Personal documentaries replace performing at Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Four students sitting on the floor each with a frame around their faces, one of them holding the book titled Orlando.
The Edinburg Project theatre course is offered only once every two years to about a half-dozen students who prepare a play to perform at the Festival Fringe in Scotland. The “Orlando” actors, from left, Matthias Volker, Whitney Barrett, Susset Tamayo, and Adam Ritter. (Image: Olivia Demberg, stage manager)

The Edinburgh Project course at Penn is one-of-a-kind, offered only every two years for about a half-dozen students chosen by the Theatre Arts faculty. They produce a one-act play, working in conjunction with a professional director and travel to Scotland to perform in the famous Festival Fringe in August. 

But this year, of course, they could not complete their production of  the play “Orlando” or travel to Scotland to perform. Senior lecturer Marcia Ferguson had to come up with a new plan. 

“This was a special moment in time. We lost it. So, we had to turn it into something else,” says Ferguson, acknowledging everyone’s disappointment. “It was my promise to them, personally, that they would have a creative experience in this class that they could be proud of, and that would allow them to grow as artists.”

Like other courses at Penn, they met in videoconference sessions. They discussed their research on the  novel, Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando: A Biography,” the 1992 film “Orlando,” and the play they had intended to perform, an adaptation by playwright Sarah Ruhl

They also continued to incorporate concepts and technique they learned from The Wilma Theater’s artistic director Blanka Zizka during her artistic residency with them, even as the course moved away from live performance.

The focus shifted from what would have been the start of rigorous rehearsals together. Ferguson instead asked the students to find material from the novel and play and use it to create short videos each week that reflected their own transformations in this time of crisis, from their perspectives during the global coronavirus pandemic. 

Six people's faces on a computer screen.
After moving the course online, the ensemble in the Edinburgh Project class shared and discussed their videos relating to the novel and play. Clockwise from top left: Marcia Ferguson, Whitney Barrett. Matthias Volker, Adam Ritter, Susset Tamayo, and Olivia Demberg. 

“They went on to develop themes. It was almost like magic, around time, the way time moves in the pandemic and in the novel and play,” she says. 

The story of Orlando presents an adventure that transcends time, place, and gender, spanning centuries, from the time of Shakespeare to Victorian England to the bustle of the early 20th century. The character Orlando ages only 36 years and at one point goes to sleep a man and wakes a week later transformed to a woman. 

Orlando’s personal adaptation to a changing world certainly resonated with the students. 

“One of the things they did incredibly well was to adapt to the situation, pivot on a dime, to collaborate on film, in discussions, and through their own mini-documentaries,” Ferguson says. “This group in particular has shown such grace under pressure, each and every one of them. They have been so resilient, and I am so proud of them.”

Ferguson put the videos together into a short film, titled "The Orlando Project," featuring the work and reflections of each of the five students in the course.

Four students dressed in costume.
The ensemble shot publicity photos for their production of “Orlando” just before Spring Break and the restrictions due to the pandemic. (Image: Olivia Demberg) 

Junior Matthias Volker, a double major in theatre and linguistics from Washington, D.C., had planned to take the course even before his first day at Penn, including it in his application essay. The aspiring actor purposefully spent his semester abroad in the fall, in London at the British American Drama Academy, so he could take the course this spring. 

But he says he discovered an unexpected creativity in making the videos for the class. The theme of transformation, and the character Orlando’s gender change, was especially personal for Volker, who is transgender. 

“Adapting to the aspect of different gender is spoken to so beautifully in the text, lines I could take and apply to me,” Volker says.

In his final video, Volker recites those lines while putting on makeup in the closet of his Philadelphia apartment. “Not having to put on gender for the rest of the world, getting to reevaluate my personal transformations, because of the isolation quarantine has brought, has been one of the personal pleasures of it,” he says in the video. 

In her final video, junior Whitney Barrett, a double major in theatre and cinema and media studies, references the perception of time, while baking biscuits with her mother in their home just outside Dallas. 

Food is a powerful metaphor in Woolf’s novel, symbolizing nurturance of art and of self, in times of feast or famine. Barrett used the image of making biscuits as a way to comment on the way the pandemic has prompted changes in relationships.

“I feel like we’ve expanded time of self and of the pandemic,” she says. “I was making a comparison by spending quality time with my mother, a fortunate silver lining, being able to spend two hours making something with her and having random conversations.” 

Five students and a professor sitting on the LOVE statue on Penn's campus.
Before the coronavirus kept students and faculty away from campus, Marcia Ferguson (front right) and the ensemble gathered for a photo at the LOVE statue on College Green. 

Junior Olivia Demberg, who was to be the production’s stage manager, is a double major in theatre and cinema and media studies from Fort Collins, Colorado.  She also commented on time in her video, noting that her experience in quarantine has given her a new appreciation for human connection in general, as well as for the importance of staying present for every moment in life, both good and bad.  And junior Susset Tamayo from Dallas, a theatre arts major and urban education minor, who was originally cast as Orlando in the play, used images of nature and family photo albums to focus on the theme of the “present moment” in Orlando and in her own life. 

Sophomore Adam Ritter, a double major in theatre and chemical and biomolecular engineering, sang a number from “Beauty and the Beast” in his video, the tenor performing in a makeshift studio in his Anchorage home. He had rewritten the words to relate to his role as an archduchess in the play. 

“Based on our discussions in class, and our weekly contributions, it is a more personal project, and still very much embedded in the lens of Orlando for all of us,” Ritter says. “We draw on that to interpret this crisis and what we each are going through and then bring that to one another and end up connecting through that experience.” 

Missing the experience in person with the other ensemble members has been disappointing, he says. All are in a theater history course together this semester and have been in others previously. But this would have been the first time they performed together in a production. “There is nothing that comes close to the strength and intensity of the relationships you build day in and day out of rehearsals,” he says.

The videoconference sessions, though, have been one of the most positive experiences for him during the quarantine. “It was surprising the joy I felt during that first meeting of the class after the extended spring break,” Ritter says. “I’m continually impressed and inspired by my classmates. They are incredible people, so supportive and creative and intelligent.” 

Being apart actually made the ensemble stronger in some ways, Volker says. 

“We worked on being closer when distanced: I think we got closer as an ensemble, closer to the text, closer to Marcia, because of work that we did,” Volker says. “We all really cared about the art we were making. It was so refreshing to see that transfer to video as well."