difficult for some people. And so my character Moritz struggles with the same dilemma, and so my takeaway would be that, um, a failure in your performance, no matter what that is: academically, in work, whatever. That does not define your value as a person.

Chris: Hmm.

Ilana: One of the main takeaways for me, uh, I think is about education, and about sex education specifically, and about treating young people, um, as mature, as people who are full people who can comprehend, understand, and come up with ideas of their own, and the dangers of not trusting young people and not believing that young people have a voice.

Chris: Andrew, anything to add?

Andrew: [Clears throat]. So my character Melchior, he does some terrible things, frankly, in the show. Um, and I don’t think, we do not try to justify these actions, but looking at the play as a whole and his journey, I hope that the audience can see where, societally, the impulses for these actions comes from and the lack of education, as Ilana said, contributes to that. And in 2018, I think it’s important to look, to evaluate, and see how it reflects in our society today. With the Me Too Movement and everything that’s going on now, it’s important to take a step back and think how…

Ilana: I think we’re failing our children [laughs].

Andrew: What?

Ilana: We’re failing our children. That’s what I hear you saying. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not what you were going for, but I think, I think Melchior has been failed, and Wendla has been failed, and Ilse has been failed, and Moritz has been failed. All of the young people have been failed by the society that’s supposed to raise them in a way that helps them grow and become humans that know right from wrong, but if you don’t trust young people enough to explain to them right from wrong, then they have to figure it out for themselves and, uh, the blame I don’t think lies on Melchior, just like the blame doesn’t lie on Moritz, or Ilse, or Wendla, or any of the young people, but it lies on the people who have failed to teach him what he should have known.

Andrew: Yes, thank you.

Ilana: [Laughs].

Andrew: Um, yes, I think society has, in this play, failed the children, and we see the horrible consequences of this lack of education, and it’s difficult to put into words for me. I’ve been struggling to come up with thoughts and how to process it. I think that says a lot about today, how difficult it is to talk about it, and I hope, I don’t want to put opinions in people’s minds, but I hope these conversations are prompted by viewing this play.

Chris: Mhm. Thank you.

Carolyn: I think one of the most dangerous things that, uh, this play helps us understand is what happens when there’s a chasm of communication between people, and when we’re not able to recognize the humanity in one another, and to just deliberately bridge that gap that might be there because of misunderstanding or a lack of common experience. By really making the effort to reach out and connect and reach into one another’s reality, to be able to get an insight that will be able to allow us collectively to problem solve; until we’re able to do that, I think, as a community, we’re going to be really handicapped, in the way that we can, we can deal with our problems. I think the parents in this particular production, in the characters, they’ve been subjected to exactly the same problems in their generation. It’s systemic. It’s been something that’s been passed on. When is this chain going to be broken? When are we going to be able to forge different kinds of ways of accepting each other that allow us to interact more authentically and more healthfully.

Lindsey: For me, that was one of the really heartbreaking things about reading this play is that these young people are so desperate for information, and they’re trying to reach out to these adults that they’re supposed to be able to trust and confide in and get this education from, and you see it in the staging, and in the costumes that you all have talked about, how closed off these adults are and so unwilling to just care for these, these young people that are so dependent on them and so desperate for that, that connection.

Carolyn: Unwilling and also afraid.

Lindsey: Yeah.

Carolyn: Um, also not equipped. You know, so it’s not just about the will. I think it’s about not having the skills, not having been given the skills themselves, and so an inability to pass on good information in a timely way.

Lindsey: Hmm.

Chris: Carolyn, I was looking at, I guess it was the playbill that Lindsey had put together, or the program, and I noticed that there was a photo of Alison Van Dyke, who uh, was here and was a really influential member of the faculty. Um, I consider her a dear friend, and unfortunately Alison has just recently passed. Um, she was going to be a little bit involved in this play. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and dedication and all that?

Carolyn: Yes. David Feldshuh and I have both worked with Alison a great deal over the years and really relied on her. Her wisdom, her beautiful, generous spirit, her patience, her artistry, um, her unconditional support throughout the development of a number of productions that both David and I have worked on together, and I’m sure, historically, on many others before I came to Cornell because Alison was here for over thirty years—

Lindsey: Wow.

Carolyn: [continued] in working in our department. And David wrote a beautiful dedication to her, and to her influence, um, in our department, both as an advocate for students and for student learning, and about her positivity and her real belief in all of the potentials that young people have to make this world better, and our responsibility as educators to give young students here every chance to thrive and to express themselves in the ways that they were meant to and they could. So she is going to be so dearly missed, and I am so sorry that our particular cast didn’t have the wonderful opportunity to meet her and work with her first hand, but I can tell you that her spirit, and um, her legacy as a person, as an advocate for artists working in the theatre is alive and well and resides in the spirits of many of us who hope to carry on the torch, the bright torch of learning that she set before us.

Chris: Thanks, Carolyn. Really appreciate that. Um, I think that’s a lovely place to just close. Uh, thank you all so much for being here today. Really appreciate—

Carolyn: Thank you.

Chris: [continued] your presence.

Lindsey: Thank you.

Andrew: Thank you.

Bryan: Thank you.

Ilana: Thank you.

Chris: Yeah. Thanks for listening to the PMA podcast. Performances of The Awakening of Spring are in the Schwartz Center’s Flex Theatre November 9, 10, 16, and 17. Tickets are available online at schwartztickets.com or in person at the Schwartz Center box office, located at 430 College Avenue, Ithaca, New York.