Free range theatre: it’s a Spring Awakening

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Describing itself as a “free range theatre company”, OutFox Production’s “open approach” is certainly reflected in its choice of debut show, Spring Awakening. Notorious for its no-holds-barred look at teenage sexuality and angst, the play is being revived with a fresh adaptation by director John Fricker. Over 100 years old, it handles its themes with a frankness that Fricker – along with OutFox co-founder and Spring Awakening Producer Kirsty Fox – felt perfectly suited the company’s ethos.

Written in 1890 by Frank Wedekind in reaction to what he saw as the closed-mindedness of German society at the time, Spring Awakening was a play ahead of its time, as Fricker explains: “The translation’s just over 100 years old and the play’s a little bit older than that, but it’s still got themes that ring true today.” He encouraged Fox to read the script and she found herself agreeing. “The little twist in my background is that I qualified as a social worker and John said to me, ‘Read this script, I think you’ll find it fascinating’ and [I thought], ‘Wow! How can something written that long ago still be so relevant today?’” The play follows the interactions of a group of German school students as they each struggle to explore, understand and come to terms with their burgeoning sexuality. As society, their school and, perhaps most crucially, their parents fail to guide them through the messy waters of puberty and sexual awakening, their situations grow increasingly desperate and lead eventually to terrible consequences.

“[It’s about] the awkward conversations; people are still scared to talk to about sex with their children,” Fox explains. This is a play in which the inability to truthfully confront sex proves fatal. Fricker is aware that issues remain today. “There are still the same institutions around that are trying to impose their own moral guidance on youth [...] be that church, be that parents, be that school, be that the government. There’s still that sense of conflict which there always has been and always will be with teenagers ’cause that’s just how teenagers are!” Fox builds on this to explain the dilemma the characters in the play grapple with: “It’s that fundamental thing that everybody goes through: no matter who you are, you’re going to go on that journey to find yourself in some way shape or form. Does it ever stop? You don’t know, but adolescence plays a massive part of that.”

Capturing the experience of being a moody teenager proved important during casting, though they chose not to cast with the characters’ true ages. “Being aware of the content of the play, you can’t cast actual 14 year olds in it because of rules and regulations, and it becomes more about paperwork than performances,” Fricker explains. “Our youngest cast member is 19 and the oldest one of the younger [characters] is about 26, but it was just about casting people who are able to capture that sense of that awkwardness being a teenager, of being between childhood and adulthood.” With the casting of the older characters however, there were interesting real life parallels. “Our two mums in the cast are actually both mums in real life and both of them have teenage daughters, and it’s amazing how they’ve had conversations in the rehearsal room where they’ve been talking about things which are just a smidgen away from things that happen in this play.”

The need for frank communication within Spring Awakening relates to OutFox’s own outlook. “It’s about making the production process a bit more open, a bit more accessible for the people that we’re working with,” Fricker notes. “We operate under an open book policy with our company members, not just answering with that ‘well that’s for me to know and you to find out… eventually!’” But what does Fox mean when she defines the company as “free range”? “I think the main thing is that we have to be passionate about each project. So that was the idea behind ‘free range’ – if we’re passionate about it, believe it can be successful, and we get a good team, cast and crew on-board.” This dual approach has clearly worked in Spring Awakening, as Fricker adds: “It’s been incredibly, incredibly fun because everybody’s been adopted into this open atmosphere, and it’s only more encouraging to the performers [and designers] to have that level of openness and responsiveness, and it can only help in the performances.” In one such instance, a member of the creative team independently came up with the idea of engaging multimedia which eventually became an integral part of the show.

Founded by Fox and Fricker in late 2011, OutFox appears to rest firmly on their friendship. With alliterative surnames and an admittance that they finish each other’s sentences, the two have known each other since being the sole members of their A-level drama course and have remained in contact ever since. Together they make a complementary team, as Fox confirms. “John is mainly from the acting side and wanted to get some directing experience, whereas my side is the producing and organising. So [I said] ‘well I can handle that if you can handle that side. We’ve got a partnership that should work!’” Far from simply being a practical partnership, Fricker enthuses they have “been having fun working together again. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve clicked back into how to work together again.” For Fox, “getting to work with friends, someone that you know really well and do something that you love is… well, it can’t get better than that really!”

Spring Awakening also marks Fricker’s directorial debut. “I have always wanted to try directing [...] I’d also been missing theatre because a lot of my work as a performer has been on recorded media in various ways shapes and forms. So I wanted to get back into the theatre, I’ve wanted to direct and I love this play.” With Fricker on the creative side, Fox’s role as Producer “very much fell into ‘make sure everyone’s alright… managing the budget, working with the creative team and making sure they’re on track… at this level, people still have other jobs so we’re managing lots of different time constraints with jobs, holidays and auditions!” “She’s like the company Mum basically!” Fricker sums up with laugh. Parents they may not be, but in staging Spring Awakening, OutFox Productions is undoubtedly creating an exciting yet safe environment for actors and audiences alike to explore a play that really gets to the heart of being young – and that is timeless.

Spring Awakening plays at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until Saturday 14 July. For tickets and more information, visit www.brockleyjack.co.uk and to find out more about the company, visit www.outfoxproductions.com.

Image credit: Mark Bowsher

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