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Playwright Anya Reiss talks Spring Awakening

Approved by ATG's PR & Communications Officer, David Bradbury

In 1890, Franz Wedekind wrote a play called Spring Awakening. 22-year-old playwright Anya Reiss and adaptor of award-winning theatre company Headlong’s current tour, at Richmond Theatre until Sat 10 May, says “it was about teenagers being gay, getting pregnant, crumbling under exam pressure, beating each other, killing themselves and above all being lied to by adults”. Just like an episode of Hollyoaks then.

Wedekind’s play about oppressed and repressed 14 year olds in a provincial town may at first look like it has little to say to a modern teenager but on closer inspection it all seems worryingly familiar. Reiss certainly doesn’t think anything’s changed “Since the play was written we’ve invented the notion the teenager, we’ve invented social media, got sex education classes and counselling. But somehow it all remains true. Look at what the play is about and we can’t pretend that any of that doesn’t still happen”. Reiss is out to galvanise this 19th century play for a 21st century audience.

After making a name for herself with two bristling examinations of family life at the Royal Court - Spur of the Moment (directed by Headlong’s Artistic Director Jeremey Herrin) and The Acid Test - Reiss has turned her hand to doing thrilling contemporary adaptations of classics. She impressed critics with her radical reimagining of Chekhov’s The Seagull and her version of Three Sisters that recently completed a run at London’s Southwark Playhouse.  However it’s been a different matter tackling Wedekind. “With Chekhov I’m a little bit more respectful - a bit more ‘this is the line, how would you say it now’. Wedekind was kind of a madman,” she explains, grinning “so you’ve got a lot of scope to do what you want. His aim was to talk about the world honestly and to talk about what we’re doing to a generation of people. So it was more about grabbing on to that spirit and talking about those things in a modern day context.”

For Reiss writing this adaptation has also been a more collaborative process than before. As part of Headlong’s directors scheme - an informal development programme that enables emerging and early career directors to move from work in studio theatres to directing a mid scale tour with large casts and excellent production values  - Reiss worked closely with the show’s director Ben Kidd to make the play speak to a modern audience. “Me and Ben were very collaborative over the adaptation” Reiss explains. “I’d send him bits and he’d give me notes and we’d argue it through. Because of the doubling we changed a lot in the rehearsal room and also because, the way Ben wants to do it, it’s such a fluid show, it’s not lights up and down, so there’s a lot of work around that too” she continues.

Reiss’ Spring Awakening sees the actors play both the children and adults, a move that makes these repressive parents more sympathetic than the monsters of Wedekind’s original. Reiss used this doubling up technique because she deliberately wanted to avoid stereotypes contending that “they’re just real people confused by the world.” For her the adults are as clueless as the kids, perpetuating a worryingly destructive cycle from parent to child “[The children are] recreating [the adult’s world], working it through - it’s almost like a drama therapy exercise” Reiss says, stopping before ruefully continuing, “it’s a play from 100 years ago and it feels like we’ve learned nothing since then: the kids become the next generation, become the next, become the next…”.

Look around you and you can see she’s right; the same mistakes are being made, only in radically different spheres. In an increasingly connected world where children as young as 2 are using iPads, this version of Spring Awakening incorporates the internet and social media as modern equivalents for Wedekind’s shocking plot developments. Its characters communicate using Facebook and Skype via video projections and internet porn is a huge influence on these sexually inexperienced young adults. The latter is something that Reiss only became familiar with during rehearsals “It’s not like Boogie Nights!” she says, eyes widening in mock horror “It’s really horrible some of this stuff and it scared the **** out of me at my age, never mind if I was 14”.

With a teen suicide at the heart of Wedekind’s plot Reiss believes that social media has also given death a new facet to be dealt with. “Teenagers grow up in a time where they are more likely to find out about someone’s death over Facebook rather than someone telling them and it’s been impossible in our adaption to ignore that” Reiss explains. For Wedekind it may have been all about sex and death, for Reiss it’s “all sex and death, and social media”.

Not that this play is out to shock for shocks sake, Reiss believes it raises vital questions about dishonesty and communication. “Looking at the play you get a sense that Wedekind blames dishonesty” she says “and above all dishonesty from adults to children. The mother’s struggle in Spring Awakening remains the same as a mother’s today; in having a conversation about sex am I then forcing my child to grow up before she’s ready but if I don’t have that conversation am I running the risk of sending a child out into the world unprepared?”

Any parent will recognise these difficult questions and Reiss is the first to admit that she doesn’t have the solutions. But she thinks that it’s only by discussing these issues that the dishonesty still prevalent around society’s attitude to them will be tackled. “I don’t know what the answer is to all that, I don’t think Wedekind did either” she explains “But I don’t think that a play’s job is necessarily to provide answers, it’s to ask questions.”

Interview by Honour Bayes

Spring Awakening is at Richmond Theatre until Sat 10 May