If theater had an Olympics, it would be the Fringe Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland, every August, and John Blankenchip’s talented troupe of Trojans would be in the hunt for the gold.
Over a period of three weeks and two days, the 30-odd performers, directors and technicians of Festival Theatre USC-USA were scheduled to do 90 performances of 13 different productions. On Saturdays, the company did nine performances, starting at 11 a.m. and winding up well after midnight. There might be just five minutes between performances to change the audience – and when they had to change the set, the scenery went out the window into a courtyard.
“This is true repertory,” said Blankenchip, professor emeritus who has been bringing USC students, faculty and alums to Edinburgh since 1966. “Someone may do the lead in one play, shift scenery on the next and sell snacks at the café after that. It is impossible to get the range of experience anywhere else in theater that you get here.”
Edinburgh at festival time is a tough town. During August, when four arts festivals are running simultaneously, the normal population of less than half a million swells to a million. There are performances in every possible venue, including churches, pubs and abandoned buildings. Streets swarm day and night with eclectic street performances as comedians, singers, musicians, peddlers, tourists, political activists and happy pub-crawlers from around the world descend on Edinburgh.
“There are more than 1,500 productions in the Fringe Festival alone, and they say that the average Fringe audience is four,” said Blankenchip. “We’ve [performed] for four and we’ve done it for more. One year we did it for one.”
For the past several years the company has been at the Drummond Community Theatre at a local high school reputed to be haunted by ghosts from an ancient burial ground.
“I won’t go up there at night,” said Rikki Juès, pointing to the upper floors of the high school. A 1990 USC graduate, this was her eighth Fringe Festival with USC. “You couldn’t do this in L.A. We are completely cut off from everything here. Your only job is to come here every day and get the show up.”
Ariel Joseph Towne, a 1996 graduate, directed two productions, ran the lights for another and handled sound for still another. A television and film actor who also does production work, he has found that the Fringe experience quickly points out strengths and weaknesses.
“Sometimes we work 105 hours in a week. If you can do this, you can handle any amount of work and stress,” he said.
Howard Yates, a 1995 graduate who first came to the Fringe in 1996, remembers performing that year while he had chickenpox.
“I had all these bumps and spots on my face, but hey, it was ‘Star Wars,’” he said.
The USC group has been performing “Star Wars Trilogy in Thirty Minutes” to sold-out audiences for five years now, gaining fully half of their income from that single production. Most of the “Star Wars” performances begin at midnight when much of the audience has been intensively occupied in the local pubs.
“They are looking for something short, funny and familiar,” explained Dave, the janitor at the high school and a keen observer of the Fringe dynamics. “The group tried a drama one year at that time and it was a disaster.”
Disasters are rare, and there were none this year. Reviews ranged from good to raves, with several other shows besides “Star Wars” playing to full houses. The Scotsman gave Henry James’ “The Aspern Papers” four stars and said it was “a masterly production with which to crown USC’s 21st season on the Fringe.”
Calling it a “scintillating, exquisite drama, thoroughly enjoyable and overwhelmingly impressive,” The Edinburgh Evening News gave the USC production of the David Mamet play “Oleanna” five stars and named it “Best of the Fest.”
Participating in the Fringe Festival is expensive. Students pay a participation fee and their own expenses, although some get scholarships. A few key alums are paid, but most aren’t. Blankenchip said that the program receives financial support from the Arts Initiative and the School of Theatre.
He is proud that in past years the USC company has won the prestigious Scotsman’s Fringe First Award twice, once for Steven Sondheim’s “Follies” and again for Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” a new version of which was performed this year. Many think “Star Wars” deserved the award as well, but the first year it was performed, the paper’s reviewer was one of the few people on the planet who hadn’t seen any of the movies – and she just didn’t get it. (To be eligible, a production must be a premier.)
Dale Elisabeth Manolakas was with Blankenchip when USC became the first non-British company to perform in the Fringe, and she has come back this year out of sheer love of theater. She has earned two master’s degrees, a Ph.D and a law degree from USC and works as a commercial litigator.
“I’m just here for fun. People like Alan Lennick and Sari Wagner, alums who are working actors in New York, are really an inspiration to me and everyone else here,” said Manolakas.
Like everyone else who has been to the Fringe with Blankenchip, she is fiercely loyal to him, and in absolute awe of his energy. The 82-year-old Blankenchip directed four productions, designed several others, ran the program and generally had a blast teaching young people what theater is all about.
“That time we had one person in the audience, the kids wanted to know if we were going to do the show. Of course, we do the show. He bought a ticket didn’t he?” said Blankenchip. “So we did the show for one person, and it was great!”