CHS actors to perform in Scotland — hopefully

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Columbia High School Parnassian Society is seeking to raise $45,000 by the end of June so it can attend the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, which brings people from all over the world to Scotland for three weeks of theater, comedy, dance and a host of other performance events.

Since learning that it had been invited to attend the festival last year, the school’s award-winning drama club has already accumulated half of the trip’s $90,000 total cost through a variety of methods, from organizing a car wash to holding a wine tasting to soliciting donations. And with just a few months left to raise the remaining $45,000 it needs, it is also planning to host a rummage sale and car wash at the school on April 2, as well as a band night at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club on May 6.

Meanwhile, the society is urging all South Orange and Maplewood residents to donate directly to the cause, either through checks made out to “Columbia High School c/o Janet Bustrin” or through the club’s GoFundMe page found at Co-adviser Janet Bustrin told the News-Record the trip represents an “incredible opportunity” for the students involved, one that would be a shame to miss.

“How often do you have the opportunity to perform on what is essentially a world stage?” Bustrin said in a March 10 phone interview. “As a performer, not only are you able to ply your craft for audiences, but you are also able to go see other artists perform for you. And that just expands your experience and view of the craft enormously.

“So for these kids to have this opportunity at their age — 16, 17, 18 — it really is extraordinary,” she continued. “Now we just need to raise money to get them there.”

The fundraising has indeed been a challenge. Noted community volunteer Marcia Worth-Baker had originally agreed to lead the initiative, but her sudden death in September 2015 left the task to Bustrin and her husband, society co-adviser Steve Stubelt. And as Stubelt admitted, the two are not professional fundraisers.

But they were not willing to let that stop them from providing their students with the opportunity they earned. Bustrin said the Parnassian Society was one of only 50 high school theater programs in the country — out of approximately 24,000 high schools in United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — chosen by the American High School Theatre Festival to participate in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe after being nominated and then submitting an application detailing its past productions and favorable reviews. To Bustrin, being selected is a credit to the students’ work on a diverse array of productions ranging from socially conscious dramas such as “The Laramie Project” to lighthearted comedies such as their most recent play, “Almost, Maine.”

Stubelt, who has served as director for the society’s productions for the past 14 years, said he is likewise proud of the work his actors past and present have done to provide the club with the chance to perform at the festival. He is also excited for those who will be on the trip to experience the work of the thousands of other performers who will be in Scotland, saying it is important for young thespians to witness as many different types of theater as possible while their ideas of the art are still relatively unformed.

Beyond that, Stubelt said simply being immersed in the culture of Scotland and England — which will both be toured as part of the trip’s itinerary — will be a tremendous learning opportunity for the students.

“Any time you get outside of your own community, whether it’s traveling within the United States or traveling overseas, it really just expands your world and your world understanding,” Stubelt said in a March 10 phone interview, adding that he and Bustrin have greatly benefited from traveling often. “As simple as it might sound, even turning on a television in a foreign country and seeing how news coverage happens with the BBC in England or how people look at the world differently than maybe how we look at it as Americans, gives just a broader perspective.”

The students will also have a learning opportunity when it comes time to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That is because they will be starring in an entirely new play written by Stubelt, who acknowledged that this decision came more from necessity than an attempt to be unique. The playwright said that since many of the students were not sure whether they would be able to attend the festival, he realized early on that performing a well-known piece with a set number of actors would not be wise. So he pulled out “The Ticket,” a play he wrote years ago but never produced, which examines how one’s life can be shaped by seemingly minor actions, because he knew it would be easy to change the story to fit the group that ends up going to Scotland.

As it happened, Stubelt ended up with a mostly female 16-member cast, so he altered the characters accordingly. And once the society begins preparing for “The Ticket,” he said he is sure that he will have to continue to makes changes as the cast figures out what does not work — a complication they would not be facing if they’d chosen to perform an established production. However, he said doing an original play affords a flexibility that has made it easier to adapt to the unknowns of the trip.

So far, the cast has done one read-through of “The Ticket,” but CHS junior Samori Etienne said he already enjoys it and thinks audiences will too. He added that it should also be interesting to have a role in changing the play as the preparation process moves forward, something he has never had the chance to do before now.

“That’s going to be a really amazing experience — being able to have a part in crafting in some ways the play we’re going to perform instead of just doing a ready-made play,” Etienne told the News-Record in a March 12 phone interview. “We’re all excited.”

Etienne said he is also excited to visit Scotland on his first time in Europe. While there, he said he is most looking forward to experiencing the culture and seeing a worldview different from that in the United States. And he is grateful to the Parnassian Society and everyone who has contributed to making the trip happen.

Carolyne Leys is also appreciative of all who have helped to bring about the trip, saying that performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is something of a dream come true for her. The CHS senior’s parents actually met at the festival and have taken Leys there numerous times in past years. In fact, Leys said that seeing so many unique performances at the festival was what inspired her to become an actor. So having the opportunity to perform there is both entirely unexpected and very special, she said.

Of course, Leys is also aware that there is a chance the trip might not happen, even after all of the work the students have put toward raising the money. But she also knows that South Orange and Maplewood are two towns that appreciate the arts. Therefore, she urged anyone supportive of CHS to donate to the cause and give the students an experience that they will never forget.

“It can really be a lifechanging experience,” Leys told the News-Record in a March 11 phone interview. “It would be amazing for this group of kids to come back enriched with a more global perspective.

“And I think that if you support performing, or you support any form of self-expression or art, then this will be a great way to support that,” she continued. “When else are we going to get the chance to go perform a show in Scotland?”