Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening has been an important addition to this Broadway season. It’s brought diversity to the theater scene by featuring deaf actors, it’s offered a groundbreaking interpretation of Duncan Sheik’s show, and it’s introduced the world to some amazing performers—including Sandra Mae Frank. Ms. Frank is Spring Awakening‘s star. Actually, she’s a star all around. On stage as “Wendla Bergman” Sandra’s performance completely captures the audience. Even during the most dynamic moments where there is a lot going on, you don’t want to take your eyes off of her. She is so present, so alive in her role. It is exhilarating to watch her act. But it doesn’t end there. Sandra shines just as brightly off-stage as she does on. She is an agent for change: advocating “deaf roles for deaf actors” like herself. She radiates positivity, confidence, and strength. See for yourself in this interview.
When did you catch the theater bug?
I think I always had it growing up. I was always good at playing with friends, directing them… Most people wouldn’t dare to pursue something that might turn out to be a flop or low pay but to me, having a stable job in the same state isn’t the only thing you can or want to do. I love to inspire people and make a difference. I know how movies and theatre tend to influence people in unique ways, if done right. This is something I want to do and it’s not a flop, it’s a career for me and I am glad I caught the theater bug!
When you first started auditioning, what was your experience like trying to book jobs? Did you have the typical “pounding the pavement” experience?
It was like being on a roller coaster. You never know what’s going to happen next or if it will be a good ride but you just have to risk it and go for it. I’ve had some good auditions and bad ones too. It’s always tough being the deaf person in the room, especially if the casting director doesn’t really know what to do or give me the equal respect as others but it has not really been that bad for me. I am usually good with auditions. I’m charming and confident so I just walk in and do my thing. I tend to reward myself after the audition because it’s already hard enough getting auditions or getting through them. [In other ways though] having an audition is rewarding for me. I get to practice my craft in front of strangers all the time and it’s thrilling but scary.
Let’s discuss Spring Awakening! How did you get involved with Deaf West? What did your Wendla audition entail?
I’ve always known I’d end up at Deaf West somehow. This is my first time working with Deaf West and I assure you that it won’t be my last. Every aspiring deaf actors know about Deaf West… how could we not? I was in DC at that time working at MSSD (Model Secondary School for the Deaf) and I heard about the audition for Deaf West’s Spring Awakening. Okay, let me tell you this, I loved Spring Awakening even though I’d never seen it. To be Wendla is a dream role for me. It’s a great role to have to start off my career. I was even more thrilled when the role of Wendla was deaf, not hearing. I couldn’t fly in to audition in person but they were accepting video auditions—we had to do one classical monologue and one song so I used Ophelia’s monologue from Hamlet and one song from Rent as “Mimi,” “No Day but Today.” The rest is history.
It’s clear to see on stage that the cast has an undeniable connection. How did you all bond so tightly? How does the close dynamic inform the performance every night?
It helps that we’ve been doing the show for a long time—a year and half actually. Most of us have stayed [in the cast the whole time]—though we’ve had some replacements along the way—but most of us stayed and that helped with the bonding. The hearing cast didn’t just learn signs for their characters, they actually learned how to sign and to understand ASL. They are able to communicate without using an interpreter and I guess we became family from there. We are so different from one another but we are also the same. We listen to each other. React to each other and are aware of our surroundings. This isn’t just a job for us: this is life. We are creating something beautiful together so it connects us so much. Plus, we hang out together a lot. I am proud to be part of this family and even when the show closes, this family is going to be [together] for life.
Before the show starts, all the actors are on stage warming up, being themselves, in front of the audience. Is there anything scary about seeing the audience in full light? Why did the director choose to stage it that way?
Not at all! I love it. We feel very relaxed, loose and the audience sees that we are just like them. We have conversations as ourselves, we play games together until it’s time to get in our characters. I think it’s brilliant and very different. It might be weird and off-putting but that’s what makes us unique. The director wanted us to enter as ourselves and then close the play as ourselves again: we take off our character’s clothes right before Purple Summer. I always think of Puck from Midnight Summer Dream. It’s just a play and I hope the audience learns something from it.
Spring Awakening closes soon. What’s next?
I am actually going to be very busy so it’s exciting. I am not used to having so many projects happening at the same time so that will be a challenge for me, but I am excited. I am actually doing a movie called, I Eat Your Soul. I am going to work with one company very closely so that announcement will be happening soon. I plan to go back to LA and do auditions there as well. I think I am on a good start and I will always continue to be involved.This isn’t the last of me, trust me.
Do you think that Spring Awakening has revolutionized the Broadway experience? What do you hope the show will do to change a rather homogenous institution?
I’ve said it and I am going to say it again: deaf roles for deaf actors! I hope this will open more opportunities for deaf actors all over the world now that tons of casting directors have seen the show and seen that we are no different. Sure, we can’t hear and we use our hands to communicate. I hope that casting directors, any time they have a role that is designed for a deaf person gives it to a deaf actor, not a hearing actor. You’ve seen what we can do and it’s not just us, there are more of us out there.
We also have Ali Stroker, she did everything beautifully and does that make her different? No. We are all just the same in our own ways. We can be inspiring and beautiful just the same.
It’s time for diversity to truly thrive. You’ve seen how the audience reacts to the show. It has meaning, stories to be told and someone out there in the world is truly [living] it. So what we are doing? We are making a difference and I hope it doesn’t end with us. I hope that we are just the beginning of so much more [change].
What’s your dream role?
Wendla was my dream role! I am madly in love with musicals so I want to do more of that. Les Mis, Wicked, Rent—bring them all on! ♦
Photo Credit: Broadway World, Broadway Box