Arts / Performing Arts

Teen Angst Gets its Grumpier Dance Due in TUTS’ New Spring Awakening

Choreographer Marlana Doyle Gives Us the Inside Story

BY // 10.08.19
photography Melissa Taylor

A little over two years ago when director and choreographer Dan Knechtges took the role of Theatre Under the Stars artistic director, he made a commitment to look both nationally and locally when finding artists for the organization’s lavish productions that rival anything Broadway can deliver.

Last year’s 50th anniversary season gave continuing evidence to that promise when TUTS partnered with the Houston Ballet to bring its stellar revival of Oklahoma to audiences, while throwing the choreography reins to Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch.

Now a new season presents more opportunities for local creative artists to shine offstage as well as on, starting with the groundbreaking Spring Awakening. TUTS is tapping (sans shoe) Houston contemporary dancer and choreographer Marlana Doyle to bring the musical to kinetic life.

Doyle was the artistic director of METdance before leaving this year to found both the the Institute of Contemporary Dance Houston, a dance school and center and the professional company Houston Contemporary Dance. Along the way, Doyle has partnered with other organizations as diverse as the Apollo Chamber Players, Mercury Ensemble to the City of Houston and even Levi’s (the jeans) when creating dance performances.

“Marlana was chosen, not only because of her tremendous talent, but also the energy and passion she has for contemporary dance and choreography,” Knechtges says, when I ask about the allure of shopping locally for the freshest artistic talent.

Doyle herself thinks it’s the contemporary aspect of that passion that gives her the best understanding of this particular Spring Awakening.

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Based on the 19th century German playwright Frank Wedekind’s work of the same name, Spring Awakening, the 21st century multiple Tony Award-winning rock musical, illustrates the timelessness of teen angst while touching on those weighty issues teens still have to confront on that treacherous journey into adulthood, like sex, sexuality, bullying and suicide.

Though set in mid-1800s, when these teens rage against the academic rules and parental enforced sexual ignorance, they break out into dance and songs with a decidedly more contemporary sensibility, especially with titles like “The Bitch of Living” and “The Word of Your Body.”

“The show brings you into this 19th century Germany school classroom with kids learning Latin, and then they bring out these microphones and jump into modern day: ‘This is how I’m feeling’ numbers.

“That was kind of a challenge,” Doyle says.

This challenge along with the fact she hasn’t choreographed a big musical since she was in school herself, might be the reason Doyle was destined for her own fall awakening with this production. Spring Awakening’s themes and rock score gives rise to movement and dance that rebel against some of the traditions of classic musicals.

“Musical theater people like to hop and skip everywhere,” Doyle describes with what seems like a fond laugh, then explains that there’s a tendency to go for lightness and height in iconic Broadway shows like A Chorus Line, TUTS’ previous production.

Yet the drive, beat and power of rock music can pull the performer into more earthbound, grounded movements, something that contemporary dance does well.

“This is different, a little more down and grungier. I think that’s why they wanted me, to show the physicality of modern dance.”

Travis Scott and the Ramones Inspiration

Doyle asks the young cast to find “that internal animal that comes out as a teenager” and she and director Taibi Magar had the actors watch videos, not of other Broadway shows, but an eclectic mix of rockers and rap artists including Travis Scott and the Ramones.

“We showed them that as inspiration so it’s not Pop [music],” Doyle says. “The director definitely didn’t want Disney or Pop. She wanted punk and grounded.”

Doyle thinks she and director Magar, while not teens themselves, bring a perspective on the characters’ stories that’s a bit closer to those experiences.

“I can’t see a 70-year-old director doing this show,” she muses. “Well, maybe. But I just think she and I are a little more compassionate about teenagers back in Germany in the 19th century.”

The other big challenge for both choreographer and director was more logistic, more specifically the size of the Hobby Center’s Sarofim Hall.

“With the theater being 2600 seats, you have to fill the space,” Doyle tells PaperCity. “You can’t just cater to the first couple of rows. You want to think big and broad because there are three level.”

It’s about designing dance and movement that the entire audience to see.

“I think that was different than the original show,” Doyle says. “The stages in New York are fairly small. The audience is very close, so it was almost like they were watching a play versus a musical. This is a difference of a spectrum just because in Texas everything is large.”

TUTS: Spring Awakening (Photo by Melissa Taylor)
Raven Justine Troup as “Ilse” and Nathan Salstone as “Moritz” in the Theatre Under The Stars production of Spring Awakening. (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

Another way to solve their abundance of space problem was to bring in real teens from TUTS’s Humphreys School of Musical Theatre to round out the cast and fill the stage with more bodies and movement.

As the production moved though the rehearsal period, Doyle says she’s enjoyed not just working with dancers and actor/dancers, it’s been something of a treat especially having just one main job in the large production.

“As a director of a smaller dance organization, I have to be the stage manager, director and helping with the light and the props, so it’s cool to just do choreography, but I do give my two cents,” Doyle describes. “It’s being open to the process and being adaptable. Some people when they are creators want to be in control and sometimes things have to shift, and I’ve been OK with that.”

After Spring Awakening’s two weeks run, Doyle won’t get much time for sleep. She returns to playing a multitude of roles as she brings a permanent dance institute to the stage that is Houston.

Theatre Under the Stars production of Spring Awakening runs through October 20 at the Hobby Center.

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