Former Waa-Mu Show writers reunited by musical project for Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival


Source: Stephanie Kulke

Communication Prof. David Bell work with students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Bell’s American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern is teaming up with RCS to perform two musicals this August.

Ben Pope, Summer Editor


Since graduating from Northwestern, former Waa-Mu Show writers Desiree Staples, Ryan Bernsten and Christopher Anselmo had taken their careers in separate directions.

Staples (Communication ’14) was writing for television pilots in Los Angeles. Bernsten (Communication ’14) was working for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in Florida. And Anselmo (Communication ’16) was pursuing a career as a composer in New York.

Then a distant connection, a visit to Europe and a few emails by Communication Prof. David Bell brought them together once again.

Now, the three find themselves in the home stretch of a year-long project producing and writing the script and music for “Atlantic: America & The Great War,” a musical which will be performed by students from NU and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.

‘Dream team’ of writers and actors

Bell said he had sought for a while to find some sort of international collaboration for NU’s American Music Theatre Project, of which he serves as artistic director. The program, founded in 2005, seeks to expand the breadth of the University’s theatre department beyond the University itself.

Then during a trip to Europe last summer, a former student put Bell in touch with RCS’s artistic director of musical theatre, Andrew Panton. One London lunch later, Bell and Panton had a plan.

“We arrived … with a question that, ‘Is it a curse to stay at home all your life in one place, or is it a curse to actually wander and suddenly feel belonging to nowhere?’” Bell said. “There’s something so essentially American about being very mobile, and there’s something very Scottish about (being) born in the place you’re going to stay for the rest of your life.”

“Atlantic: America & The Great War” explores the effects of transatlantic separation on interpersonal relationships from the perspective of American mobility. The musical is one half of a two-part collaboration between NU’s American Music Theatre Project and RCS, which is producing a similarly themed performance that will be performed back-to-back with “America & The Great War.”

The writers that Bell assembled for the NU musical — Staples, Bernsten and Anselmo — had first learned to work together in Evanston.

Staples and Bernsten served as head writers of the Waa-Mu Show in 2013 and then co-chairs in 2014, while Anselmo worked as a musical composer for the show from 2013 to 2016.

“I truly think we’re a dream team,” Bernsten said in an email to The Daily. “This triumvirate ticks all of the creative, musical, developmental, structural and logistical boxes so necessary for a writing team that operates from both coasts.”

Staples said the addition of Anselmo to the long-tenured writing duo of her and Bernsten has proved crucial due to Anselmo’s background in music — particularly the folk music he wrote for the 2016 Waa-Mu Show, “Another Way West.”

“Chris is invaluable to us now because without the music, it would be not be musical,” Staples said. “(This show) is not as much musical theatre-pop. It’s more folky and storytelling-esque, and that’s what Chris really excels at.”

Merging two cultural perspectives

The differences between the cultural mindsets of Americans and Scots has manifested in both the material of the musicals and the way the two teams approached the project, Bell and Staples said.

The RCS production, titled “Atlantic: A Scottish Story,” will be set in the early 1800s and portray a Scottish girl receiving letters from her boyfriend as he tours the United States.

“America & The Great War,” meanwhile, will be set during the escalation of World War I and tell the story of a Nebraska girl whose sister goes missing as a nurse in the war, prompting the girl to journey through Europe in search of her sister.

The two plots will connect in the end when the American character discovers she is a distant ancestor of the first musical’s characters and moves to the small Scottish town where they were born.

“There was a wonderful different cultural feeling of how each of the writing teams interacted with the basic theme,” Bell said. “There’s something about travel and the (idea) of cultural interaction that I think allows human beings to become cosmically, and certainly theatrically, more cosmopolitan in how they approach things.”

In planning and connecting the two plots, the NU and RCS writing teams not only had to navigate a time zone quagmire — Bell joked that the Scottish members were often livelier in Skype sessions because they, being many hours ahead, had often already come back from a pub — but also a rift in musical theatre background.

Staples said she quickly noticed the Scottish writers and actors were more creatively oriented, a stark contrast to the American method of prioritizing productivity and, in this context, getting the script written before all else.

“In their first workshop in Scotland, they had this really cool opening … where the actors did the sounds of the ocean and the wind just through sounds like humming and whistling,” Staples said. “That’s been really cool to explore, because both (methods of writing musicals) have their strengths and weaknesses.”

Anselmo, too, noted a difference in the Scottish way of thinking about music.

He and RCS composer Claire McKenzie both regard their personal musical styles as “folk,” but their definitions of what “folk” music is differ tremendously, Anselmo said in an email to The Daily. Scottish folk is derived from thousands of years of history, while American folk mostly originates in 19th century social movements, he said.

“Though both styles are ‘folk,’ the way we express — and what we express — through our styles are wholly different and wholly dependent on the culture within which we were raised,” Anselmo said.

August in Edinburgh

Often unscientifically labeled as the largest art festival in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is an August-long event that featured 3,269 shows last year.

Because the RCS is “grandfathered” in at the festival, Bell said, the “Atlantic” collaboration will make up a substantial percentage of those this year. Bell estimated that the two musicals will be performed 15 to 20 times between Aug. 3 and Aug. 27 at Assembly Hall, one of the festival’s most prominent venues.

“So many people who perform there perform for one night or two or three,” Bell said. “Our students will be performing for the entire duration of the festival.”

Anselmo said he was initially worried that “Atlantic” might get overshadowed by the massive number of performers at the festival, but learning more about the platform the show will be given has quelled his fears.

It’s also attracted the attention of some of NU’s biggest names — University President Morton Schapiro and School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe are both planning to be in attendance, Anselmo said.

In the meantime, however, plenty of preparation remains to be done, Bell said.

Although the 32 actors — 11 of whom are NU undergraduates — have already been chosen, casting has not yet taken place and the actors don’t yet know which of the two musicals they’ll perform in. The skill sets needed for the two musicals differ somewhat, Staples said.

“We have a lot of soldiers, we’re a bit more male-heavy, but we have two females as strong leads that we need,” Staples said. “In the Scots’ piece, theirs is a lot more sung — they continue singing almost throughout the whole piece — and they (need to) have Scottish accents.”

Staples said she’s hoping the trip will allow her and the many other NU students and alumni there to break out of a Broadway-centric bubble and gain exposure to musical theatre styles, performers and writers from around the world.

And even Bernsten, who is coming nearly straight from Broadway itself after producing a play for the New York International Fringe Festival last summer, said he views the August opportunity as a step up.

“(That) was extremely satisfying as a recent NU grad, but the Edinburgh festival really feels like the next level,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year when the American Music Theatre Project was founded. It was founded in 2005. The Daily regrets the error.

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