In a cramped, soundproof rehearsal studio tucked behind a Dunkin’ Donuts in a shopping center in West Boca Raton, Florida, Christine Barclay paces amid quietly seated teenagers. The room is too small for them to sit in a circle, so her audience of ten is scattered across the floor. Christine is trying not to get ahead of herself: the production of Spring Awakening that she’s directing, starring high-school kids from the area, opens in seven weeks, and already they’ve lost too much time.
Christine introduces an exercise designed to make the members of her cast comfortable with touching and being touched. The goal is intimacy, not sexuality—becoming accustomed to the sense of physical touch, as well as a strong feeling of connection. Normally, she says, they’d spend longer on this kind of thing, but it’s the middle of March and they missed several rehearsals after the February 14 shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in the city of Parkland.
When the shooting began, at 2:21 p.m. on an otherwise unremarkable Valentine’s Day, Christine was on her way to a rehearsal at Barclay Performing Arts, the youth theater she founded a couple of years ago. She received a text from one of her assistant directors alerting her to the shooting. Spring Awakening’s music director Ed Kolcz, who works part time at Stoneman Douglas, and several of the show’s cast members were trapped at the school, fearing for their lives. Christine began texting members of the cast to see if they were okay. She rehearsed absentmindedly and checked her phone every time it dinged, letting her know another member of her cast was alive.
Kolcz—who was at Stoneman Douglas rehearsing another show—spent the afternoon hunkered down in a storage closet. “We were in that room for about an hour and a half,” he tells me. “We had to stay quiet, and we could hear, like, three sets of gunshots in total, separated by 30 or 40 seconds—a couple of rounds. Finally, we heard the SWAT team announcing who they were, that they were coming to evacuate. They had us open the door and run outside with our hands over our heads.” When they evacuated, Kolcz left his music, his car, and his glasses behind, and he couldn’t get them back for days.
Five days later, Christine gave birth to her first child. When she returned to rehearsals following two weeks of maternity leave, she spent several hours with the cast of Spring Awakening just talking. “They’d all been through this incredible trauma,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, guys, here we are. We made it through the wilderness. Now we’re back in our safe space. Let’s talk about our journey.’”
That journey has led to tonight’s exercise. Christine will divvy the teens up into pairs, and then they’ll sing one of the show’s more challenging numbers, “Touch Me,” all the way through, three times. The song is a slow, erotic ballad that gradually swells into a full chorus. The first time, the cast will sing it as a group, to connect to the song and to each other. The second time, for the entirety of the song, each cast member will make eye contact with their designated partner. The third time through, they’ll lightly touch their partner’s hands and forearms until the song ends. “You are going to feel comfortable through becoming very uncomfortable,” says Christine.
Spring Awakening, the 2006 cult-hit rock musical, tells the story of a group of 19th-century German adolescents on the edge of puberty, as they navigate sex and violence, love and despair. The show centers, in part, on harmful family relationships, and some of the teenagers pay for their parents’ vanity, cowardice, and repression with their lives. It also has an eerie resonance with the February shooting that isn’t lost on anyone involved in its staging.
Three of the production’s leads attend Stoneman Douglas and have been managing rehearsals alongside their busy activist schedules and newfound celebrity. Seventeen-year-old Cameron Kasky, who cofounded Never Again MSD—a student-led gun-control movement that organized the March for Our Lives, on March 24—plays Melchior Gabor, a truth-seeking teen living in a small, repressed town, whose developing sexuality instigates his undoing. Alfonso Calderon, also 17 and a Never Again cofounder, plays Hanschen, a student who discovers his own homosexuality and wicked sense of humor. Sixteen-year-old Sawyer Garrity, who plays Wendla, Melchior’s well-meaning girlfriend, cowrote and released a song called “Shine” in the shooting’s aftermath. When the song unexpectedly became a hit, Sawyer poured the money from its sales into Shine MSD, a nonprofit formed to support victims’ families and heal the Parkland community through the arts.
