#CharacterStudy: SPRING AWAKENING's Ilse Neumann
Channeling Spring Awakening's free spirit,
Next up in my Character Study series is my favorite of the Spring Awakening characters, Ilse Neumann. In the original Frank Wedekind play, she is a childhood friend of the characters that ends up running away from home and living in an artists’ commune, Priapia, where she becomes an artist’s muse. In the musical (wherein she was played by current recording artist Lauren Pritchard), not much has changed. As a fellow Guilty One stated:
“She is a girl that due to circumstances is forced to live in a different world than the rest of the characters. She grows up and sees reality far sooner than the rest [...]”
This obsevation, in my opinion, fits the character of Ilse perfectly in terms of the musical, in which she operates in an ethereal,messenger-like role. Being more experienced than the others, shealone watches things unfold. This also casts her as an outsider, not just literally, with her leading an unconventional life with artists, but also symbolically. In the “Touch Me” number, she is the first to walk across the stage — again, alone — her hands gesturing the same Bill T. Jones choreography Wendla did in her opening scene. A dark character, indeed,she seems to be; however, throughout the play (definitely towards the end) she remains hopeful.When Ilse leads the cast into the finale number, “Song of Purple Summer,” that same theme of enduring hope is presented to the audience. Interestingly, the song’s title stems from a breed of flowers actually called Purple Summers, which are known to withstand the coldest winters and even the most tumultuous weather.
I suppose the reason Ilse is my favorite is not only because of her otherworldly presence — it’s her inner struggle to reconcile her childhood with the adult world, which is something I can definitely relate to. Indeed, in the scene leading to “The Dark I Know Well,” we see her father calling out for her: “Ilse, Ilse…storytime.” The motif of navigating the loss of innocence and youth, and the desire to reclaim it.
In terms of costume, we can definitely see a big difference between Ilse and the other girls, and Susan Hilferty certainly played this up. While most of the girls are dressed in traditional dresses with aprons (save for Wendla when in her faery dress), we first see Ilse in a light grey sailor outfit, with pants. I feel it is important to point out that she is not in a skirt, as this further reinforces her unconventional lifestyle, post-exile. Next time we see her, in “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” Ilse wears only an oversized men’s dress shirt as she encounters Moritz in the woods, bouquet of flowers in hand. Towards the end, she wears a breathy and light sleeveless dress in green, the color of plant-life and therefore the symbol of life anew.
Turn-of-the-Century silent film starlets like Evelyn Nesbit (a picture of whom was featured in Spring Awakening‘s original poster for its Off-Broadway production) and Mary Pickford are what I would imagine Ilse would look like at the time of the play. Long, flowy hair, with tiny bunches of Baby’s Breath tucked in it and behind her ears. An almost cherubic, doll-like face. Flushed cheeks and wide eyes. In the modern world, Ilse would be the ultimate Bohemian, naturally, as she is an artist’s muse, after all. Channeling her inner hippie, she’d wear flowy dresses, flower crowns, floppy hats, and occasionally some denim (braless and barefoot, obviously).
In terms of portrayal of the character, the closest person I could find that fit Ilse almost perfectly was Hannah Murray, who played Cassie Ainsworthin popular UK teen drama Skins. I found interesting parallels between the characters of Cassie and Ilse — this combined with Hannah’s offbeat portrayal of the role, seemed perfect for Ilse. Considering all that Ilse has gone through, striking a balance between both childlike innocence and a rough exterior proves essential to her character’s many layers, and Hannah has this down pat. (If you don’t know what I mean,
download rent Skins now and see for yourself.)
As for the look, I felt a redhead best fit Ilse. Lily Cole‘s doll-like face seems perfect, as not only has she the ginger coloring I’m looking for, but like Emma Browning, has the look that seems right out of that era.
Much like the Wendla faerie dress, hordes of Spring Awakening fans have dressed up as Ilse in the oversize men’s shirt she wears during “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” carrying a bouquet of flowers. My version would be a bit of the same: inspired once again by Evelyn Nesbit’s Bohemian look (Figure 3), I would have my Ilse in the men’s shirt, her cheeks flushed with Tarte‘s cheek stain in Natural Beauty (Figure 1) with her wide doe eyes accentuated using Urban Decay‘s Big Fatty Mascara. To top it all off: a bouquet of purple summers, of course (Figure 5) and this beautiful Monarch Butterfly “Cocoon” comb from Which Goose (which I couldn’t make fit into my set above, but is pictured below):
Now she’s walkin’ through the clouds/with a circus mind that’s running wild/Butterflies and moonbeams, and fairy tales/All she ever thinks about is running with the wind…