Through the tragedy and tumult of the past few weeks, Orlando's arts community has shown remarkable tenacity with an outpouring of creative energy that proves "the show must go on" isn't merely a cliché. One of my privileges as a theater critic is welcoming new performance troupes to town, and it was sadly symbolic of the "circle of life" that Daystar Studio Productions opened Spring Awakening, their debut offering in Central Florida, on June 19, exactly one week after the Pulse shootings.
The Steven Sater–Duncan Sheik musical about sex and violence among alienated youth seems especially cathartic right now, and Daystar's staging had several admirable elements, including solid production values, energetic yet sensitive musical direction by Timothy D. Turner, strong performances from Lyle Moon and Wendy Starkand (alternating with Sara Jones) as the adult characters, and a marquee venue in the Dr. Phillips Center's Alexis and Jim Pugh Theater. But despite the best efforts of cast and crew, the performance I attended ultimately fell flat both creatively and financially (a guess based on the rows of empty seats around me).
The show closed before a review could be printed, but since Daystar plans to continue producing shows in town, I offer up these constructive criticisms as a housewarming gift to them, and as a cautionary tale to other theater troupes starting up:
RESEARCH YOUR AUDIENCE
If your title has been presented locally multiple times in recent memory (in fact, I wrote a column in 2011 about attending two different productions of Spring Awakening on the same day, and there've been others since then), you're unlikely to draw as much attention as you would with an under-produced property. Likewise, the average going rate for Orlando theater tickets is $10-$20 for emerging companies, and $25-$50 for top established troupes. If you're charging up to $90 and you're not an Equity tour, you're pricing yourself out of this market. Finally: Shows open on Thursdays or Fridays for a reason; an eight-day run starting on a Sunday leaves little time for published reviews, and less to build word of mouth.
USE YOUR BUDGET WISELY
You don't need expensive sets and props to put on a great play, but if you do have a few bucks in the bank, you should spend them smartly. A legible photocopied flier beats a glossy but typo-ridden brochure any day. And even speaking as a fan of video effects, I'd rather see no projections at all than concert-style digital doppelgangers of the actors who are standing in front of me, especially with the added distractions of split-second lag and a visible cameraman in the wings.
AUDITION IN PERSON
In an effort to assemble a "multicultural" cast, Daystar conducted internet auditions, with the internationally based actors assembling only weeks before opening. Unfortunately, no amount of foreign credits in the playbill can compensate for romantic leads with zero chemistry or a main character who can't emote in the English language. Auditions should be intimate and in-person, and Orlando's talent pool can provide everything a producer could want without resorting to YouTube.
A CHOREOGRAPHER DOES NOT A DIRECTOR MAKE
Nothing solidifies or sinks a new company's artistic reputation quicker than the strength of its direction. Spring Awakening's director/choreographer (and Daystar's resident artistic director) Jacques Broquet earned extensive dance credits in Latin America and Israel, but has minimal experience in English-language stage directing. As a result, he created visually striking compositions that probably looked beautiful in photographs, but often undermined the story's emotions, with characters frequently facing offstage or upstage instead of making eye contact.
EVERY ACTION HAS A REACTION
When mounting a well-known show, you may choose to borrow certain staging elements from Broadway (as Daystar did, without giving credit to Michael Mayer or Bill T. Jones), but you must understand their original intent before adapting them. If a character originally sang crouching because he was clinging to a microphone stand, but you are using headset mics instead, don't just leave the actor squatting on stage.
UNDERSTAND THE STORY YOU'RE TELLING
Above all other errors, a failure to comprehend your story's point is fatal. The director's post-show remarks implying that Spring Awakening is a morality play warning against the consequences of kids disobeying their elders (instead of an indictment of religious sexual hypocrisy) only confirmed the confused character interpretations and odd aesthetic choices I observed throughout this production.
DON'T WEAR OUT YOUR WELCOME
Speaking of post-show remarks, I was ready to give Daystar's debut a generous C-minus before their endlessly self-indulgent postscript erased any goodwill they had generated. Inappropriately personal, uncomfortably long and largely incomprehensible due to language barriers, Daystar's decision to hijack their bows into a poetry reading-cum-tent revival deflated any emotional impact the play's authors intended, and left me embarrassed for the performers forced to awkwardly stand or slink offstage. No matter how well-intentioned your artistic mission, if you don't first and foremost demonstrate respect for your actors and your audience, you'll never thrive in this town.