Even those cast members who don’t go to Stoneman are part of the media circus. Members of the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening, including Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, recently met with the young performers and conducted a master class. Earlier today, before the touch exercise, a documentary crew came to film a rehearsal. Everyone held hands and sang a song from the Act One finale: “I believe, I believe, I believe, oh, I believe / All will be forgiven.”
They spent the hour between the documentary shoot and the evening’s rehearsal the way theater kids do: belting out songs until they were laughing too hard to keep singing. First it was “It Won’t Be Long Now,” from In the Heights. Then Giorgio Garcia, a reedy, bespectacled college freshman, sat down at a piano bench. “This is called ‘World on Fire!’” he said, slamming his hands into the synthesizer, beating keys at random, and screaming, “WHYYYYYYYY?!” Atop his epic improvising, the others began to cycle through the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack—exuberant, full of life, unembarrassable.
Now, sitting and waiting for Christine’s instructions, the group is calmer. It’s all potential energy, and a tittering discomfort at the prospect of caressing each other. But before she moves to touch, Christine has something to say; she begins to talk about the students’ sudden renown. “We know that this attention is being gained because of a tragedy,” she says. “We know that some of our friends, like Cameron, have big platforms. And instead of you guys being teenagers, your attitudes have been, like, ‘Whatever we can do to support our friends, we’re gonna do.’”
“And we feel it,” adds Cameron, who’s been sitting cross-legged in a corner of the room, occasionally checking his phone. Cameron is cocky, quick-witted, and handsome, with a sense of humor that makes him seem fearless. This is the adolescent who humiliated Senator Marco Rubio during a February 21 CNN town hall with one simple question: “Senator Rubio, can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA in the future?” (Rubio could not.)
Christine continues to pace. “Cameron’s an example of someone who has been sort of a human punching bag …”
“Someone punched me today,” Cameron offers casually.
Giorgio gasps. “What the fuck?!”
Christine reels them back in. “We’re a team and we have something to do,” she says. All eyes are on her now, and the members of her cast are nodding solemnly in agreement, called to something bigger than themselves. “We have a mission. We have a mission on the stage, and we have a mission off the stage.” Everyone in the room is wearing the same black T-shirt. “FIND YOUR VOICE,” it reads. “SING YOUR SONG.”
In Spring Awakening—based on the 1891 German play of the same name by dramatist Frank Wedekind—teenagers sing songs because they can’t typically speak their minds. The production’s setting is dreamlike, with a bare stage and stark lighting, and its main characters wear school uniforms, dance, bounce off desks in a riot of protest, and burst into catchy rock songs. The parents, teachers, and religious authorities who the kids struggle against are all played by the same two actors—interchangeable and largely malevolent. Unlike in a traditional musical, where songs function as dialogue and advance plot, the purpose of Spring Awakening’s musical numbers—composed by Duncan Sheik and written by playwright Steven Sater, who also wrote the musical’s book—is to express the often-unarticulated longings of youth.
The musical moves as a series of interconnected vignettes, each surveying the varying delights and traumas of teenage sex. The songs oscillate between ballad and the directness of teenage angst. “There’s a moment you know / You’re fucked,” Melchior sings, knowing he’s going to be expelled from school for corrupting his friends. Melchior has some grasp on the science of sex, and nearly rapes his friend Wendla. She, on the other hand, knows nothing about sex except what her mother has told her: “For a woman to bear a child, she must ... in her own personal way, she must ... love her husband. Love him, as only she can love him.” Their friend Moritz can’t study because he’s too distracted by “mortifying visions” of legs in sky-blue stockings. Another student is being sexually abused by her father; two of the male students discover they are gay; and a female student is passed around as a muse and lover by a group of bohemian painters.
Wedekind’s original play, subtitled “A Children’s Tragedy,” was considered so scandalous that it didn’t debut in Berlin until 1906, 15 years after he wrote it—and that version was heavily bowdlerized. The Commissioner of Licenses attempted to halt its English-language premiere in New York City in 1917, but was confounded by the courts, which issued an injunction allowing the play to proceed. (It opened for one performance, a matinee which the New York Times called “tasteless.”)
