A scrappy team of SDA students premiered an original play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this month, earning rave notices and reviving a beloved tradition linking the USC School of Dramatic Arts and the largest arts festival in the world.
The play is The Fire at the Edge of the Earth, written by Zack Rocklin-Waltch BFA Acting ’23, directed by Audrey Forman BFA Acting ’23, starring Rocklin-Waltch and Michael MacLeod BFA Acting ’23, and produced by MacLeod alongside Wendy Hui BFA Design ’21, with lighting design by Jade Wolff BA ‘23.
The team earned almost $4,000 for production and travel expenses through an online Indigogo campaign and a May “funrager” performance in Los Angeles. In the tradition of most Fringe productions, the creative team attracted audiences by passing out flyers on Edinburgh streets and networking with the array of performing artists from around the globe drawn to the annual festival.
The play had eight performances, and the team was surprised and delighted to welcome SDA Dean Emily Roxworthy – and a group of enthusiastic SDA alum supporters – in the audience for the second show. Dean Roxworthy was in Edinburgh not only to take in the festival and support the students but to meet with potential partners to see how USC and the Los Angeles theatrical community can have a permanent presence in the festival.
“It was so incredible to have the support of the dean overseas in another country,” said director Forman. “She loved the show, thankfully. And the Alumni Association came through too. They stayed after to talk to us. It was heartwarming.”
Dean Roxworthy wasn’t the only one who was thrilled with the play. Reviews on the play’s festival website were glowing. “Mesmerizing play – superb acting and writing.” “This show was the best of all the shows I’ve seen at the Fringe.” “Poignant, hilarious, and beautifully paced.” “A fantastic Edinburgh debut.” “Touching performances and themes many can relate to. I highly recommend.”
SDA’s presence at the festival revived an important part of the School’s history. In 1966, USC became the first American university invited to the Fringe Festival. Professor John Blankenchip led USC productions to the festival during 23 seasons, through 2005. His companies often went on to perform in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Germany. Students and alumni often performed in repertory, and would switch from acting to technical roles from show to show.
It was a life-changing experience for its participants, providing fond and indelible memories for many SDA alums.
“Magical” was how playwright and actor Rocklin-Waltch called his Fringe experience. “The whole festival was so much bigger than I thought it would be. Edinburgh transforms into a whole new city, overflowing with performers. There are more than 3,000 shows!
“As a group of nobodies trying to carve out names for ourselves, we made so many creative connections and friendships.”
He noted that their efforts involved in producing and marketing the work was as invaluable as the creative challenges. “You have to be able to create jobs for yourself,” he said, “and the festival was about people doing just that.”
Rocklin-Waltch’s play is about a gay couple, Pluto and Vector, whose relationship is falling apart as they hike the very mountain where the Greek god Prometheus struggled. Using the Prometheus myth as a backdrop, the play deals with queer love and queer existence. Unlike many plays about gay relationships, it ends with hope, not tragedy.
The playwright and director both noted that audience members routinely were in tears at the performance’s end. High school students from producer Hui’s southern California alma mater were in the audience at one performance and were visibly moved, they both reported. “I think they were tears of joy and of seeing themselves represented on stage,” said Forman. “The reaction from so many was more than we could have hoped.”
There are early discussions about The Fire at the Edge of the Earth having a Los Angeles production, or touring or perhaps taking it to the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, the playwright said.
Being at the Fringe opened up his eyes to many possibilities, he said. “It was a fantastic opportunity for all of us to dip our toes into professional theatre.”