Sandra Mae Frank on making her Broadway debut in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, advocating for the deaf community

Sandra Mae Frank

 

Sandra Mae Frank recently captivated audiences with her spirited portrayal of Wendla in Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening. In addition to becoming one of Broadway’s new sweethearts, Frank’s off-stage persona and social media presence charmed Broadway fans during the four-month limited run. Frank’s confidence and charisma shined through in the lively Periscope sessions she hosted alongside her castmates, as well as in a game-changing op-ed she penned for The Washington Post to discuss the importance of Deaf talent. Her irresistible spunk even caught the attention of indie rock band American Authors, who cast Frank in an ASL music video for their hit song ‘Pride.’

In the months since Spring Awakening, Frank hasn’t slowed down. She’s been busy shooting the horror film My Soul to Keep and was recently cast as Hodel in the summer production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma. Despite her busy schedule, Frank recently chatted with Stage Door Dish about her journey as Wendla, her upcoming book, and fulfilling her dream role.

Since you were working in Washington, D.C. at  the time, how did you hear about Deaf West and get involved with Spring Awakening?

As a Deaf actress, Deaf West is a dream to be part of. So growing up, I’ve always heard a lot about Deaf West, and their trailers are amazing. I’d never worked with Deaf West until Spring Awakening. I am a huge fan of Spring Awakening, so when I found out that Deaf West was doing Spring Awakening, I just died. My heart was beating fast… even faster when I saw that they were looking for a Deaf actress for Wendla, which was my dream role.

Katie Boeck has said she felt like she was playing your guardian angel. How did that relationship shape the way you approached playing Wendla?

That’s a really tough question, but Katie and I basically became one. I was Wendla and she was my voice, my thoughts, my guardian angel. She is there to protect me but to encourage my curious thoughts to know more about life. We didn’t go against each other, but rather together. Especially with songs, I’d ask her how she sings it, how high or low, her range, and I’d watch her sing by reading her lips. Because I already understand how music works, I was able to capture Katie’s singing and match it with my signing as I signed the song. She’d sing the sound of the beauty and I’d show the beauty.

As Wendla, you can see me asking myself if I should ask my mama about babies, if I should talk to Melchior, if I should move on to a better world and be a woman and not the little girl anymore. You can see that because Katie and I worked together to show that thought process and it became raw every time. I loved it. I miss it.

Did your performance change over time between the first LA production and the Broadway run?

Big time! I was already nervous about moving to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., so I was really out of my comfort zone, and to be finally joining of Deaf West’s production with legendaries? That got me sweating, for sure! Plus, I’ve never done a musical before! For me, one major difference between the first production and the Broadway run was my confidence in myself and my character. My performance was already great but I saw myself growing, changing and improving for the better. I became more comfortable with my character, so I didn’t have to think too much anymore or feel very nervous about forgetting a line or getting lost during the song – which didn’t happen in L.A., thank goodness for that.

Plus, meeting my role model, Shoshannah Stern, was a dream to come true for me. She helped me so much with understanding how to deliver her ASL translation and more. Being involved with Spring Awakening has really helped me to grow as a person and actress. I feel like I have the courage now to really take more risks and put myself out there. I now love musicals, and I want to do more! And arriving in NYC on Broadway, I felt ready, I wasn’t really that nervous. I became a risk-taker, stronger, and working with legendaries really pushed my confidence to stop doubting myself and just do it. Just go for it.

What kind of things did Michael Arden do to help you grow in that way?

He’s a visionary, I’ll tell you that. He thinks of things that I would never think of, or even imagine, so he really helped me to see a world beyond this world. He helped me explore more areas with my body and character to figure out what Wendla would do and how she would do it. He usually set up a ‘playground’, so when we would show up for rehearsal and enter the space, he would simply tell us to do our routine before going to bed as our characters (even though that’s not in the story). It was amazing, because rather than just doing the lines and figuring out what to do in each scene and how it should be done, he also took time to provide us the space to explore more with our characters. He would question my actions and ask me why I was doing that. He would ask me things about Wendla, and he really pushed me to explore small things in the show that Wendla does and why.

He saw my audition tape – never once saw me in person – and still, he (along with the team) gave me the role of Wendla so, of course, that was the beginning of helping me to grow. He also sent a welcoming email to several of us who were moving to L.A. for the show. He made sure that we know we can reach out to him for advice or whatever. I just knew that I’d enjoy working with him and I respected him for that. He checked in on us and he created this world, and he gave us a family that’s forever. He helped me to grow, and he helped every one of us to come together and create something beautiful. People like him give me hope and a sense of joy that art is still very much alive.