A year after this inauspicious American premiere, Wedekind died. According to writer Jonathan Franzen, who translated a version of the play in 2007, “At his funeral ... there was a riot worthy of a rock star.” It was attended by the German literati and “a mob of the young and the strange and the crazy—members of a cultural and sexual bohemia that had recognized in Wedekind a freak with the courage of his freakdom.” The event came to a head when “an unstable poet named Heinrich Lautensack ... threw a wreath of roses on the coffin and then jumped down into the grave, crying, ‘To Frank Wedekind, my teacher, my model, my master, from your least worthy pupil!’”
The 2006 musical adaptation of Spring Awakening caused far less controversy. In fact, it was a critical darling and a commercial success. When the production came to Broadway, it made stars out of leads Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, and John Gallagher Jr., and won eight Tony Awards, including for Best Musical. It’s become a cri de coeur for a generation of aspiring singer and actors, and has recently been featured on two different TV shows set in high schools: the reboot of 90210 and the new drama Rise on NBC.
The musical may never have come about had it not been for an earlier school shooting. Playwright and poet Sater writes that he had toyed with the idea of adapting Spring Awakening in the early 1990s, but, “in the wake of the shootings at Columbine [in 1999], its subject felt all the more urgent.” He began to write the musical with Sheik in earnest in response to the massacre, during a period when “the unheard, anguished cries of young people” seemed to have gained a new relevance. Sater sat down to write the introduction to the published script in 2007, after yet another school shooting, this time at Virginia Tech, claimed 33 lives. The cumulative weight of our failure to address gun violence—to look at the cost our children bear so that we might maintain the polite order of our world—will bring Spring Awakening to relevance again and again.
In interview after interview, the adolescents I talked to told me how important the musical had become to them since the shooting. “It’s helping me to heal because it’s helping me say my feelings and express myself without having to do so in front of people I’m not comfortable with,” says Ethan Kaufman, 15. A Stoneman Douglas student, Ethan has stayed away from politics in the shooting’s aftermath because he’s had to “recuperate,” in his words. “But I’m really proud of them,” he says of his more politically active castmates. He hopes that when the community comes to the show, they’ll see “that kids are humans too. There comes a point where you have to let us experience the world for what it is—otherwise, when it does hit us, it will hit us way harder than it would if we were prepared for it.”
Sawyer Garrity, who plays the doomed Wendla, says the show is about “what happens when parents don’t teach their teens what the world is actually like.” At first, she felt lost in the role of Wendla, a character she imagined herself as worlds apart from. But ultimately, she says, “I realized that I am a lot like her. She’s just a girl who wants to go about her life, have a nice, normal life. She just wants to make the people in her life happy—and then, all of a sudden, everything comes crashing down on her quicker than she can possibly understand.”
Christine Barclay comes from an artistic family. Her father was a drama and English teacher who directed local community-theater productions in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Her brother is the director of music at Shakespeare’s Globe in England. Christine was likely destined for her own theater company—she organized her first theater group when she was in middle school—but she found her purpose after her father’s death, as she read the letters that poured in from his former students. “I started to think about the impact he had, and I was like, I’m supposed to do something else. I’m supposed to use this to help and heal.” Those are the aims of Barclay Performing Arts, where Christine is simultaneously directing Seussical Kids, Jesus Christ Superstar, Legally Blonde Jr., and Spring Awakening. “I have kids in the program who have come out to me as being gay and not come out to their families—[kids] who have been sexually molested and didn’t talk about it anywhere else,” she tells me.
Sydney Archibald, a 16-year-old who is homeschooled and plays the physically and sexually abused Martha in Spring Awakening, says that Barclay Arts is a place where she’s learning to navigate her emotions. “My family ... we weren’t really open. It wasn’t up for discussion when it came to emotions.” It’s hard to imagine Sydney unhappy, or emotionally repressed. Sitting in the office at Barclay Performing Arts, a cramped antechamber to the rehearsal room covered in posters and chalk graffiti, she’s animated and bubbly. “I was overdramatic and outspoken,” she says, laughing. “I needed to find a way to let that out, and that’s what theater gave me. I learned I’m really loud!”
