Spring Awakening Stars: Three of a Kind

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Austin McKenzie was a little intimidated when he met Sandra Mae Frank and Daniel Durant for the first time.

He had just been cast as Melchior in Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening—the Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik musical based on Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play about repressed German teenagers—and Frank would be his Wendla. Since the two characters share an intimate scene, McKenzie wanted to make sure they’d have chemistry so he looked her up on Facebook and discovered a picture of her dancing in a club.

“I thought she was some wild, young person who just wanted to have fun, and I was this kind of closed off person,” remembers McKenzie. On the first day they met, McKenzie approached very meekly to say hello, while Frank had another agenda.

“I was like, ‘Let me look at you. Turn around. Give me the full view!” Frank recalls with a laugh. “And then I went, ‘Okay, it’s nice to meet you.’ I’m just kidding you Austin, I wasn’t that mean!’

McKenzie was also nervous to meet Durant, as McKenzie was studying American Sign Language (ASL) in college and he had seen a video of Durant signing “The Bitch of Living,” and thought Durant’s signing was “gorgeous.” (Fun fact: McKenzie actually applied to be an interpreter, not an actor, on the Deaf West production.)

However, Durant felt an instant bond the first time they hung out. The show’s director, Michael Arden, took the three of them to the Soho House in Los Angeles, and the trio recalls the gorgeous views and the “no photography” policy  at the restaurant so they had to “hide their cameras.” Though there was a photo booth, and that night, they snapped a sheet of pictures together. For each of the show’s runs—first at Inner-City Arts in L.A. and then at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts—they take a picture in a photo booth together.

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“It’s become our tradition,” says Durant. “I have all the photos lined up.”

Now the revival is opening on Broadway on September 27, and they’re together to take a very different picture. Any awkwardness that might have been there at the beginning is completely erased. When Durant arrives at Sardi’s, he immediately rushes up to McKenzie, embracing him as “my BFF.” Frank rushes up to Durant with receiving arms thrust in front of her, as she has asked him to pick up her necklace from the theater for the shoot.

It seems almost tangential to note the both Frank and Durant are deaf. In fact, as they laugh and engage during the interview and the shoot, they almost seem louder than McKenzie, who is hearing and fluent in ASL, as he speaks softly—saving his voice after being sick. McKenzie signs very close to his body while Frank and Durant spread their arms wide, bumping into each other, and joke that the their dynamic signing will not fit in the tight video frame.

Each of them never thought they would be on Broadway—especially in a musical.

“I grew up with a family that didn’t sing so when I got into this production I was quite nervous,” says Durant, who is the only cast member who has been involved with the production since the initial workshop before Inner-City Arts. “I thought, ‘How am I going to handle music?’”

For Frank, it was a dream she never thought she’d realize. “I’ve always wanted to be on Broadway,” she gushes. Frank—the only college graduate of the group, McKenzie points out—studied theater at Gallaudet University. “I didn’t know how or what or why or when I would get there, but I never dreamed it would happen. And I’m so thrilled that its Deaf West’s production coming to Broadway. Deaf West was my first experience I couldn’t ask for anything better than to be here now on Broadway.”

McKenzie still can’t believe they chose him to lead the show as Melchior, played by Jonathan Groff in the original production, and he even admits the he was surprised to be cast in the part to begin with. “I’ve always thought I was much more of a Wendla, but I couldn’t play that because of certain reasons,” he says. “And also, I always thought I was more of a Moritz and I knew I couldn’t play that because I’m not deaf either.”

Durant immediately says that he identifies more with Melchior; however, in Arden’s conceit for the production, the characters played by deaf actors are deaf in the play, and for the purposes of this production, Melchior needed to be played by a hearing actor and Moritz would be played by a deaf one.

The production is performed entirely in ASL as well as spoken. Each deaf actor has a hearing counterpart who acts as the character’s voice, and Durant and Frank share that it’s a very interesting partnership with their voice actors—Alex Boniello and Katie Boeck respectively.

“So, I am really deaf—I can’t hear anything,” Durant begins.

“Me too!” says Frank.

“Sometimes I can catch a lip reading movement, but it’s hard because he’s singing,” says Durant. “There’s cues built into that and sometimes there’s a lighting cue. Sometimes an actor will do a movement on their body and that will give me a cue.”

“Her breathe, her shoulder movements, and sometimes she moves and slouches and that helps me know that’s the next cue,” Frank says, then jokingly asks McKenzie how he gets his cues.

“Well it’s very difficult for me there’s a lot of different cues I get from people,” he starts to say, then, more honestly, “You guys were talking about the connection with your voice actor, which I don’t have one and it sometimes can feel a little lonely because I have no one to connect with. But that’s why I like working with you guys because I get to give you cues.”

In their free time, they’ve has been enjoying exploring the city. Durant is sampling all of the city’s restaurants, but really, he’s on the hunt for the best mozzarella sticks. (He hasn’t found them yet.) He also went to H&M for the first time, as many of friends had told him about it, and picked out an outfit for the photoshoot. Though, he admits he’s not that into fashion.

“You have to now that you’re a big Broadway star!” McKenzie says with a laugh.

Frank loves fashion—she can’t wait to visit Top Shop—and remarks that New York City style is much different than California, where she’s from.

“I love New York fashion—it’s the best in my opinion,” she says. “There’s a lot of black. It’s more chic. It’s a little bit avant garde, and I just love the look.”

So what are they going to do for their opening night looks?

“I want silver,” says Frank.

“A magician never reveals their secrets!” McKenzie says, cutting her off.

“I’m not giving away my secrets are you kidding me?” Frank retorts.

The real question though: Will there be a photo booth?

“I don’t know,” Frank says. “I’ll have to put it in my contract that they have to provide us with a photo booth on opening night.”

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