Academics and Research

Theater department production travels to Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Aaron Dupuis and Adeline Mann in the DU production of "The Nina Variations," which travels to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next week. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Aaron Dupuis and Adeline Mann in the DU production of “The Nina Variations,” which travels to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next week. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

When the curtain descended on the DU theater department’s fall 2014 run of “The Nina Variations,” director Anne Penner made an unscripted remark.

“I sort of half jokingly said, ‘We should take this to Edinburgh,’” Penner recalls.

Responsive to every cue, the cast and crew gave that idea an immediate green light, and so, before Penner had time for second thoughts, the troupe was making plans and raising funds to take their show on the road — to the world-famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Staged every August in the Scottish capital and billed as the planet’s largest arts festival, the extravaganza attracts tens of thousands of people to as many as 300 different shows every day for three weeks.

From Aug. 11–15, the DU group — performing as the Three Candles Theatre Company, a name that references a scene in the play — will share its take on “The Nina Variations.” The ensemble arrives in Edinburgh the day before the first of its five shows and will go straight to the theater to begin assessing the stage. One night’s sleep later, they’ll put their work before an audience of international arts lovers.

What makes the show a fitting submission to the Fringe?

For one thing, the play has plenty of humor, and Fringe audiences are known for loving a good guffaw. What’s more, Penner explains, it’s short, clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes, which means festivalgoers can easily fit it into a day filled with shows.

“The Nina Variations” also complements the Fringe’s mix of the experimental and improvisational. Written by Denver-born playwright Steven Dietz in 1996, the script plays around with the climactic act of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Dietz created “The Nina Variations” after being asked to write a new adaptation of the classic. He found himself so transfixed by the concluding meeting between two characters — actress Nina and playwright Treplev — that he offered 40-plus variations on the famous scene. In that encounter, Penner says. “Nina and Treplev are trying to work out how they feel about each other. And this time, the gloves are off.”

If the show is great fun for the audience, it’s even more so for the cast — which is divided into three Ninas and three Treplevs, who mix and match for the many variations. The actors were happy to revisit the play and bring some hindsight to their roles.

“They were possessed by these characters, and they were making connections between themselves and the characters that they had not fully done [the first time],” Penner says.

For Adeline Mann, a recent theater graduate who plays Nina No. 2, the chance to revisit the role was creatively liberating. “Now that we know the script so well, it’s much easier to go in and play with it, to make crazy choices,” she says. “And if it doesn’t work, we can go back to what we had.”

Trevor Fulton, a junior majoring in theater and communication studies, welcomes the opportunity to test the production in front of an unknown, objective audience. “I have been in many shows,” he explains, “but I have never done a show outside the education/school setting.” And there, he adds, the audiences have typically been full of appreciative friends and family members. In Edinburgh, they’ll perform before people who aren’t predisposed to love them.

The Fringe gig also tests the cast’s ability to produce and perform under demanding circumstances — circumstances they’re likely to encounter if they pursue artistic careers. As junior theater and film studies major Keegan Bockhorst, aka Treplev 1, notes, the cast and crew prepared for their Edinburgh performance without knowing much about the venue, other than that the stage is considerably smaller than its DU counterpart. They also knew that they needed to be prepared to move quickly, given that they will have little time to arrange the admittedly minimal set, adjust the lighting and adapt the sound design to the space.

“The scaling down of what we had seems like it would be an easier thing than it is,” Bockhorst says.

To make matters even more challenging, the Three Candles troupe will need to overcome jet lag and any cultural adjustments that come with visiting a new country. As junior theater and English major Aaron Dupuis says, “You have to be prepared to travel, be exhausted, be overwhelmed and perform the next day. That’s frightening, but I also think it will be really useful for life.”

Cicely Galm, Nina No. 1, agrees. “Any time you have a life experience, it helps you as an artist,” says the recent DU graduate, who majored in theater and Spanish. In addition, the experience of helping produce a show broadens appreciation for the entire enterprise.

“It forces us to think about the process as a whole,” Galm adds. “There’s so much you have to take on yourself, and that definitely translates to the professional theater world.”

The process as a whole goes beyond staging the show — the DU troupe also has to sell it. Throughout their stay, the students will comb the streets of Edinburgh to distribute flyers and personally persuade theater aficionados to spend some time with Nina and Treplev.

Penner sees these varied experiences as essential for theater professionals in today’s market-based environment. “Our department has really developed this entrepreneurial spirit,” she says, noting that students are urged to produce shows from scratch, secure their own financial backing, market to the public and handle every component of logistics.

These challenges are compounded when the show goes overseas. Getting into the Fringe was just a matter of paying the modest registration fee, but transporting and finding housing for the six cast and two crew members required some logistics know-how.

If the challenges are compounded, so are the opportunities to test a show’s appeal and viability.

“We just liked the idea of being abroad and the excitement of competing with 300 other shows every day. And to be honest, the quality of the work in Edinburgh is higher,” Penner says.

In other words, if they can win over Edinburgh, the Three Candles Theatre Company can triumph anywhere. For Dupuis, it’s the ultimate experience. “Taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe,” he says, “is probably the most significant thing to happen in my life thus far.”

Follow the troupe’s Edinburgh adventure on Facebook  and Twitter

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