Theater student blends signing with singing in Skylight production

Performers on stage in a production of Spring Awakening.
Jeff Larson (from left) performs using American Sign Language during a rehearsal of “Spring Awakening” with Aidan Black, Zachary Iniguez, Thomas Minkowski and Edie Flores. (Photo courtesy of Skylight Music Theatre)

Musical theatre major Aidan Black’s interest in American Sign Language was sparked in high school. So when he was choosing a language credit at UWM, he signed up for an ASL course in UWM’s School of Education.

Now ASL is an integral part of his role in the Skylight Music Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening,” which incorporates deaf and hearing actors. The Tony-award winning rock musical is based on an earlier play about teen angst and sexual awakening in the 19th century. It opens March 1 and runs through March 17 at Skylight, 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee.

Aiden Black
Aiden Black

Black plays the character of Otto, one of the students at the center of the play’s action.

After he began taking ASL classes, Black became intrigued, and ended up making ASL Studies his minor. He found it also helped with his acting.

“Before I started studying ASL, I had trouble with my facial expressions. That’s a strong component of ASL since different signs mean different things depending on what your face is doing. That’s helped me be aware of what my face is doing.”

Being able to use his skills in the play, his debut with Skylight, is important to Black.

“It’s something I’m very passionate about,” he said. “I always want to bridge my interests with what I’m working on.”

UWM a good fit

Black, a senior, decided to major in musical theater when he was in high school in Portage, Wisconsin. UWM was on his short list of universities. “I toured UWM first, and I was like, oh wow, I really like this.”

He auditioned for the role in “Spring Awakening” over the summer and got the callback this fall. Coincidentally, he was using ASL in another play, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a prequel to Peter Pan that incorporated deaf and hearing actors.

The Skylight production is based on a version of the play developed by Deaf West Theatre in California, which used deaf and hearing actors. “The difference is that our production has taken a specific look at the English-to-ASL translations as well as the signing presentation to make the production even more accessible,” he said.  “It’s fine tuning the use of language so everyone can understand.”

A mix of actors

The Skylight version incorporates seven deaf or hard of hearing actors, a few actors with some signing experience as well as some who have never signed before.

“It’s really crazy how well it works,” Black said. “It’s the same dialogue, the same script, but through a deaf perspective. The whole production is accessible for hearing and deaf audiences.”

Black, who also teaches children’s classes at First Stage, hopes to keep up with his ASL as he continues his acting career after graduating in May. Creating a bridge between theater and Deaf culture is important to him, he said.

Building those bridges is one of the reasons the Skylight’s production is significant, Black said. “Hearing people don’t have a lot of experience or understanding of deaf people. This is a very good introduction and a start to their journey with Deaf culture.”

Skylight is offering UWM students a special ticket price of $26 to see any “Spring Awakening” show. They can use the promo code SASTUDENT to receive up to two tickets at a discount on the Skylight Music Theatre website.

This story originally appeared on UWM Report.