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Dominique Thorne ’19 portrays Wendla in “The Awakening of Spring.”

Youth, authority figures at odds in 'The Awakening of Spring'

Since its 1906 debut, “The Awakening of Spring,” by German playwright Frank Wedekind, has been criticized and even banned for its controversial subject matter, including sexuality, violence and mistrust between generations.

The Department of Performing and Media Arts (PMA) will stage the play Nov. 9-17 at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.

“In Wedekind’s play the adults believe that educating children about sexuality is dangerous and sinful,” said professor of theater David Feldshuh, the play’s director. “As the children ‘awaken to spring,’ they search in vain for guidance to understand their changing thoughts and bodies. Unable to find that guidance, they act in ways that are violent and self-destructive. ‘The Awakening of Spring’ was a rebellious, controversial play 120 years ago. It continues to be produced because of its theatrical power, and because it asks questions that remain unanswered today.”

The play gives students in the cast and its audience the opportunity to reflect on the complicated relationships between young people and adults, historically and in the modern world.

“Especially considering that it focuses on such a young time in our lives, it sheds light on those experiences in a way that is always relevant. There will always be people who are exploring these concepts for the first time,” said Dominique Thorne ’19, who plays 14-year-old Wendla.

David Feldshuh, right, professor of theater, directs cast members in rehearsal for “The Awakening of Spring” at the Schwartz Center.

The play centers on Wendla and her classmates, all coming of age with complicated life questions and issues that are ignored or extinguished by the adults in their lives – sometimes with tragic consequences.

The production is the final project for Feldshuh’s course Making Theatre: Rehearsal and Production Techniques.

“Wedekind was at the forefront of a new movement in theater: expressionism. It’s a style that is theatrically exciting and unpredictable,” Feldshuh said. “The inner feeling of the scene is ‘expressed’ in the theatrical environment experienced by the audience.”

The play “juxtaposes caustic comedy with tragedy and melodramatic, comedic expressions of teenage anxiety,” he said. “Expressionism allows our production to use a wide range of theatrical elements including song, masks, costumes and highly evocative light and sound scores.”

PMA senior lecturer Carolyn Goelzer serves as co-director and instructed the cast in the Chekhov acting technique. She also appears in the play along with 19 student actors. “The idea was to create a company that allowed creative impulse from the individual actors to be integrated into the staging ideas that David had for certain moments,” Goelzer said.

“Approaching this particular play in this way, as a miniature drama school that allows a wide spectrum of experiences, we hope to take the students to a new understanding of a different type of theater, and the audience as well,” Feldshuh said. “It combines basic storytelling with the unexpected. It allows various strains of reality to interweave in a number of different ways. There’s a lot of symbolism. … You’ll see the adult characters, and they’re all wearing masks because they’re talking clichés.”

Goelzer said she hopes the play provokes thought about individual participation in dynamics that can be harmful.

“I think that this play really explicates some problems, and it’s an opportunity to take a good look at them and say, ‘How did this happen? How could it have been different? What might I do in my lifetime and in my relationships that might make that difference happen?’ That’s what I hope for,” Goelzer said.

Performances of “The Awakening of Spring” are Nov. 9, 10 and 16 at 7:30 p.m., and Nov. 17 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., in the Schwartz Center’s Flex Theatre.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students, senior citizens and the Cornell community, and are available at or the Schwartz Center box office, open Monday-Saturday, 1-8 p.m.

Lindsey White is communications manager for the Department of Performing and Media Arts.

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