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Director Ben Kidd talks Spring Awakening

By Jake Guastella

After wowing us with versions of The Seagull and 1984 last year, Headlong returns to Richmond Theatre with a fresh, explosive take on Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s provocative 19th century play about youth that caused riots way back in 1906.

Director Ben Kidd, who brings the play bang up to date alongside award-winning writer Anya Reiss, tells us about collaborating with Headlong, what Spring Awakening still has to say today, and why the teenage characters in the show double up to play the adult roles.

Spring Awakening at Richmond Theatre 2014

Ben Kidd Spring Awkakening

Ben Kidd during rehearsals

What inspired you to adapt a nineteenth century play for a modern audience?

Headlong really wanted to do Spring Awakening and I came on board when the play was already in the mix. I’d never read Wedekind’s original before and I completely fell for it. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary. I was blown away by how weird, surprising and hungry it was. To me, the events in the play feel like they could be happening now. I’ve never been particularly interested in setting plays in the past. What feels much more exciting to me is to make the audience believe the action is taking place on the day they come to see it.

I thought there was a real ripe opportunity to update it. The world now is really different to the world the play was written in. The things Wedekind was angry about, namely that we don’t talk to young people about sex, that has changed, we do talk to teenagers about sex now. However, there was scope to suggest that in spite of that change, we are still scared of young people having sex.  Despite the fact there is lots of information about sex for young people, through sex education classes, the internet and Miley Cyrus videos, teenagers still don’t feel particularly well informed.

In the play, why do the teen characters double up to play the adult parts?

Initially it was a practical thing. If you’re going to put on Spring Awakening and have an actor playing all the parts you’ll need a cast of thirty! If you decide to have actors playing more than one role, there’s got to be some sort of compelling reason for it. It felt like there might be some interesting territory around the idea that being an adult is no easier than being a kid and involves just as much pretending and dressing up. In fact, you might even argue that it’s a bit harder to be an adult because you have to pretend to know what you’re doing all the time, where as at least when you’re a kid you can be honest about the fact that you don’t. We never wanted the adults to be seen as monsters, we wanted to show how hard it is to be a parent or a teacher. Having the teen characters double up to play the adult parts seemed like an interesting way to approach this.

Spring Awakening, Richmond Theatre

Cast members Oliver Johnstone and Daisy Whalley

How did you get the cast back in a teenage mindset in rehearsals?

The cast loved doing that. It was kind of a joyful invitation I think. We all had a lot of fun, mixed with a degree of embarrassment, as we shared our own memories and experiences. We tried to connect with the energy of being 14 or 15 by remembering how vital and important everything seems at that age. I think there was quite a lovely, therapeutic element to jumping around and pretending to be a kid. It was easy because a lot of the cast aren’t that far out of their teens anyway.

Spring Awakening, Richmond Theatre

Claudia Grant, Ruby Thomas and Aoife Duffin

What kind of influence do you think the internet and social media has on teenagers today? 

We were careful not to try and say, ‘look at the ways teens behave on the internet.’ We were not trying to make a ‘teenager’ play, as I think the way in which we interact with the world has changed for all of us. However one thing that always interested me is the way young people now have a much stronger relationship with the visual image when you compare them with my generation growing up 15 years ago. In Wedekind’s time young people would probably never see pictures of themselves of any description, let alone of each other. Now teens are confronted with images of themselves and of their friends at every turn. They are constantly shaping the image of how people think of them. I don’t know what kind of effect that’s had but it feels like there’s been a change.

Spring Awakening, Richmond Theatre

Oliver Johnstone and Bradley Hall

How did you collaborate with Anya Reiss on the project?

It was interesting because I’ve never really worked with a writer before in this way. Initially we read the play, hit each other with our ideas and then worked through each draft. One of Anya’s gifts is finding a psychological roundness and coherence to the characters that maybe isn’t there in the original, as Wedekind wasn’t really fussed about that. I was trying to bring the play back in and she was speeding off to try and make this new thing. We just sort of forced it out really.

Ben Kidd and Anya Reiss - Spring Awakening

Anya Reiss with Ben Kidd in rehearsals

Spring Awakening, Richmond Theatre

Claudia Grant, Daisy Whalley, Adam Welsh, Ekow Quartey and Ruby Thomas

What’s it like being involved in a Headlong show?

To be honest it’s been an absolute joy because the company is really well established and everyone involved is brilliant. On their website it says, ‘Headlong make exhilarating, risk-taking  and provocative new work to take around the country and around the world.’ I found that really inspiring, they encourage you to go and make something that is your own and hopefully, something that is quite thrilling and quite different. It was nice to have that as a provocation.

Spring Awakening, Richmond Theatre

Oliver Johnstone and Aoife Duffin

What inspired you to become a director?

I was an actor for a little bit, but I wasn’t very good at it. I always like spending time in a room telling stories. I liked the idea of making pictures that are interesting. When I was an actor I got frustrated with not being able to control what the picture looked like I guess. I really enjoy working with actors, I like the thrill and excitement of the whole experience, and I just think it’s a very special and unique way of interacting with an idea and with a story.

What advice would you give to anyone considering becoming a director?

I think the best piece of advice I can give is to say, just keep doing it, keep trying to make the best things you possibly can. Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to be too career-y or of thinking about what other people want you to be. If you want to be a director that’s probably because you want to make stories happen, make images happen in a theatre or make moments happen that people will enjoy. You’ve got to just commit to that, and just make make make as much stuff as you possibly can.

Spring Awakening is at Richmond Theatre from Wed 7 – Sat 10 May.

★★★★ ★ ‘The most thrilling adaptation of Spring Awakening I have ever seen ... Ben Kidd’s touring production brims with the Headlong company’s trademark chutzpah.’
Financial Times

★★★★ ★ 'In Headlong’s searing update, Wedekind’s 1891 “children’s tragedy” seems both crazy fresh and old as time.‘
The Sunday Times

★★★★ 'Ben Kidd's ingenious production makes this often censored play newly wild and newly convincing.‘
The Observer

Cast of Spring Awakening, Richmond Theatre 2014

Publicity shot with the full Spring Awakening cast

A Headlong, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nuffield co-production.

(Note: The play contains scenes of a sexual and violent nature and strong language throughout. Age guidance 16+)

Photographs by Tristram Kenton