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Students Take Show to Edinburgh's Famed Fringe Fest

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June 14, 2005
true genius

David Holstein directs Reggie Gowland in "True Genius."

Remember those last, waning days of college? The anxiety and anticipation? Mrs. Robinson’s Benjamin, the newly minted college grad and protagonist played to perfection by Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film classic “The Graduate”?

Earlier this year, Northwestern University senior David Holstein was feeling more in common with Benjamin than he wanted -- clueless about what to do in life after college.

Not any more. These days, the film studies major with dreams of becoming a playwright is rehearsing a play he wrote that he and 10 other theatre wannabes from Northwestern are taking across the Atlantic and testing out at Edinburgh’s famed Fringe Festival.

The world’s largest arts festival today, the Fringe began in the Scottish seaside city in 1947 as a post-war initiative to reunite a politically divided and war-weary Europe. In almost 60 years, the August event has spawned some 50 Fringe festivals around the world and last year sold more than a million tickets for 1,500 shows and 20,000-plus performances.

Holstein recalls thinking about his impending June 17 graduation and envisioning  “this great abyss that’s supposed to be my life.” That’s when he began to consider taking “True Genius” -- his play about a young prodigy and pathological liar named Scooter pondering questions about love, life and reality itself -- to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Though Holstein had never met or had contact with John Logan, he impulsively shot off a letter to screenwriter John Logan, a Northwestern graduate and former theatre instructor whose Hollywood screenwriting credits include “The Aviator,” “Gladiator” and “Any Given Sunday.”

“I asked him whether I should take my play to the Edinburgh Fringe,” recalls Holstein. Logan shot back a letter urging the soon-to-be graduate and aspiring playwright to head for Scotland and follow his dreams.

The result: 11 Northwestern undergrads or members of the class of 2005 (including students from Highland Park, Buffalo Grove, Addison and Lake Zurich) will take off for Edinburgh July 25, and perform 25 shows in 26 days between Aug. 4 and Aug. 29.

All are well aware that no lesser lights than David Schwimmer (another Northwestern alum), Jude Law and Emma Thompson sharpened their theatrical teeth at the Fringe. Though they’ll try to tamp their expectations, inevitably at least some, and certainly Holstein, are hoping for their “big break.”

While anyone can perform at the Edinburgh Fringe (“you can put on a show in the back of your car,” says Holstein), applicants vie for the best venues. Holstein scouted the Fringe last summer and applied to perform at a few select locations, sending the “True Genius” script and a DVD of its campus performance last fall.

The group will perform in a converted movie theatre -- one of the best spaces of the festival. “We’re in a network of about 15 different venues that have a large community of shows under their name,” Holstein explains. “They hold your hand through the process and help publicize your show, which for a newcomer like me is invaluable.”

To raise money for travel costs, living expenses and the production, Holstein and company performed “An Apartment in Brooklyn,” one of three plays the 22-year-old has to his credit. “The play takes place in an apartment so we did five shows in my (Evanston) apartment, charging for tickets and selling pie and cookies.” They sold out the apartment.

The Northwestern students rehearse in Evanston in June before going home and dispersing across the country. “We’ll stay in touch, for sure,” says Holstein, “but we won’t be able to perform again until we regroup in Edinburgh July 25th.”

There, the troupe will have four days of rehearsal before they take “True Genius” to the stage. “The craziness of the Fringe is you get only four hours of rehearsal time in the actual space where you’re performing,” says Holstein.

The 11 students will share a five-bedroom apartment -- “it’ll be like a reality series,” Holstein says. An award of $5,000 from the Office of the Dean of the School of Communication where the students study theatre, film, television and performance will pay for half their rent.

Also providing financial support is the School’s highly selective Creative Writing for the Media Program.

“It’s a risk, sure, but I’m taking the best of Northwestern’s best,” says Holstein. “Our lead is Reggie Gowland, an unbelievably talented freshman from Boise who has performed in the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. Laura Scheinbaum (from Highland Park), who plays Scooter’s younger brother, is a veteran Chicago actor and was one of the most memorable singers in this year’s Waa Mu show.”

Alexandra Adair (from Buffalo Grove) plays Scooter’s love interest, Lila. She is helping Lookingglass Theatre with a new adaptation of “The Manuscript Found in Saragosa” that opens at Lookingglass in fall 2005. Adapted and directed by Christine Dunford, “Saragosa” had its world premiere earlier this year at Northwestern.

Dave Tolchinsky, a veteran screenwriter who teaches in the Creative Writing for the Media Program, calls Holstein “one of the more ambitious students to come through the program. He’s not only written all kinds of plays while at Northwestern, but he’s pushed them into production.”

“As a writer, David doesn't require much mentoring. He just needs the space and encouragement to do what he does so well,” Tolchinsky adds.

Going to the Fringe is a no-brainer, Holstein says. “I want to be a playwright and a director,” he declares. “I have nothing to lose by going to the Fringe.” And, perhaps, everything to win.

Topics: Campus Life