Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Spring Awakening: The Birds and the Bees

by Jenni Morin

[Editor's Note: Spring Awakening is a rock musical set in late 19th century Germany, based off of a play by the same name by Frank Wedekind. It examines tough themes that still plague our society over a century later because they are controversial and difficult to explain or remedy.  What this piece does is present the issues, the truths and consequences of actions in order to reopen the age-old discourse of how to talk about and/or prevent the dangers resulting from each. This is the first installation of a series of posts intended to present the various themes illuminated in the upcoming production of Spring Awakening at The Playhouse. While the intent is to remain objective, any opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Playhouse, those involved in the production of Spring Awakening or Theatre For Change.]

In the opening scene of Spring Awakening, premiering in San Antonio at The Playhouse this May, Wendla begs her mother to explain where babies come from, “But you cannot imagine I still believe in the stork.” A frightening question from a girl “in bloom,” as her mother describes her, in this century and even more so in the 1890s when the original drama this rock musical is based on was penned.
Travis Trevino (Melchior), Mariela Flor Olivo (Wendla),  
Trevor Chauvin (Moritz)
“Mama who bore me. Mama who gave me no way to handle things. Who made me so bad.” The lyrics to the first song set the scene of a daughter begging for knowledge in her confusing adolescence while providing foreshadowing of what’s to come. As the action progresses, it becomes clear that without that knowledge Wendla is left powerless. A theme pointing to the influence of sex education overshadows Wendla’s actions and her fate in this drama.

In a recent study, over three-quarters of adults said they would prefer teenagers receive formal sex education that included a myriad of topics from abstinence to how to say no to contraceptives to STDs, according to the National Survey of Americans on Sex and Sexual Health. While 93 percent of teens 15-19 received formal instruction about STDs from 2006 to 2008, 84 percent were taught abstinence and only 62 percent of males and 70 percent of females were taught about contraception. While the ideal situation may have all teens abstaining from sex until marriage, abstinence-only education has little to no effect on a teen’s decision to have or not have sex says a congressionally mandated study by Mathematica Policy Research released in 2007.

On the other hand, a 2010 controlled trial published in Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine found that in specific cases, abstinence-only education programs tailored to the local community that do not criticize contraceptives nor advocate abstinence until marriage can delay younger teens from engaging in sexual intercourse.

What Spring Awakening reintroduces to the debate is that teenagers have physical urges. Beyond being inundated with sexual imagery and messaging from multiple media sources and pressure from peers, there is the pure biology that inevitably enters the equation at the time in question. In the end, if teenagers do decide to give in to those physical urges (and seven in 10 teens have by age 19, according to the National Survey of Family Growth), then arming them with as much information as possible may not be such a bad idea.

While the purity of youth is important, health and safety should also be at the top of the list. Incomplete and medically inaccurate information masks the truth of the dangers and options when it comes to having sex and how to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The root of the problem with sex education is that there is a lack of explanation of sex itself, which deepens the misunderstanding of risks associated with sex. Spring Awakening is also a reminder that the definition of sex is elusive for many teenagers. In Wendla’s case, it’s impossible for her to know she’s doing wrong when she has no context for her actions—she does not know that what she’s done is sex because no one has ever explained to her what it is or talked to her about abstinence, protection and consequences. Or perhaps the bigger issue is how could Wendla have abstained from sex if she didn’t even know what it was.

Travis Trevino (Melchior), Mariela Flor Olivo (Wendla),  
Trevor Chauvin (Moritz)
Teens in the U.S. engage in sexual activity similar to the level of their peers in Canada, England, France and Sweden, states a study published in Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine in 2008, but U.S. teens are more likely to have shorter and less consistent sexual relationships and less likely to use contraceptives, especially the pill or more than one method. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report stating that sex education does not cause teens to start having sex if they would not have done so otherwise. To put the fear of sex education in the U.S. in perspective, Canada has half the number of teen pregnancies than the U.S., reported by the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States.

That awkward birds and bees conversation still has parents exclaiming, “Not it!” while teens are left to scour the internet for answers and sort fact from fiction. If Wendla’s story does nothing else, it leaves a haunting thought of if only someone had told her, if only she knew. Over a century later and half a world away, Frank Wedekind’s original children’s tragedy still hits home.

Spring Awakening will run at the Russell Hill Rogers Theater at The Playhouse from May 17-June 9, 2013 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

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