A TRIP TO SCOTLAND
When EHS was accepted to the American High School Theatre Festival (AHSTF) for 2015, I knew I was in for a lot of organizing, communication emails and phone calls, and 1,000 logistical details on top of the normally complex task of traveling with a group of teenagers and a lot of theatre equipment. I was thrilled, and began the long search for the right play. Ten years had passed since the last time I took students on the AHSTF adventure, and I knew from experience that play choice matters when you are going to live with a script for a year and take it overseas. I laid out the basic deal of the Fringe for my kids and they responded with a clear voice: let's do something really different and weird. The idea that floated quickly to mind was to do something with a source material that had been snoozing in the shadowy corners of my brain since college.
Edward Gorey's shuffled storyThe Helpless Doorknob exists as a set of 20 playing cards, each with a title and an illustration. He invites anyone to shuffle the deck and enjoy any of the 2 quintillion-odd story orders that could emerge. A handful of theater companies have tackled the material, each in a very different way. I began by drawing complex diagrams to track potential character relationships and started drafting a script. By May, I had a workable first draft.
...and then I ruptured a disc in my spine.
The time I spent immobilized that late spring/early summer allowed me to work and re-work the text, wrestling with the dramaturgical corner I'd written myself into by committing to create roles for sixteen students.
Because I couldn't walk far but still had tons of energy, I took on the huge task of designing and sewing original costumes for the 1904-set show as I rehabbed over the summer.
More importantly, by the middle of August, I could walk well enough to go on the AHSTF Familiarization trip. I saw a lot of good plays at the Fringe, all of which confirmed my sense that Helpless Doorknobs was the right show for us. I know it makes a certain amount of sense for high school teachers to bring a production that shows off their kids at the height of their advantage, but my favorite thing about working in professional theatre was being part of a larger cultural conversation. Our company believed that good theatre grapples with the essential question: what does it mean to be human? I pointed out to the kids that there was a certain risk in presenting a new script, but they were still sold on the idea of taking a risk.
putting the show on its feet
Being in a new play was a wildly different experience for the company. Scenes were swapped out, lines were re-written and traded from one character to the next, all of which the kids kept up with. Making things harder, we were bringing the show to our state one-act competition which meant it couldn't go longer than 45 minutes (including set up and strike.) But the more we worked, the more we believed we had something exciting. After our invited dress rehearsal met with an incredibly enthusiastic response, we headed out to the Virginia Theatre Association state conference.
Our VTA performance was a tremendous hit with an audience who laughed, applauded, and followed even minor details of our complex story. We got a rare standing ovation from an audience made up of our "competitors." And then, at the end of the festival, we got score sheets with only two comments: "How pretty you look in your costumes!" and "How can you call this an Edward Gorey inspired tale when none of your men wear mustaches?" The accompanying scores were almost comically low. For kids who are used to being successful, it was an important experience, but a tough one. I've always been uncomfortable with competitive theater--I think it's a great way to see a lot of plays and a lot of different styles of working, but it can derail what art should be: a shared experience that invites dialogue. It was frustrating to have no clue why our show didn't work for the judges when it did work for the audience. My Technical Director and I did our best to help the kids contextualize, but as is often the case in moments like this, kids hear the message better from an outside source. Fortunately, the Keynote speaker at the banquet was Lin Manuel Miranda, who gave a speech with the theme "it's not about your talent." His talk about doing the work you love for audiences who respond to it and not being stopped by the first "no," perked the kids right up.
an experimental leap
The original draft of the show featured a character who selected each scene by drawing an enlarged card featuring text from Gorey's original deck in a very specific order. Heading toward the Fringe, I re-wrote the script placing enough information in each scene so that audience members could draw the cards in any order. I also added new scenes and 2 new characters to accommodate kids who wanted to take the trip with us, which meant the show now ran 65 minutes.
Non-linear and shuffled plays have been cropping up on stages for a while, and I was interested in seeing where the fractured structure could take us. Depending on the order of the scenes, the audience was going to have very different allegiances with the characters. Some shuffles would make the show sadder, others funnier. The company was excited to see if it could work, and after a week-long summer rehearsal intensive and a very successful performance for an audience of adults, we were ready to make our debut on the world stage.
wooing an audience
AHSTF is pretty upfront about the fact that, for the most part, Fringe audiences aren't going to flock to see American High School shows. I never expected audiences to flock...but could we even gather a gaggle? A lucky venue placement right off the Royal Mile (V45) changed everything. I knew we could sell some tickets if we were smart. The key was to sell the show, and not ourselves as high school students or Americans (which doesn't describe our multi-national group anyway.)
Before we opened in Edinburgh, we were given 20 minutes to sell our show in the busiest pedestrian street in the festival, and had the terrific luck of a rare sunny afternoon. I had planned well, Avoiding the typical high school trap of trying to stage a scene on the cacophonous street. Instead, we performed an interactive movement piece which invited onlookers to engage with us. As a photographer and as a costume designer, I felt delighted when a whole row of middle-aged men each with $5k+ of camera gear lined up in the front row of our street show and started snapping away--they only do that when there's something that is going to yield interesting shots. I overheard a family speaking in French making plans to come see the show. (Which they did. With their baby.) We drew a big crowd that kept renewing itself throughout our time slot. The American High School Theatre Festival group after us was a no-show, so the stage manager told us to keep going since we were drawing big crowds. The kids kept performing and handed out hundreds of flyers. Brian ended up having a lengthy conversation in Korean with some performers from his hometown of Seoul. It was one of our most fun experiences.
A former student from the group I took to AHSTF 10 years ago writes that the High Street show was the moment he knew he was going to be a professional actor. I've taken my new kids to see him in shows at The Kennedy Center and at Theatre Alliance, and when I told them what he'd said about the street show, several looked around and smiled.
a miracle on the Royal Mile
and in the end...
Our marketing worked! Between our High Street show and our weirdly popular Twitter feed, we ended up drawing audiences far beyond our AHSTF brethren (although we did get a boost when our show was places on the schedule for future AHSTF directors). We played to very full houses and even managed one sell-out crowd!
Over the run of the show in Edinburgh the kids got to see lots of other plays, some wonderful, some baffling, some awful. There was no talk of judges or scores, because that's not what real theatre is about. Several professional artists approached me with their cards over the course of our run, with encouragement to keep developing the work.
True, I never got any moustaches on any of the men, but the world continues to spin.
Our exhausting, exhilarating experiment had come to a close.