Did you have a favorite song or scene to perform?

My favorite song was and still is ‘Whispering’ because it’s Wendla’s moment. In the beginning of the show, it’s about her mama not telling her everything. Later on, it’s about Wendla and Melchior, how they feel about each other, and opening a new world to Wendla, which answers every question she had (well, almost everything), but then ‘Whispering’ is about her. It’s her finally understanding her life, hopes, dreams, and thoughts. Doing ‘Whispering’ always gets me every time.

How did you react when Marlee Matlin joined the cast, since she has been such a trailblazer for the Deaf community?

I was shocked and thrilled!  She’s one of the legendaries, so I had no idea how I’d really act around her, to be honest. I wasn’t sure if I would be too nervous or say ridiculous things. You know sometimes when you see someone you really like, you get all sweaty and nervous? That was me! But the second I met her and started chatting, all of those thoughts just went out of the window. Marlee is so charming, blunt and funny. I just admire her for that and for being such a great role model.

Between doing press for Spring Awakening and interacting with fans at the stage door and online, what was the most common misconception you encountered that people had about the show?

This one is a bit deep, but it’s true, and keep in mind that I understand the world has been stuck in a society where everything is divided by what’s normal and what’s not. But that ends now, and the world is finally changing. Things are finally getting better. People would often ask me how I did it, not what the process was. To me, it felt like they were questioning my ability to perform, rather than understanding the different ways of sharing access. Deaf process and hearing process are different, but no better than the other. We have good actors and then we have bad actors – just like hearing people do.

You’ve been pushing back against that lack of awareness with your Washington Post op-ed and #deaftalent. How have people been reacting to that?

That’s right, thank you! It’s been great! I’ve been getting a lot of positive comments about it, still. Some of them would want to discuss more, explain their experiences, agree with my point, and some of them would comment on how happy they are that someone is finally writing an article about that. We’ve seen too many Deaf roles being taken away from actual Deaf actors and that angers the Deaf community. Every time I do an interview or meet someone, they mention and ask me about my article. A lot of people agree with what I said and gave me their support, but I’ve also received negative comments too. It just shows that they still don’t get it or don’t want to understand what I’m explaining. It seems that my article wasn’t enough to make them understand or see it from my perspective. They didn’t hurt my feelings or upset me, but instead, they inspired me to write a book to expand from my article.

Can you talk about the book?

I can’t really comment much about the book yet. I just started writing notes about it, I’m still brainstorming on exactly what I want my book to be about. I just know that I want to write more on why Deaf roles need to always go to the Deaf actors. But I am excited about it. It’ll be a great process for me to see what I find and more things to learn and add to my writing.

That ties in well with your American Authors ‘Pride’ music video. What drew you to that song in particular?

It was a blast doing the song and a new challenge for me to master the song in a week! I was really fortunate that they wanted to do an ASL version of the song and asked me to do it. I’d never heard of the song before, but when I looked it up, I just fell in love with it and accepted the gig right away. The song is perfect for what the Deaf community is going through, what I am going through right now. People need to find their pride and just keep going, stop dreaming and explore the world, take risks and fall in love and never give up. Never let anyone tell you what to do or push you down. Always believe in yourself and go as far as you wish to go. That’s what the song meant to me, and I was thrilled to be able to do it and inspire people.

What made you, Josh Castille, Miles Barbee, and Amelia Hensley decide to do the JMAS vlog?

That is just something fun to do. This is who we are, we like to continue creating projects. We like to create videos and push ourselves, improve our skills in editing and recording the moment so we can treasure it forever. Also, we thought it would be something fun to do together as a ‘family’ and for our fans to enjoy. It makes our bond stronger. When we are in our 80s and everyone is driving a hover car, I want to be able to relax, drink wine and watch JMAS vlogs. My heart will smile with joy. And we will continue creating more JMAS vlogs, it’s not temporary.

Since you said Wendla was your dream role, do you have any other roles you would like to play in a musical? And who would you like to play your voice?

As for my voice, I don’t have a favorite or anything. I love meeting people and creating art together. Of course, I’d always want to have Katie since we have a great connection and we work so well together!

I have several dream roles such as Fantine or Eponine in Les Mis, Fiona in Shrek, and Maureen in Rent. But my number one dream role is Elphaba in Wicked! She’s such a powerful and challenging role to do. I believe doing the role of Elphaba would challenge me at every level of acting there is, push my heart harder than ever, and make me feel free.

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