California State University, Northridge has produced many entertainers who fill the airwaves and streaming services with content. Treshelle Edmond is one of those proud Matadors, but her story is a little different. That’s because Edmond, who studied child and adolescent development at CSUN, is one of close to 10 million Deaf Americans, something that hasn’t stopped her from becoming a Broadway star.
She is now a part of the Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York City, alongside established actors such as Marlee Matlin, Camryn Manheim, Patrick Page and Russell Harvard. Since its opening, Spring Awakening has won 6 Ovation Awards, including Best Acting Ensemble of a Musical, which included an award for the Matador.
This isn’t Edmond’s first time on a high-profile stage. Earlier in 2015, she graced the field at the Super Bowl, signing the national anthem in American Sign Language (ASL) before the game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Since then, her profile has blown up, leading to the part in the North Hollywood-based theater company’s second major Broadway transfer (following 2003’s Big River).
“The Deaf West Theatre had auditions for Spring Awakening where we first had our performance in the heart of downtown Los Angeles at the Inner City Arts, a small 99-seat theater,” Edmond said. “I started off sending my video for the audition. I tried my best to forget about it. I started to get more involved by going to ASL workshops, meet-and-greets and then rehearsal at the church in North Hollywood. There, [DJ Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatre] taught me what Deaf culture immerses in this world… and I want to bring that awareness to others.”
It’s that awareness that has made the revival — something Variety called more of a “reinvention” — a hot ticket. This version of the 1891 play by German writer Frank Wedekind was updated with new lyrics by Steven Sater and music by rock star Duncan Shiek. Set in late 19th-century Germany, the musical tells the story of teenagers discovering the inner and outer tumult of teenage sexuality. The new wrinkle of half the cast being Deaf was something that Edmond wanted to be a part of.
“I play Martha Bessel,” Edmond said. “My voice (and vocal avatar), Kathryn Gallagher, and I have shared our feelings and thoughts of this character. What makes this role special is how we can relate to how strong she is to continue her life, even though she is betrayed by both of her parents by enduring physical abuse and sexual abuse at the hands of her father, which is basically being ignored by her mother. It is traumatizing, but it’s not her fault that it happened to her. She is doing her best to be happy for what she has: friends, little whisperings and her secret crush.”
Edmond’s prep was a long and hard rehearsal period of two months in Los Angeles, honing and smoothing out the relationship between her “voice,” Gallagher, and the signing. More important, Edmond and her troupe never had to deal with both dialogue and musical cues, so she had to learn with and support her fellow actors. This helped the group become closer knit and almost family-like, she said.
Now in New York playing Martha daily, Edmond has learned to live in a life totally different than the one she lived in Northridge. She’s finding the city amazing, even though she was initially frustrated and often got lost on the subway and streets. On top of it all, the audience response to Spring Awakening has been incredible. It’s something she’ll never forget.
“It is very inspiring for all of us,” she said. “It touched my heart deeply, for those who’ve never seen anything like this before. So far, I have been hearing [the audience members] are taking ASL classes, and it is so sweet seeing them trying to sign on how they feel about the show. I love to hear from them and thank them very much.”
Spring Awakening is playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York City through Jan. 24, 2016.