Musical project immerses Northwestern student actors into Scottish theater scene


Source: Justin Barbin

Cast members of “Atlantic: A Scottish Story” perform a showstopper at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

Ben Pope, Reporter


Communication senior Reed Lancaster hails from England, attends college in the U.S. and, over the summer, played a Scot.

As Quinn in “Atlantic: A Scottish Story,” one of two musicals produced in a collaboration between Northwestern and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Lancaster immersed himself in Scottish culture to play the show’s lead. The musical premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

“It was (an) incredibly magical experience, and it was lovely seeing how people were moved,” Lancaster said. “It’s just so rewarding when you’re telling a story and you physically move (someone) to tears.”

Thousands of people from across Europe and the rest of the world flocked to Edinburgh for the renowned amateur theater festival — an event Lancaster described as “tightly organized chaos.” University President Morton Schapiro and School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe were among the attendees.

At the center of it all were a handful of NU actors, three recently graduated writers, Communication Prof. David Bell and their musicals — the crown jewels of a year-long undertaking by the University’s American Music Theatre Project.

The two musicals explore similar themes of transatlantic separation and interpersonal discovery from opposite perspectives and were performed on alternating days throughout the festival. Planned as two acts of the same show, the musicals, though written by different teams, are thematic sequels.

“Atlantic: America & the Great War,” written by Christopher Anselmo (Communication ’16), Desiree Staples (Communication ’14) and Ryan Bernsten (Communication ’14), tells the story of a Nebraska girl who travels to Europe during World War I. “A Scottish Story,” written by members of the RCS, portrays a Scottish girl receiving letters from her boyfriend — Lancaster’s character, Quinn — as he explores the U.S. in the 19th century.

With the project, Anselmo, Staples and Bernsten revived a connection dating back to their days at NU’s annual Waa-Mu Show. Staples and Bernsten served as head writers of the Waa-Mu Show in 2013 and were 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 told The Daily while working on the project in June. “This triumvirate ticks all of the creative, musical, developmental, structural and logistical boxes so necessary for a writing team.”

Eleven Northwestern undergraduates and 21 RCS master’s degree students, divided into two teams of 16, performed the two musicals on stage in Scotland. Many of the characters were written with specific actors in mind, Anselmo said, helping bring the shows to life with the “new blood” provided by a mixture of Evanston- and Glasgow-based performers.

Bell, who oversaw the process, said he was particularly excited that roughly half of the NU student actors performed in “A Scottish Story.” The rest of them performed in “America & the Great War.”

“That show was not only a wonderful artistic experience for them, but beyond that, it was a really immersive cultural experience,” Bell said. “That kind of collaboration with other cultures really can teach you more than anything I can imagine in terms of how to … communicate with other artists that do the same thing that you do.”

Lancaster said his experience in the Scottish show was exceptionally positive because he felt his fellow actors and the producers created the story organically, rather than forcing him into a predetermined role.

Communication junior Marielle Issa, meanwhile, appeared in both shows, playing an ensemble member in “America & The Great War” and filling in for an absent actor to play a schoolteacher in several performances of “A Scottish Story.”

In between preparing for a role she never expected to fill, Issa said she noticed a great difference in the music each show employed.

“The shows are really different stylistically,” she said. “The American show has a lot of American folk music, (with) a lot of guitar, piano, long ballads and high harmonies. The Scottish show took in a lot more traditional Scottish music.”

One of the most distinct differences, Anselmo said, manifested at the conclusions of songs.

Anselmo and his fellow NU writers followed the American standard of ending numbers with an emphatic note known as a “button,” but the Scottish writers instead gently meshed their songs within the scenes. The number of spectators who noted the difference taught him about the intelligence of Scottish theater audiences, he said.

“So many people asked … the composer of the Scottish story if any of those songs were actually old folk songs, and obviously she had written all of them,” Anselmo said. “It was just interesting to see how Scottish audiences are able to pick up on the unique aspects of the actual writing in addition to the surface things that identify each individual show.”

The theater festival, widely considered the largest in the world, annually attracts an eclectic mix of performers, producers and onlookers, many of whom are dedicated to breaking away from the tours of mainstream musicals.

The likes of Anselmo, Bell and Issa — none of whom had ever attended before — all said the spectacle was overwhelmingly eye-opening, opening their horizons beyond the well-traveled world of American theater.

“Growing up idolizing theater artists, you really have Broadway glasses on; you only see the actors who are really prolific and you only know the shows that get a lot of press,” Issa said. “To go to the fringe festival, which is all people showing passion projects together in tiny garage spaces, it … made me more appreciative of what it is I do.”

The pair of “Atlantic” musicals — which Anselmo said are undergoing preliminary talks to run in a Chicago-area theater — received excellent reviews from Scottish media amid some other 3,400 shows that played in locales as inglorious as a bathroom.

Both The Herald and Pocket Size Theatre gave the shows five stars, and The Scotsman wrote that the ensemble pieces “really fly here, with beautifully pitched harmonies,” all adding up to an “absorbing hour.”

Bell, however, said the lessons learned and perspective gained by the undertaking far outweigh the satisfaction of positive reviews.

“Not only working with other cultures, but actually creating a work of art where we are all contributing equally, was in every way enlightening and embracing — the world got smaller in a good way,” he said. “It was an incredible educational experience for everyone involved.”

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