At the same time, the hearing mainstream has increasingly become fascinated with this visual, signing culture. As a deaf individual, I’ve been asked countless times how I can possibly appreciate music. But these days, I’m almost more likely to receive a message from a hearing friend saying, “Look at this ASL music video! How cool!” (Admittedly, whether these viral videos are created by deaf or hearing artists is an ongoing point of contention.) ASL classes are increasingly popular at colleges, and ASL interpreters like Lydia Callis, who played a key role in Michael Bloomberg’s press conferences, have become stars in their own right.
Some of the current hearing curiosity about ASL can feel like voyeurism, without allowing much understanding of the deeper issues that deaf people still face in the U.S. and worldwide. Misunderstandings persist about how to communicate effectively with deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, fraught discussions continue about the medicalization of hearing loss and technologies such as cochlear implants, and deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are still more likely than their hearing peers to be underemployed. A gap remains between deaf and hearing communities, and culture might be one way to bridge it.
To say, then, that Spring Awakening dazzles mainstream audiences with its staging of that astounding novelty, a deaf musical, might be to overlook the full significance of this show. With every production element, Spring Awakening prompts audiences to consider fundamental questions about the nature of full inclusion and communication. Without being remotely voyeuristic, it invites viewers to engage with the signs and choreography of its deaf and hearing actors, without any further explanation. Whether deaf or hearing, signing or speaking (or singing), the cast appear to the audience simply as individuals.
Their use of sign language, which often includes touching each other’s bodies to create explicit physical and linguistic meaning, heightens the musical’s sexual themes. One scene at the beginning of the musical, talking about love, humorously misplaces the signs for “heart” and “vagina.” Phallic signs abound, as do penetrative ones; the signing actors leave no doubt about how relationships are consummated. By its very nature, signing often communicates openly and without euphemism or elision, making it that rare cultural product that can be open and honest about sex.
Even for deaf theatergoers accustomed to gathering meaning through visual language, the design elements of Spring Awakening create such an optically rich experience that audiences have no choice but to engage. The musical’s 19th-century period costuming isn’t elaborate, nor is its set. Instead, the production draws energy from bright lighting, bold music, and choreography, which combines ASL with dance and gesture. It feels hyper-immersive throughout, especially during large musical numbers, when neon lights flood the stage and the actors’ signing creates a sense of pulsating rhythm. The show also pays homage to its rock heritage via the costumes of the hearing alter egos who accompany some of the deaf actors onstage to voice their lines; instead of the corseted dresses and suits worn by the rest of the cast, these actors sport leather jackets and eye-catching jewelry, emphasizing the story’s synergy with rebellion in other eras.