Eden Hetzroni, who recently joined the cast in a small ensemble role, defined herself as “a shy, introverted person” until she entered the rehearsal room, a space that hums with chaotic energy. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a supportive environment as I have been here, with people who are so outspoken and accepting of everything around them,” she says. “Often in school and stuff, if you ever try to express yourself, people will just belittle you for how you feel.”
Even Cameron Kasky, whose confidence seems limitless, is “a weird 17-year-old boy,” Christine says. “Cameron is a kid who is caught between a divorced family that runs hot and cold, and he has a special-needs brother who he takes full responsibility for taking care of on his own. When he came to me, it was like a serendipitous meeting in a way, because he found his home.”
Sawyer Garrity, who plays the doomed Wendla, says the show is about “what happens when parents don’t teach their teens what the world is actually like.”
As a result of its focus on helping young people find their voices, Christine says, Barclay Performing Arts has become “a magnet for kids who are lost. And then word spreads among the lost.” Sometimes, though, she doesn’t wait for them to find her; she finds them. For instance, Christine met Leanna Torelli, 21, at an open-mic night and invited her to join the company.
Leanna has anxiety, and left college to focus on her mental health. Two days a week, she works at a burger joint. She attends therapy Monday through Wednesday, and spends the rest of her time rehearsing at Barclay, where she features both in Spring Awakening and Jesus Christ Superstar. She also survived a trauma a year ago that she does not want to discuss with most people. But she did tell Christine about it.
“Theater is a family,” Leanna says. “If you’re portraying a character that has the feelings that you want to get out, you can let loose those feelings through that character. Sometimes it’s nice to play someone else a little bit. Playing yourself can be a hard thing.”
I ask her what song she sang at the open mic that so impressed Christine.
“‘Don’t Rain on My Parade,’” she says, beaming.
There is no safe harbor for the characters of Spring Awakening. The world around them is controlling and cruel in equal measure, and its adults are only concerned with obedience and piety. They try to hammer the kids back into a shape they find pleasing and keep the world out. But the world has a habit of finding its way in—sometimes in the form of sexual desire, sometimes as political defiance.
Throughout the play, the adults respond to the teens’ transformation, to their nascent attempts to express themselves, with a kind of befuddled horror. “I honestly don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this kind of talk,” Wendla’s mother shrieks in the musical’s first scene, in response to a question about where babies come from. Melchior and Moritz’s Latin teacher beats them with a cane for the crime of disagreeing with him. Moritz eventually fails out of school not because of his grades, but because he’s a weirdo, and the headmaster wants to be “assured the good name of our school is secure.”
The adults of Spring Awakening see kids speaking their minds and discovering the world on their own terms as a source of shame. They’re not that different from CNN contributor Jack Kingston, who suggested on February 20 that Cameron and his friends’ sorrow would be “hijacked by left-wing groups who have an agenda,” or Laura Ingraham, who carped about Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg’s college prospects and then called the resultant boycott of her show by advertisers “Stalinist.”
In dark moments, it seems that our treatment of teenagers in 2018 isn’t so far off from the attitudes that spurred on Wedekind in 1891 Germany. It’s commonplace to condescend to adolescents when they voice viewpoints we don’t agree with, to try to control them when they step out of line. But how to help them be themselves? Christine takes the members of her theater troupe seriously; she lets them fall apart when they need to, and she checks in with them constantly. As they move through the three phases of this evening’s exercise, she asks for feedback. She wants to know how they’re feeling and talk to them about the role of intimacy in our society.
It turns out that not breaking eye contact as you sing a song about wanting to be touched “where the figs lie” is a challenge. Seventeen-year-old Jenna-Brooke Bellinato, whom everyone calls JB, is paired with Cameron for the exercise. “When I was doing my little speaking part in the middle of the song, I got to see in JB’s eyes: It’s okay. We know,” Cameron tells me later. “There were no words needed. I got to see somebody say, It’s fine.”
