10 Things the Raving Reviews Don’t Tell You About Spring Awakening

Disclaimer: The following post reflects my perspective on the hearing-centered aspects of Spring Awakening. It is not a criticism of the Deaf actors. I actually enjoyed watching the fabulously talented Deaf actors in this play. I wish the whole cast was Deaf and fluent in ASL. Or at least that the play is equally accessible for Deaf people.

10 THINGS THE RAVING REVIEWS DON’T TELL YOU ABOUT SPRING AWAKENING

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1. It’s a show for hearing people, not Deaf people.

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Broadway is buzzing about this show being fully accessible to both Deaf and hearing theatergoers. If you are Deaf and haven’t read the script or Wikipedia synopsis, however, there is a good chance you will look something like this while watching the show.

2. The hearing actors use sim-com.

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Sim-com (short for simultaneous communication) means signing and speaking at the same time. It is an unfair burden on the hearing actors to make them do sim-com. It sets them up for failure. ASL and English are two completely different languages with their own grammatical rules, syntax, and structure. It is not possible to talk in two languages at the same time. Nine times out of ten, when sim-com happens, the English is perfectly spoken or sung, but the ASL is broken and unintelligible.

3. For Deaf people, watching sim-com is an eyesore.

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Sim-com is like the hearing version of someone scraping the chalkboard with fingernails. It is like the mute button being turned on and off repeatedly.

4. Plot, themes, symbolism lost in translation.

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After reading the synopsis and reviews, I was excited to see the show based on the rich plot and the parallels between Deaf education and sex education in the Victorian Age. Sadly, the wonderful depth was gone, all because of sim-com.

5. Invented signs, just NO.

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Why reinvent the wheel when ASL already has a sign for a word? In one scene, the actors are singing “My Junk”, using an initialized sign for “junk” that does not exist in ASL. In this song, the actors are singing “we’ve all got our junk and my junk is you”, where “junk” refers to an obsession or addiction. It is not clear why “junk” could not be translated into one of the ASL signs for obsession or addiction or something similar. I know of Deaf viewers who thought the actors were signing someone’s name sign during this song. Some people might excuse the “new” sign as part of theatrical signing, but no. If some people don’t understand what you are saying, it doesn’t work.

6. Deaf viewers miss out big-time.

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There is obviously a communication breakdown when hearing viewers are laughing during one scene and Deaf viewers are clueless about what is so funny. Are we watching the same show? Again, using sim-com means Deaf viewers get the short end of the stick, or miss the boat entirely.

7. Schedule study time in advance if you are Deaf and want to follow the story.

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Yes, I said it above and I’ll say it again, you do need to read the script (click here) or Wikipedia synopsis (click here) before you go. If you have no time to read before, bring your reading materials and a mini flashlight to the actual show. Reading glasses if you need them. Do your best to read along while keeping up with the sim-com onstage, or speed-read everything during intermission. Pray that your brain can handle the sensory overload. Or bring along your hearing family members or friends who sign and put them to work. Good luck!

8. Deaf people are sending mixed messages about sim-com.

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Deaf people are always arguing against the use of sim-com in educational settings, but then we turn around say it is beautiful onstage. Sim-com is not even a language. It is an ineffective means of communication. We confuse hearing people with our mixed messages about sim-com. Let’s make up our minds and be consistent by saying no to sim-com everywhere.

9. It is all about the $$$.

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Understandably, the Broadway producer of this show needs to earn money. That is fine, but how fine is it when the show is marketed as fully accessible to Deaf people, who eagerly line up to pay full price for tickets to this show and end up only getting half access? The theater doesn’t even reserve seats for Deaf viewers to make sure we can see everything. It is my understanding that only two shows during the whole run offer captions. That means if you are Deaf and don’t sign, or if you are Deaf and want access to English because you don’t understand the sim-com, there are only two times when you can see the show.

10. Last, but not least…

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Of course, I want to see Deaf people succeed on Broadway and everywhere, because they can and should. I wonder if the majority of Deaf people who gave high-fives to Spring Awakening thought they would hurt the Deaf community by speaking up about the show’s shortcomings or if they were actually satisfied with half access, which we are so used to getting. Some might have worried about being labeled as “angry” or “bitter” Deaf people for being honest with their criticism.

The first reviews to come out by Deaf people on social media were overwhelmingly positive. This set the tone. The more raving reviews that showed up online, the more people applauded. It was almost like peer pressure to say only good things and leave anything else unsaid. In the review that came closest to Deaf people speaking the truth, five Deaf viewers were given free tickets in exchange for their input (click here for the review). They raised the sim-com issue and admitted it was difficult to follow the story. These reviewers no doubt were less influenced by loss aversion, a psychological/economic term that refers to people’s tendency to want to avoid loss at any cost. People who paid a lot of money to see the show, especially those who flew to NYC, stayed in hotels, and ate out in restaurants (easily costing $1000 or more) would have every reason not to want to feel like they wasted money. It makes sense they would give glowing reviews to justify their spending.

The Deaf community’s reaction to Spring Awakening is like an elephant in the room – or The Emperor’s New Clothes (click here) tale.

