The Fringe business

Nine years ago former English teacher Eric Schrode had a vision. He would put on a show with Harvard-Westlake students in Edinburgh, Scotland during the summer.

He would train them on the upper school campus and then take the play across the Atlantic to be performed as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.

After 11 days of rehearsal, the troupe of 28 students, former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department Dan Fishbach ’93, dance teacher Cynthia Winter, French teacher Marilyn Shield, science teacher David Hinden, Schrode, and Schrode’s wife Antonia headed to Scotland.

The play that they put on was entitled “Three Disciples Ascending” and it was written by Schrode and Caitlin Sislin ’97 in the ’95-’96 school year.

Schrode decided to expand the program the following year, sparking conflict in the performing arts department.

“After the first year it became very much his baby,” Walch said. “He ran with it and it grew.”

Some members of the Performing Arts Department were concerned that the plays being produced in Edinburgh were either written by Schrode or chosen by Schrode, a problem that would always garner antipathy toward the project, Walch said.

“One of the questions that came up was to what degree is this for his own self-promotion,” Head of the Performing Arts Department Rees Pugh said.

“Was he using Harvard-Westlake talent to promote his own career as a playwright? It didn’t bother me, but it kind of limited the variety of stuff that was put on in Edinburgh,” Pugh said.

In 2000, Schrode directed two George Bernard Shaw plays in response to the criticism. But they had trouble attracting press and audience, as original work is preferred to revivals at the Fringe festival.

By the summer of 2003, the Edinburgh project had become a behemoth and Schrode led the largest Harvard-Westlake group yet to Edinburgh.

There were 71 students and chaperones living in eight different flats throughout the city. In the three weeks at the festival the Harvard-Westlake troupe put on seven productions.

Schrode, who also taught English, had to devote a large amount of time during the school year creating and casting plays for Edinburgh.

“It grew too big and sort of became the mouse that ate Manhattan, and it ended up taking up a lot of organizational time during the school year and detracted from people’s main functions,” President Thomas C. Hudnut said.

That’s when we cut it back to an every other year thing. I think I was the one who decided that it would be less disruptive to faculty and student life if we did it every other year.”

There would be no trip to Edinburgh in 2004, but in 2005 it seemed the program had picked up right where it left off, as 81 students and 19 chaperones went to the Fringe.

Rise and Fall
The summer of 2007 played out as Schrode’s swan song. His plays experienced unprecedented success, as his adaptation, “Hamlet Q. Jones: The Musical True Crime Story of a Very Depressed American Teenager…and his Extremely Dysfunctional Family,” was named one of the top 30 shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s largest daily newspaper.
“About Suffering They Were Never Wrong: The Trojan Woman,” with original music written by former orchestra teacher Paul Ludden, was the only HWS Rembiko show to ever receive a five-star review.

In total, 10 plays were produced and many of them were performed in front of sellout crowds.
One could hear Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” blasting from Schrode’s AP English classes last fall as he proudly showed footage of “Hamlet Q. Jones” to his senior students who saw actors, classical orchestra, rock band and lighting completely synchronized to the epic rock ballad.

But it became increasingly clear that there had been some problems during the summer. Two directors, Daniel Faltus and Eve Zappulla, left the program in its first 10 days. The two directors were helming three shows and Zappulla was in charge of designing publicity postcards for each of the shows.

“One of the strengths about Eric is that he is capable of multitasking in an incredible way, but one of the weaknesses is that he is less capable of entrusting whole chunks of responsibility to other people, and saying that’s your job, go do it and not worry about getting it done,” Pugh said.

On Oct. 11, Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts called Schrode into her office after hearing about a “blowup” in Edinburgh when Schrode allegedly upbraided Performing Arts Department Producer Ruth Chobanu in front of some students. 

According to an e-mail Schrode sent to 200 students, teachers and parents, in a meeting on Oct. 26, Huybrechts notified Schrode that he was being removed from the Edinburgh project.

Both Huybrechts and Hudnut said they had no problem with Schrode running the program as long as there was sufficient oversight of what went on in Edinburgh.

“It’s possible that there were some teachers here who didn’t like the program, but that’s often the case when someone tries to do something that’s a little bit different,” Huybrechts said. “He brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the project.”

