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