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Churchill Thespians Grace the International Stage

Drama teacher Jessica Speck and 21 students participate in the American High School Theatre Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

This summer, students in Churchill High School’s drama department learned to win laughs from American and European audiences alike.

Twenty-one Churchill students participated in the American High School Theatre Festival, which is part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, an international, month-long celebration for the performing arts which is now in its 60th year. The high school students showcased their talent alongside college groups and small theater troupes from across the world.

“It’s a great range of production to see, participate in and be exposed to,” said drama teacher Jessica Speck, who is now in her seventh year at Churchill High.

About 500,000 people live in Edinburgh, and the population doubles during the Fringe Festival. Throughout August, the city’s main drag, called the “Royal Mile,” is filled with performers previewing their plays and passing out fliers of show times.

THE CHURCHILL STUDENTS transitioned easily into the international thespian scene. They performed “Feiffer’s People,” a play by author and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, which explores the tribulations of modern society, particularly the humorous tensions of male-female relationships. As the theatrical equivalent of a comic strip, 40 brief sketches are packed into the 80 minute show, allowing the students to sample a broad range of characters.

Senior Leeron Silberberg, junior Adam Pelta-Pauls and sophomore Casey Stein all went on the trip and performed.

“I had a monologue of a woman who claims men don’t understand her because they don’t listen to what she means, only what she says,” said Silberberg. “I can relate to that sometimes. Performing it was fun because it was like an inner me, but exaggerated.”

Pelta-Pauls discovered that European and American audiences respond to different brands of humor.

In one scene, he played a hooligan who was supposed to rough up his fellow actor. Pelta-Pauls found he wasn’t getting much of a reaction from the physical humor, so in the next showing – without telling his partner – he improvised. Instead of pushing, he leaned in and popped his colleague’s collar, eliciting sincere surprise on stage and laughter from the audience.

“[The Europeans] responded a little more to some of the intellectual jokes than the American audience did,” he said. “But at the same time there are a lot of similarities. A smile is a smile in any language.”

Stein agreed.

“I liked how the jokes weren’t all slapstick – there was intelligence behind it,” he said. “The stand-up comedy there was really original.”

AS A SOPHOMORE, Stein was one of the youngest on the trip – “and the most handsome of course,” he said playfully. It was his first Churchill High production.

“I got a really good learning experience out of [the trip],” he said. “The main thing I learned was how to take a character and become that character.”

The teens traveled with Speck and five chaperones to London for three days and then Edinburgh for 10.

“This was my third trip to Scotland, and it is really warm and really welcoming,” said Speck.

The organizers of the American High School Theatre Festival arranged for the students to learn traditional Scottish dancing.

“At first the kids were like, ‘Do we have to do this?’” said Speck. “Then they were like, ‘Nevermind, this is fun.’”

Pelta-Pauls said he enjoyed the waltzes and Scottish jigs, though he still hasn’t worn the kilt that he bough in Edinburgh to school.

“I went to Edinburgh Castle and Sterling Castle,” said Pelta-Pauls. “They were so cool. I like going to see castles and thinking about what it was like to live there. I try to push the thought of plague from my mind.”