In January, Schrode resigned from his teaching position at Harvard-Westlake.

Under Review
Even with its founder and most devoted supporter no longer employed by the school, the Performing Arts Department has vowed to maintain the Edinburgh project. Hudnut, Huybrechts and Walch still feel that the program has grown too large.

“Edinburgh is probably something where smaller is better, in which there can be greater focus on doing high quality work,” Hudnut said. “I think that the work for it should be done outside of normal school hours and normal school year.”

There is a consensus among the administration and the Performing Arts Department that the job was too big for one person, even one person with as much zeal as Schrode.

“I think Eric is in many ways the reason for its success, but in many ways the reason for some of its problems,” Walch said. “There needs to be more delegated responsibilities; you can’t put this all on one person. It’s just too big of a job, and if it’s a person who doesn’t like to delegate, then that’s a problem. It is a full time job for the last three months of the school year. It’s a huge amount of work.”

“There are incredibly pressurized time constraints there,” Pugh, who was one of the project’s faculty in 2001, 2003 and 2005 said. “You pack up a dress rehearsal here and unpack it and open a show while you have this 15-hour flight in between. It’s a bit of a mad house. I think that by delegating more and entrusting some of that work to other people it might be a smoother, less volatile process.”

The administration has asked Pugh to look into the feasibility of having a trip to Edinburgh in the summer of 2009, and he feels that there is a 70 percent chance a trip to Edinburgh will occur in 2009. He agrees that the program should be scaled down.

“It’s harder to do good work with 80 or 100 people,” Pugh said. “The big challenge isn’t necessarily how to coordinate the venues, the flats and the chaperones, but I think finding the shows that evenly distribute the kinds of work assignments for people so that there isn’t just someone sitting on the sidelines playing the triangle.”

Pugh shares one of Schrode’s primary visions for the project: an opportunity for those who don’t normally get the lead roles in the school productions to do some substantive work.

“What I’m not really interested in doing is taking the Harvard-Westlake all-star from the theater program and doing the best work possible with the fewest number of kids. But where do you cut it off? At a certain number it just becomes about crowd control and not about doing good stuff,” he said.

Pugh says finding shows to put on is tricky, and he and Walch feel that the annual playwrights’ festival could offer viable options. 

“That’s a very natural spot to find something that’s interesting stuff that’s appropriate and light and is often very edgy,” Walch said.

“I think maybe we would look at material from people who have graduated because I think its important to keep those two things somewhat separated,” Pugh said. “Students should be writing one acts for the playwrights’ festival and not for Edinburgh.”

Euro Trip
From the program’s inception, the amount of independence granted to students in Edinburgh has been a concern for school officials regarding the Edinburgh project.

“The average kid had four or five hours of obligations during the day, then they could do whatever they wanted the rest of the time,” Nick Cuse ’08, a participant on the 2007 trip to Edinburgh said. Students live in coeducational flats scattered across the city.

Throughout the years, there have been issues with students drinking in the foreign country, breaking curfew and bringing non-students back to the flats.

Another problem has been chaperones looking the other way to student misbehavior, Pugh said.
“Your chaperone would check to see if you were inebriated, but occasionally the chaperones would stay out past curfew,” Cuse said.

Many of the chaperones are not Harvard-Westlake employees, but are recent alumni or younger instructors.

“It’s totally different than any other school trip because chaperones basically say now it’s eight o’clock, curfew is at one, stay out of trouble, don’t get arrested,” Pugh said. “Kids learn about getting their feet under them and how to negotiate a city with a map and find their way around.”
In his vision for the Edinburgh project, Pugh would like to see more time devoted to seeing other shows in Edinburgh and potentially even require it, he said.

“Clever chaperones and bright teachers and students ought to be able to figure out useful ways to spend the other hours of their days, whether its going to other people’s plays or learning about Edinburgh and Scotland,” Hudnut said.

Fresh Start
Schrode will be working at Sierra Canyon School starting in September. He has plans to take a group of students to Edinburgh as early as the summer of 2009.

“When I hired him, he told me that he started a program where he took kids to Edinburgh over the summer with a small group of kids and it grew into this huge program,” Sierra Canyon Headmaster Jim Skrumbis said. “I want him to do the same thing for us.”