"Do you want to do something that's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done in your life, and I have no idea how we're going to pull it off but let's try?" Spencer Liff remembers his friend Michael Arden asking back in 2013. "Of course, that made me go: Ding ding ding! Yes," says Liff. That "thing" was tackling the 2007 musical Spring Awakening in collaboration with Deaf West Theatre — the Los Angeles-based company that adapts shows for Deaf audiences by integrating American Sign Language.
It had been ten years since Arden was first involved with Deaf West, playing Tom Sawyer in the company's production of Big River, the first Broadway musical in history told by Deaf and hearing actors through ASL. This time around, Arden would direct, and he needed a choreographer willing to take on the task. "I was a huge fan of his, and I knew he was up for a challenge and a risk," says Arden of Liff. "I think his work is just incredibly beautiful … and he's just so open."
It seems like a no-brainer to integrate ASL into choreography. After all, the language is a language of movement. But the integration of ASL is the most stunning asset and greatest challenge Spring Awakening's choreography.
Unlike most choreographers, Liff was responsible for the gestures of individual words before then worrying about storytelling, symbolism and emotion through movement. But Liff had never signed a single word. "I had no idea where to start," says Liff. They began with a two-week workshop. The plan was to stage six songs with the mix of Deaf and hearing actors, but first, Liff had to figure out what the capabilities of his cast were. "It was a giant exploration process," he says. "It was sort of stomping feet with rhythms and seeing if our cast could match a rhythm [together]. Some of them could, and some of them couldn't." But Liff wasn't afraid to work from the ground up. "Something as simple as [teaching] a 1-2, 1-2-3 [rhythm] — that would take an hour."
Knowing this, it seems miraculous it took only two years for the show — which had no plans for Broadway — to make it to New York.
Liff worked with his kids, stomping and clapping, teaching rhythms, then matching stomping rhythms to hand signs and executing them to the beat. He was teaching his Deaf cast to hear music. While Liff worked in rehearsals, the show's three ASL consultants, Elizabeth Green, Anthony Natale and Shoshana Stern, translated the songs. Each one of them handled a small batch and liaised with Liff and Arden on each individual number. But in the rehearsal room, Liff was on his own to communicate. He relied mostly on lip-reading and interpreters to speak to his Deaf cast, which admittedly created a sense of disconnect. But the workshop went well enough that the team decided to put on the show in a 99-seat black box with a new batch of performers. (Daniel Durant would be the only performer to transfer from the workshop — and he was switching roles from Otto to Mortiz.)
About a month before the new cast came in, Liff, Arden and their team of ASL consultants began meeting. The consultants needed to provide the signs and vocabulary of the whole show, but Liff needed to uphold the musicality. "Two of our ASL masters are Deaf ... It was hard for them to know how many signs were needed for each phrase, and if we had oh-so-many signs, one had to be carried out for three counts and then the next two had to be fast on a beat," explains Liff. "We would all sit together and go through the songs and begin negotiations of what the signs would be."
"I think a lot of people assume that the translation was this word-for-word magical, 'Ok, well that's what they say in English so this is what they're going to sign,' and it was so not even close to being that simple," says Liff.
ASL is more like French, with an inverted sentence structure, not to mention that you can choose from three or four signs for one English word and, depending on what you do with your face (even what your eyebrows do), the meaning changes. Then, there was the added layer of communicating the concept of each song. Steven Sater may have written a song called "Purple Summer," but that phrase doesn't mean anything to the Deaf community.
Yet as Liff made progress, it seemed the universe didn't want another Awakening. "In the beginning, everything had fallen apart," says Liff of the 99-seat staging. "We lost our space, we had lost half of our cast, we lost our stage manager. It just kept piling up. I remember [saying] to Michael, we need to follow the signs because we're not supposed to do this right now, and he just kept pushing and pushing, and I remember thinking, 'God, he's crazy. This is insane. We're never going to pull this off.'"
Arden waded through the quicksand, bulking up the cast, pulling from Deaf West's connections and their access to Gallaudet University — the leading undergraduate school for Deaf and hard of hearing students — and acting programs that existed for Deaf teenagers. "We had kids that had never been in a show before, period, because there's not thousands of Deaf professional teenage actors in this country to pull from."