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19 thoughts on “10 Things the Raving Reviews Don’t Tell You About Spring Awakening”

  1. Kissfist #3 and #10!
    Thank you for writing such an honest review. I am not fond of musical plays, so I wasn’t planning to go; but this confirms many other reasons why I shouldn’t go.
    I can’t understand why the director couldn’t have interpreters voice for the hearing actors? Too much $?
    Or better yet, captions every show?

  2. Love it! You hit it square on target! And in a hilarious way (fab choice of pix). Admire you for speaking out too👍👍👍

  3. Interesting read, but I disagree with your format. 10 things? It seems more like “Sim-com and one or two other reasons”. I’m a CODA and saw Spring Awakening about a week ago. I would agree that it’s a show for hearing people and it’s hard for deaf people to understand the show but for way more reasons than just the two you’ve mentioned. The flashy nature of the show causes your eye to dart around the stage and miss many signs if you’re not looking at the exact right person. They do their best to direct your eye, but it definitely wasn’t a priority.

    Your argument about “My Junk” is leaving out a facts that would make your stance a bit weaker. I might have missed the first use of the word “junk” in that song, but I remember marking how cool it was in that scene that they changed the translation the other times. They used the signs for “Thirst” “Hunger” “Addiction” in the following moments instead of Junk, and that was awesome! Way more of an interpretation than the literal initialized sign. If they used Junk the first time and I missed it, I can see the confusion, but as the song progressed, the idea would have been made clearer to a deaf audience.

    This was not my first time seeing any production of Spring Awakening, but it took me two different productions to actually understand a lot that was happening. I don’t think that hearing privilege should be the reason that specifically deaf audiences have trouble understanding it – I think that it’s a simple story told in a super-heightened, creative way. It is confusing to start out with. The production just doesn’t help the Deaf audience members out a whole lot other than including a little interspersed captioning and Sign Language.

    tl;dr – I agree with your two arguments, but you’re inflaming the case by making it a “10 things I hate about you” click-baity article. Also, Spring Awakening is confusing.

  4. Jehanna, you go girl. I love how you analyzed Spring Awakening with GIFs. You got me laugh all the way. The commenter above who said you are ” inflaming the case by making a “10 things i hate about you” needs to be ignored. I didn’t feel the article was about hating anyone. I heard (or see) you. Simcom is bad and disrespectful to the Deaf community. It has to be removed in both educational and theatre settings.

  5. thanks for the great blog and also for including a few links, especially the 5 reviewers on The Guardian news site.

    When I first watched the video of the “behind the scenes” production of that show, Linda Bove explained that the movements of signs need to match with the musical beats. That really got my eyebrows raised (to put it mildly) or got me riled up (to put it without mincing words here). I thought why not adapt the music to fit with the ASL movements. Who knows the composer, lyricist, libretto could re-invent something new from ASL instead of the other way around? I know I’m not alone in feeling this way as I did post that behind-the-scene video on my Facebook wall.

    I’m half- tempted to see it myself so that I can make some comparisons with opera. Oftentimes, the voice sung in the opera is “stretched,” not a reflection of realistic voice-speaking. That makes me think that is what they’re doing with ASL–to stretch as in an operatic manner. But with Broadway show prices, I’ll forgo as they’re always astronomically high. I’d wait till the show goes on a road tour first, traveling through smaller cities where the ticket prices would be less expensive.

    Again, thanks for echoing my original sentiments why i have qualms in the first place.

  6. I totally agree with the 10 items. Thank you for posting it. I decided not to fly to NYC And see the show, even though I do support Deaf West but for almost every Deaf West production I attend, I’m usually the only Deaf person in the audience. Deaf people do not go because the translation is usually almost impossible to understand. Perhaps Deaf West will break away from their NTD roots, e.g “you see and hear every word simultaneously” and really think hard about making its productions accessible to Deaf people. In the meantime, I’ll save my. Precious dollars for a REAL Deaf-accessible experience.

  7. When I first saw the trailer for Spring Awakening, I made a decision to not go see it. In my gut I felt/predicted it would be just as you describe. So I am glad you had the guts to come out and say this. Its not at all about the talents of the Deaf performers. At all. It’s about trying to “tweak” a show so hearing people will enjoy it and invariably the “sound” wins over the “sight.” Thanks for being brave.

  8. I read your well-written blog and watched the Daily Moth. Kurs and Bove’s arguments did not sit well with me. One of them tried to suggest to separate politics from theater. Everyone should know by now that there is a strong relationship between the arts and politics. It shows Kurs and Bove’s lack of understanding about the arts and politics. It is a bad move to send a messsage to the world that sim-com is acceptable. Some people made valid points on Facebook that Bove is incorrect in saying that it is okay to use sim-com on stage because they are “not teaching” people. Art is education. You teach a lot on stage!

  9. Jehanne, I admire and applaud you for your courage to express your opinions. I agree with some of your points and would like to take this opportunity to share my perceptions.

    ASL, to me, is ONE of many languages in the world. It is a language by itself. SimCom or Signed English is an accessible avenue for deaf people to see English…like written English for everyone and spoken English for hearing people.

    Some people, especially while on the stage, would use ASL as an art form of hand movements while others would use ASL to communicate.

    I am an ASL user and must admit that I often get lost while watching ASL on stage while rarely get lost communicating with others in ASL.

    Looks like its about time for us to minimize confusion by differentiate between ASL and Signed English/SimCom.

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