BWW Interview: LITTLE WARS Goes to Scotland
The University of Nebraska Omaha Theatre Department has devised something new: a student developed and enacted play that recently appeared in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, the largest arts festival in the world. I spoke with Steven Williams, Program Coordinator and Head of Design and Production for UNOTheatre/School of the Arts/College of Communication/Fine Arts and Media. Mr. Williams is also a free lance scenic, graphic, and lighting designer with more than 150 productions to his credit. He knows a little something about creating art.
Tell me something about LITTLE WARS.
In August 2018, I was visiting the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with my colleague, Scott Glasser on a familiarization tour of the festival, to see if it was something we wanted to do for our students at UNO. I think one hour into that experience I knew that it was something that I wanted to bring back for our students as I knew the experience would be life changing for most, if not all of them. So, we came back, and we hit the ground running. We brought in our director, Jeremy Stoll, a graduate student who is also the drama teacher at Westside High School. He had just returned from London and Masterclasses with the devised theatre troupe, Frantic Assembly. We approached Jeremy and asked the question, "Wouldn't it be great if we could devise a piece with our students for this festival?" With an answer of "yes," from that point on, all eyes were set on Scotland.
We cast an ensemble of ten actors and seven technicians and invited them to join us on this journey. They started with table talk. Jeremy proposed the theme of little wars. The ensemble started talking about what are important issues in our society? What are things they encounter that they wish could change? What do they wish was different? The conversations were often very personal and at times, difficult, but out of that came repeating themes or experiences that the students wanted to express through movement and storytelling including bullying, sexism, racism, gun violence, and immigration, to the constant presence of a war of nations or nuclear holocaust.
Then they got on their feet and started devising (through movement and dialogue), finding ways to tell these stories with the community. It is incredible and impactful because it's coming from young adults and the things that they are fearful of and struggling with in today's society. The stories being told are beyond our borders. This is something many other cultures are experiencing as well (which we learned once we arrived in Scotland.)
The students had to use traditional acting skills, but now they're doing full physicality, such as acrobatic lifts. Part of their rehearsal, they spent rock climbing and circuit training to build up their physicality and endurance. It was very intense. One of my favorite moments was when one of our actresses looked in the mirror and said, "I have abs!"
Once we got it on its feet we had performances at UNO back in March. We then toured LITTLE WARS to area high schools to share the work of devised theatre. We were part of the inaugural Omaha Fringe Festival in July. Three days later, our ensemble descended on the streets of Edinburgh to partake in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest celebration of arts and culture on the planet. We presented four different performances for an array of people from all over the globe. The students just ate it up.
This year at the Fringe Festival there were over 300 performance venues with over 10,000 performers, and over 500,000 people from all over the globe that came to watch these plays during the entire month of August. On one of our performance days there were over 2,810 performances happening.
The Royal Mile, at the heart of the festival, is where all the performers come and busk their shows. Cast members hand out postcards inviting audience members to come and see their show. The cast and crew of Little Wars dominated the busking scene as they walked the Royal Mile in their post-apocalyptic costumes, engaging with everyone they meet on a personal level. I was incredibly proud of them as they interacted with this international audience. We would then form a square out of ropes we were carrying and create a stage for our ensemble to perform pieces from our show. A professional photographer from the Festival followed us up the entire mile as he was so impressed with our look and presentation. Students experienced many performances from around the globe and many times, had the opportunity to speak with the cast and crews from many of the other productions. Watching students interact with professionals from all around, I knew that they would all come back energized and after seeing what theatre really could be: beyond what we do in Omaha. There's a whole other world out there in theatre and these young adults experienced it first-hand. Keep a look out, I think you will be seeing a lot from this group of theatre artists.
Of the 21 people that went with us, 14 had never been out of the country before.
How did you get invited to participate in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?
We were there through the International Collegiate Theatre Festival (ICTF). We went there last year as a familiarization tour, Scott Glasser (my colleague) and I. They ran us through what to expect from this organization. We came back and said, Yes, we're going to sign on. They helped book our venues, they helped with the technology issues as well. It was our job to get the show there. Jump forward one year, we participated in different workshops, and I was part of a college fair and participated in a couple of panels. There was also a high school festival, were we talked to them about what college theatre looks like in the United States and did some recruiting for UNO. Our ensemble took two tours learning about the rich history of Scotland including famous castles, lochs and abbeys.
Did you do some fundraising or how did you come up with the money?
We did a lot of fundraising! That was pretty much my second job for the whole year. The students did a lot of fundraising at our shows at UNO. I was doing more of the corporate requests and the students were passing the bucket. I am very appreciative of the corporate donations and also the support of the University.
Are all of your cast and crew from UNO?
They are. They are all actually theatre majors except for one of our students.
They helped write it. Did it remain the same once it was scripted or is it a more fluid production with ad lib?
Once we entered the Omaha Fringe Festival, we had a finalized product. When we did our show at UNO in March, it was about half an hour long. We learned a lot from those performance and then the cast continued to devise into July when it became a scripted piece. So, once we hit July it was set. That's what we took to Scotland.
Is this something that you can copy-write and offer to other theaters?
This is more about devised theatre. It's so close to our students' hearts, yet it is very much global. I don't know if they'll ever pursue that. I think they are ready to start their own devised theatre troupe now because they were so enamored by the process and experience. Now they want to do more of it on their own.
What is devised theatre?
Devised theatre is big in other countries which we learned at the festival. It has been around for quite a while in the US but it's now beginning to take hold. The Frantic Assembly did the choreography for "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" in New York and the original Broadway tour. It's very much that devised theatre piece, where he's flying with the entire company lifting him up. It's creating things out of nothing. Our ensemble has done an amazing job with this production.
We have two FREE public performances coming up September 6 & 7 at 7:30. We would love to have as many come as possible to see our production and help us celebrate the accomplishments of this ensemble. We're all incredibly proud of the work that they have done. This performance this weekend is being entered in the Kennedy Center / American College Theatre Festival. There are eight different regions in the United States. We are entering this as a participating entry, so we will have a respondent adjudicating with us on Saturday night. If they like what they see, they will recommend that our show go to our regional festival in January.
Come celebrate with our students. Cheer them on for their good work!
September 6 & 7 at 7:30 PM
Weber Fine Arts Building - Theatre
Running time - 1 hour
Parking is free.