Agency and Knowledge in a Modern Spring Awakening

When entering the theater for How to Put On a Sock, everything begins in a somewhat familiar way - there's inspirational posters tacked up that you're certain you saw outside of your high school counselor's office, and a woven basket filled with free condoms for you to take. Or, more likely, stare at before moving on to your seat.

Soon you find out that you, as an audience member, are playing a role: you are a ninth grader about to participate in a sex education class, led by a young teacher assisted by two ninth grade students. You get an index card, a sticky note, and a pen, and are instructed to use your phone to interact with projected polls and surveys that take you through the sex ed class in an interactive way.

This modern adaptation of Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, created and directed by Rachel Karp, more than immerses - it places you firmly in the world where your thoughts and decisions directly impact the story before you. The show moves through various lessons of a sex ed class, but with a catch: each lesson is taken from a different state, its name projected on the proscenium.

Between each of these lessons is the story of Mel and V - the modern versions of Melchior and Wendla, with a similar plotline. The difference is that Mel and V are already in a relationship, trying to navigate their first year of high school as they assist the teacher in the various sex ed lessons.

The beginning of the show is primarily lighthearted - you're asked to share your opinion on things such as how comfortable you are talking about sex with your friends or if you're happy with your current relationship status anonymously through your phone. When prompted to explain, you can say anything you want and it will pop up on the stage in front of you. (Unsurprisingly, some people take their roles as ninth grades a little too seriously when it comes to typing up answers freely.)

It seems like everything you should already know as an adult audience member, particularly a more left-leaning one. It's okay to make jokes, because the air around you is so positive. You're learning about how people feel by ripping up post-it notes and sticking it on actors.

But as the relationship between Mel and V matures, so does the tone of the show. Mel and V, starting to get more serious with their relationship, struggle through wanting to feel empathy for those in pain to understanding even the basics of having safe sex. The lessons of the various states shift, too. That means you get everything from liberal-minded lessons focused on the importance of consent, to a lecture on abortion from the deep South with images of a developing fetus projected in front of you. An activity that starts out as a mad dash to sign and get signatures from as many people as possible turns out to be a disturbing demonstration of how easily STDs like HIV spread through a population. But perhaps the most chilling moment is when the next state name pops up...with the words "No Lesson." And then another state. "No Lesson." And another. And another. And another. And another.

Suddenly you're presented with something you, perhaps, didn't know: there are many, many states that do not require sexual education. And many of those that do aren't teaching anything other than "don't have sex."

Hence the title of the piece, based off of a video by a Mississippi sex educator who found a creative way to teach kids how to put on condoms after being prevented from doing so explicitly. Mel and V watch the video together in the show, trying to piece together their understanding of intimacy from a poor quality sex education.

Director and creator Rachel Karp says on the subject of having the play take place across the country, "We start in California, which has one of the most comprehensive sex ed programs…and that’s contrasted with Mississippi, where you’re taught that condoms don’t work. Statistically, that doesn’t make people not have sex — it just makes them have sex that’s not safe. When you end up in a [place] where people come together from different locations, if everyone’s been taught something different, that’s where problems arise. If someone knows what consent is but someone else doesn’t, what happens when they try to or don’t want to have a sexual encounter?"

Experiencing How to Put On a Sock means questioning what you have learned in the past, while watching the consequences of poor sex ed in action. If you know Spring Awakening, you know more or less what happens to Mel and V. After having sex with murky-at-best consent, V finds that she is pregnant. Unlike in the source material, where Wendla's mother takes charge of the situation and Wendla is forced into having an abortion, V is left with her own secret and her own decisions. She grows distant from those around her, refusing to return Mel's calls. She consults the teacher for help, who admits he got a girl pregnant while in high school and she had an abortion. He doesn't know what to tell V.

V doesn't know what to do. She wanders over to the computer that the teacher had been using for lessons, types and clicks. Then a new poll pops up on the screen:

What should I do?

A) Carry to Term

B) Terminate Pregnancy

Then, once you've made your answer and the poll results have been projected onto the screen:


Your phone feels heavy in your hands. The answers - your answers - float across the screen. V turns, looks at them, and walks out. The lights fade to black.

Knowing Spring Awakening means knowing that Wendla died from having an abortion - will the same happen to V? What does it mean that V gave her decision to the audience? What does it mean to be an audience member, having that kind of agency?

These are the questions that stick after How to Put On a Sock. They are questions that have remained in my head since I saw the show in fall 2017.

The creative team has expressed interest in bringing the production to places with poorer sex education, and I truly hope this comes to fruition. The importance of educated choices when it comes to sexual health and interactions cannot be overrated. Whether defining basic consent or giving someone the right to birth control, both knowledge and agency are key. It's terrifying to think there are so many places in the United States where stories like Mel and V's are occurring each and every day. Hopefully one day the stories of Mel and V, Melchior and Wendla, can be simple fictions of the past.

(Photo provided by Rachel Karp.)