Yet Arden lobbed another curve ball in Liff's path when he cast Ali Stroker, an actress who is in a wheelchair. "I thought, 'We're already trying to figure out sign language,'" says Liff. "'I've never choreographed with a wheelchair.' But I almost couldn't think about that.
"I think both of us might have been more inclined to just pull the plug on it, except we had all of these staring faces…that had dropped their lives to move across the country and do this show, and we couldn't let them down." So despite Liff choreographing and taping for "So You Think You Can Dance" at 6 AM each day and directing a show at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in the afternoons, he was at the empty church rehearsal space by 5 PM to rehearse until midnight — when they were displaced each night by the local AA meeting.
Rehearsals began with one strict ASL week before the cast even got on their feet for choreography. Actors were paired, one Deaf one hearing, to sign correctly and stay in sync. And there was always input from the Deaf cast and consultants on the final signs. "It was a polite battle but just a passionate negotiation between me and the consultants," says Liff.
"Of course, I adored them," he adds. "But I had to gain their respect and trust through the process and prove to them that I really cared about the language being understood." This is why, if you'd stopped in on an early rehearsal, the choreography was pretty much stand and sign, walk, then stand and sign.
"It was around [the time of] the Wallis [Center transfer in spring 2015] that I would tell Daniel Durant's interpreter to sit down and I would go up to him and try [to sign]," Liff says. "My relationship with him for the first year was not looking in his eyes. The first time we could look each other in the eyes and communicate — that was a huge cloud-parting moment for me." As Liff began to learn the language, he felt freer in his movement.
He taught the group to dance, starting each rehearsal with a workout of planks, sit-ups, floor combinations. And Stroker kept up in her wheelchair. "As I started to learn her movement, I wanted to challenge her," says Liff. "The idea for her and the Deaf kids was there was never going to be coddling. It was like, 'This is the choreo, this is what we're doing; we're all gonna figure it out, and if you can't do it right away, great. You'll do it by tomorrow.'"
With his cast behind him, Liff tapped into the pathos of the piece. "A big thing I tried to do in the whole picture was make what was happening onstage match musically, the light and shade of the music and the score, which is so incredibly beautiful," he says. "[A Deaf audience] was going to get the emotional impact that a hearing audience would by understanding what a crescendo or what a modulation in the music was."
Liff reasoned with the ASL team that if a chorus of a song had been established several times in a very understandable way, he should then be allowed to stray from the hard-and-fast signs in the next chorus. Which is why if you watch "Touch Me," you'll notice everyone's movement varies at the song's biggest build. "[It gets] so full and so big and so over the top that I needed it to look like mayhem onstage so that the Deaf audience members, their hearts would race as much as a hearing audience member. … For those 15 seconds we make the actual ASL secondary to the overall feeling."
He also needed to signal when scenes transitioned to song for an audience that couldn't hear an introduction of strings. "There are all these things that happen that transport you into a more fantasy world when music starts," Liff explains. So it's not insignificant movement when the boys arch back and whip forward at the hard-hitting start of Melchior's "All That's Known." It all fuses together as Liff created an experience for every audience member.
As detailed and painstaking as the process was, ASL was actually a blessing for the storytelling Liff needed to do. "What the signing gave all of us was this break from reality, that it all of a sudden enabled us to do anything we wanted," says Liff. The show opens with the voice of Wendla and Wendla looking at each other through a mirror and passing a guitar between the two of them. According to Liff, once you have a hearing actor doubling as a conscious voice onstage with a Deaf actor, interacting with them, "all the rules are out the window."
Indeed, Liff created a two-and-a-half hour musical picture in constant motion. He is an artist and the bodies his paints. "I could have the kids be a forest of trees. At that point in the show, you've seen so much imagery that you're not thinking, 'Oh gosh, these people are being trees and leaves now?' Your mind is willing to accept that imagination."
No doubt Liff felt frustrated at times, but his work soon transcended the difficulties and helped earn the show a spot on Broadway. "To watch their Cinderella story from these hodgepodge kids who showed up in L.A. to do a show for 20 dollars a week, and then a year later they're on production contracts making Broadway debuts — we had 25 Broadway debuts on this show!" Liff pauses. "What I would have done if there wasn't sign language there would have been very different, but at the same time it was such a beautiful tool to have and place to start, and [sign language] is so stunningly visual to look at anyway it was like: 'This is all we need.'"
Read more about the leading players of Deaf West's Spring Awakening and their journeys with the show.
(Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.)