Christine reminds the group that there are few places where Cameron can be himself these days—that we are getting to see him this way because this is a safe space. It’s a safe space for all of them, one that has allowed the ensemble to take the risks that putting on this show at this moment entails.
Meanwhile, Cameron stops joking and looking at his phone, and stares straight ahead. His leg is jostling, just a little bit, then faster and faster, and then his hand starts trembling too, and he seems maybe to be blinking back tears.
“Give him some love, JB!” Christine calls out, and Jenna-Brooke leans over and hugs him.
The sun has set now, and the room is dimly lit by a couple of lamps. The cast begins singing along to “Touch Me” for the third time, lightly maintaining both physical and eye contact through the song. Somehow, Leanna manages to hold on. Six months ago, she says, she wouldn’t have been able to do the exercise at all. “I really, really wanted to be a part of this,” she tells me. “I was trying so hard.”
There is no safe harbor for the characters of Spring Awakening. The world around them is controlling and cruel in equal measure, and its adults are only concerned with obedience and piety.
Leanna is staring down the feeling that the world is rapidly expanding and, at the same time, taking everything she has to give, leaving her without a way of moving forward. Spring Awakening is about this contradiction.
After rehearsal, I ask Cameron about this. After all, he’s playing Melchior the knowledge-seeker, the truth-teller, the one who gets into trouble for mouthing off to adults. “Spring Awakening is us coming and saying, ‘This world has failed us. We need to come and stand up and change things for the better,’” he says.
But there is a part of Melchior—or Melchy, as Cameron calls him, as if the two are old friends—that he wants to learn from rather than embody. “He thinks he knows everything, and while he is smarter than pretty much everybody around him, he’s not open to learning anything else,” Cameron says. “I always think, Melchior Gabor would not have listened to this, but I need to listen to this; I need to consider it. Nobody is perfect. Everybody has pain. I think about Marco Rubio. I bet he and I have something in common. I bet he’s been in love before. He’s felt that feeling I felt.”
Cameron has an optimism that is bracing, particularly for someone at the center of a national conversation about one of our nation’s most hot-button issues. He believes that a better future is possible—that it must be demanded, created, taken. And he has faith in a real momentum behind the movement he helped inspire, a hopefulness that extends far beyond himself. “A lot of the famous people helping us, they’re not buying into me—they’re buying into my message. They’re buying into change.”
For the characters of Spring Awakening, things don’t get better. Wendla becomes pregnant after a night in a hayloft with Melchior, and dies after a back-alley abortion. The neurotic Moritz, devastated after having been expelled from school, shoots himself. The last scene of the play takes place in a cemetery, with Melchior standing over the graves of his two friends, wondering if he should join them.
The cumulative weight of our failure to address gun violence—to look at the cost our children bear so that we might maintain the polite order of our world—will bring the musical to relevance again and again.
I ask Cameron about the show’s second-to-last musical number, “Those You've Known,” in which the ghosts of Moritz and Wendla come to Melchior and assure him, in song, that they’ll always walk behind him. They’ll always support him, but they’ll always haunt him, too. I ask Cameron if, as he and his friends plan walkouts and marches, he feels the same way: as though those he’s lost walk behind him.
Cameron tells me about two friends who died in the Parkland shooting, and how their memorials outside the school are next to each other, like Moritz and Wendla’s graves. “I looked, and I said, ‘This is all happening. This is real, this can happen.’ Now I try to do that scene in rehearsal, and I’m not Cameron or Melchior. The two meet, and feel each other’s pain.”
It’s late now. The shopping center all around Barclay Arts is empty. It feels almost abandoned. Cameron and I walk to our respective cars. An hour later, he’ll tweet: “Since the shooting at my school, approx 3000 Americans have died of gun violence. That’s almost the population of our entire school.” Tomorrow, Christine will rehearse one of her four shows, and teach voice lessons, and nurse her newborn daughter. Her cast members will go to school, and learn their lines, and try to find their way in this world as they grow older. Whenever they need it, there’s a rehearsal room waiting for them, a place of escape. A place where they can find themselves by pretending to be someone else. A place where they’re embraced for who they are, and so can discover who they want to be.