The Hills Musical Company. The Stirling Theatre. 4 Nov 2017
For young actors Mitchell Smith and Millicent Sarre, known as ‘Mim’, the opportunity to perform in Spring Awakening was a lifelong dream, come true. “Auditions were back in June,” Mitch recalls, “Then there was like a month and a half break before we got started”.
They were both so keen to dive right into the material that the wait to get started was excruciating.
Luckily, it won’t be the first time they will work together on stage. In fact, the two young performers have been great mates for over 8 years, first meeting in a youth theatre production of Honk Junior in 2009. “I was 14, [Mitch] was 11,” Mim says, “And we did not see it going here!” laughs Mitch.
They were in the same harmony group and would always seek each other out for note support side stage before their entrances.
“We did a couple more shows over the next couple of years,” Mitch continues, “Through Swell Productions with Patrick Lim.”
The shows were Seussical The Musical and Beauty and the Beast and needless to say it was pretty clear right from the get go that they were going to be great friends.
This production, however, is like nothing the two have done before.
Spring Awakening is a coming of age story which confronts the themes of morality, sexuality, depression, suicide, and self-discovery, head on. The show itself contains depictions of sex, masturbation, and self-harm and also has some very strong language.
The original musical production is based on a play of the same name, written around 1890 by Frank Wedekind, which criticises the sexually oppressive culture of the nineteenth century. The story is set in Germany, and due to its controversial subject matter has often been banned or censored in various locations around the world.
For The Hills Musical Company’s production Mim is playing the role of Wendla Bergmann and Mitch the role of Melchior Gabor.
“[Wendla] is very naïve,” Mim explains, “She has grown up in a really sheltered, conservative environment where she has no access to information about what is happening to her body, her emotions, or sex-drive, and she tries to seek out this information… but any attempts are completely shut down by her mother. Then because she has these urges, and doesn’t know what to do with them, one thing leads to another and she ends up getting pregnant.”
The situation is no better for the other players either. Mitch’s character, Melchior, tries his best to assist them, but often does more harm than good.
“Melchior is basically the one that seeks out and finds information about these topics, like sex education, relationships, [and] mental health – topics which were taboo in the 1890s, some which are still taboo today, 120 years later – and takes it upon himself to go educate his friends.” Mitch explains.
Unfortunately, the other characters don’t have the skills or emotional maturity to deal with this information, and the resulting outcomes drive many of the show’s other themes. The show also contains homosexuality, and explores the emotional impact that has on young maturing adults.
Spring Awakening contains a lot of challenging material for any performer, but particularly for ones so young. The show’s director, Hayley Horton, has remained conscious of this and taken steps to not only make the performers feel as comfortable as possible when approaching the content, but to also protect their physical and mental well-being.
“I love Hayley,” Mim begins,
“It’s been such a supportive environment.” Mitch says, “Hayley obviously knows that we are the ones that actually have to get up there and do it, so the first time we have rehearsed all of our scenes – and not just the sex scene – it has been just the three of us so we could figure out where it sat.” He says.
“She locked all the doors leading to the room that we were in,” Mim adds, laughing.
“She is really, really good at giving constant feedback and support, and making sure we have all of the resources available to us to make sure that we are comfortable with everything.” She concludes.
“Mim and I are great friends,” Mitch adds, “But it is still a big step to do this kind of thing… its confronting stuff, so to take away the pressure, do it, and just see how it goes, then gradually [increase] the number of people who are in the room, bringing some of the cast in, the tech staff, means it’s not like, go do a sex scene in front of 50 people!”
“I am so grateful that [I am doing this with] Mitch,” Mim says, “We already have such a strong friendship and level of trust that [it means] we can do this. If I had been cast opposite someone who I didn’t know as well I think it would have been a lot harder.”
Mim and Mitch both cite links in current policy shifts around the world to the outcomes presented by this production; the winding back of sex education programs, the removal of support for women’s mental health, the closure of sexual health and abortion clinics.
“The original production is very much an 1891, German period piece, but we’ve brought it forward a bit in order to see if [it would apply] to a [possible] future world.” Mitch explains.
“But it’s not an attempt at a current day mirror,” he continues, “It’s not the world we live in.”
They agree that the intent behind updating the musical is partly to pose the question: Is this a possible reality that we could end up living if we return to the ways of the past?
Mim feels a level of responsibility to the work, but also to the greater idea that the regression of public policy and a return to the sexually oppressed ways of the past could have a hugely negative impact on our society as a whole.
“I think [our responsibility] goes two ways,” Mim begins. “In some regard theatre and music are really important in validating other people’s experiences, and I think a lot of the audience… will be able to identify with something [or] with one of the characters [in the show]. As actors our responsibility is to play them honestly so that there is a level of connection, a level of identification and a level of validation of [the audience’s] own experiences.”
But Mim is also really passionate about the themes the show contains.
“I think that we need sexual education, we need to be open and honest, and [Spring Awakening] presents kind of a worst case scenario of what happens if we do, say, defund planned parenthood.” She elaborates.
“Presenting these themes and showing that worst case scenario demonstrates how important they are and how we have to work towards making sure that doesn’t happen. Wendla‘s character really pushes the [idea] that if you don’t educate your youth there are really drastic consequences.” She concludes.
Mim’s feeling is that audiences shouldn’t be despondent though, just because the content sounds a bit sad and depressing.
“Even though it is all very doom and gloom when you think about it, and when you say it out loud, I don’t think it actually feels like that when you are going on the journey of the show because there is a lot of humour [and]… a lot of light-heartedness” Mim explains.
“The major difference between the play and the musical is that the music makes it so much more uplifting, and in between these really dark scenes there is this really beautiful music that is either upbeat, or has really poetic language. It [all] ends on a high note.” She concludes.
The cast of 15 performers includes Mim as Wendla and Mitchell as Melchior, as well as Connor Olsson-Jones as Moritz, Jemma Allen as Ilse, Emily Downing as Thea, Sahra Cresshull as Martha, Zachary Moore as Hanschen, Harry Nguyen as Ernst, Chelsea McGuinnes as Anna, Robbie Mitchell as Georg, Dylan Rufus as Otto, Emma Wilczek as Melitta, and Kieren Gulpers as Greta. There are two performers in the adult ensemble as well, and Kate Anolak takes on the role of Adult Woman, whilst Josh Barkley plays the Adult Man.
“I reckon there are only 2 people in the cast that I didn’t know – and they were from interstate” remarks Mitch. “It is the youth theatre of Adelaide!”
“All of the adult characters are played by two actors,” Mitch adds,
“And they are brilliant!” says Mim.
The show opens this coming Friday, 10th of November, and both say they are feeling ready for an audience.
“I always have anxiety, but objectively I think it’s going to be fine,” Mitch says, “I’m always hyper critical of myself.”
The show runs at the Stirling Theatre for 3 weekends with 2 matinees. Performances are on November 10 and 11, 17 and 18, and 24 and 25 at 8pm, with matinees on November 19 and 25 at 2pm. The production is rated MA15+ and recommended for audiences 15 years and older. It contains partial nudity, adult themes, frequent sexual references and strong language.
When: 10 to 25 Nov
Where: Stirling Theatre
Photography by Mark Anolak. Location Published Arthouse