When a Gannon University contingent of 11 students and faculty arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland for the International Collegiate Theatre Festival (ICTF) in August, they expected a positive response to the work they brought, APE/ESSENCE, based on Aldous Huxley dystopic 1948 novel, “Ape and Essence,” would be received warmly. Yet even this confident group wasn’t prepared for the rave review that appeared in the British Theatre Guide, an independent website on British theatre.
Reviewer Graeme Strachan wrote of the production, “The players lope and whoop, while flinging themselves around the stage in energetic glee, bedecked in Mad Max-like war paint, khaki clothes and furs, managing to milk every drop of humour out of the ridiculousness of the situation, while allowing the uncomfortable undercurrent of violence and horror to bubble just below the surface, erupting periodically.” He added, “Indeed, the tragedy of this show is that it will only appear for a mere 4 showings, each of which is at a different time of day—a state of affairs that will probably ensure it isn't seen by nearly enough Fringe patrons.”
This was high praise for the production that originated at Gannon University’s Schuster Theatre during the past season, a production and a work that was largely shaped by the student actors themselves from an adaptation written by Rev. Shawn Clerkin, associate professor of theatre.
“This is the first time that we’ve created a show that the students have written, created and dug out with their nails to create,” said assistant professor Alaina Manchester, who co-wrote and directed the production. “I give suggestions with timing and things like that, but the ideas were the students’. They want these big ideas, and I’d say, ‘Great! Now write it.”
Write it they did, and rehearsed the show in an unusually long incubation period after “APE/ESSENCE’s” 10-performance run at the Schuster Theatre in April. “We had been working on this for more than a year for this audience,” Manchester said of the Edinburgh festival. We wanted to prove to students that their instincts are correct and the risk they take at rehearsals that seemed fruitless at the time, mean something in front of an audience that might be different from the one you encountered at home.
The Edinburgh trip was the third for a Schuster Theatre troupe. Gannon was also represented at the 2011 and 2014 ICTF gatherings, which are part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, widely believed to be largest arts festival in the world spanning 25 days with 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows in 300 venues.
“From a producer and department chair, the idea that our students are performing on a world stage and they in turn get to see other people’s works is thrilling and gratifying,” Clerkin said. “When they come back, our students start writing plays and they produce their work with more fervor. From our perspective, on a resume when we say we’ve produced a show at ICTF, it burnishes our reputation. It’s huge.”