When Hardin-Simmons University sophomore Sam Cress, a graduate of Cooper High School, won a role in last spring’s theatre production, Birds on a Wire, he had no idea how it might change his life.
On the first day of Sam’s freshman year at HSU, theatre department head and associate professor of theatre, Larry Wheeler, along with artistic director and assistant professor of theatre, Dean Nolen, revealed some very lofty plans to their students.
“Students in the first show of the spring semester will be the cast to perform in the largest arts festival in the world,” said Wheeler as he confronted his students with the news that they would be traveling to Scotland the following summer to perform in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The play, Birds on a Wire, by New York playwright Shauna Kanter, would bring to life one of the greatest ecological disasters in American history, the Dust Bowl, during the festival. Cress, as a freshman, knew he wanted a part.
As university life began to unfold, a number of untold and unexpected opportunities emerged for the theatre students. First among them, they would work directly with playwright, Kanter, as they began to develop their character roles as members of the 1930’s Russian-Jewish family living in the Texas Panhandle. Birds on a Wire premiered in HSU’s Van Ellis Theatre February 16 - 25, 2012.
In late July, students came back to campus to begin brush-up rehearsals on the production of the play. After several full days of rehearsals, the group piled into vans and headed off to Edinburgh by way of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and a European touchdown in The Netherlands’ capitol city of Amsterdam.
“Some of the students had traveled before and knew what was ahead for them,” says Wheeler. “Others had never been very far from Texas. Some had never flown before, some had never owned a passport, and some had never heard someone try to communicate with them in a language other than English.”
The adventure of a lifetime, one surely to mold and resonate with each of the students, had begun.
In Scotland, Cress found himself inspired by the number of street performers, and today can be seen around campus sporting a mode of transportation that veers from the usual bikes and skateboards peppering the campus during class changes. While Sam can be spotted learning to juggle outside of Behrens Auditorium, one might also catch sight of him as he learns to ride his inspired mode of transportation, a unicycle.
“As I was in Scotland I saw many street performers, clowns, and mimes,” says Cress. “It really sparked my interest in street performances; these folks were having fun and getting paid for it,” exclaims Cress.
Sam, along with fellow theatre major, Jeremiah Johnson, of Seabrook, Texas, who played the patriarch in Birds, will perform their new juggling and unicycle act during Art Walk this Thursday, November 8, 2012, in downtown Abilene.
“Jeremiah also had the spark,” says Cress, “so we decided we should try some of the things we saw in Scotland. Dean (Nolen) backed us up and was fascinated that we were tackling these ourselves. One day Jeremiah and I went to Bike Town to see if they had unicycles we could learn to ride. They had two, just sitting there, waiting for us!” Sam says, “We told Dean about our plan and he purchased them for us so we could learn to ride them in the upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,” says Cress.
At Art Walk, “We will be performing as if we were gypsy street performers (Art Walk theme is “Gypsy Life”), like some of the people you see in France and Russia. I enjoy making people laugh and watching people smile, so what better way than street performance and physical comedy,” says Sam.
Wheeler says he enjoys seeing his students learn outside of the four walls of the classroom. “There were many lessons learned this summer in Scotland.
“Our students learned the value of the dollar as they paid for their trip, and they learned to convert dollars to pounds and pounds to dollars as they purchased food and trinkets in the shops they visited.
“They learned to communicate with shop keepers, waiters and bus drivers as these Scotsmen spoke in their lilting Scottish accents. They learned to communicate with our University of Puerto Rico friends as they tried to communicate with us in their broken English, because we could not speak their language.
“They learned to navigate the city using a variety of street and bus maps as we learned which busses went to what part of the city. They learned time management as they went from one play to another, deciding if they could walk the distance as quickly as it would take to find a bus to take them near that same location.
“They learned to depend on one another for direction, for scheduling, for being at the right place at the right time. They learned interdependence as we set up, tore down, and performed Birds On a Wire in a two-hour time period four times during those two weeks.
“They also learned to appreciate the work of their fellow Fringe performers as they listened to the poetry, literature, drama, and music of these performers.”
Audiences will enjoy watching Sam and Jeremiah as they unicycle during this fall’s Twelfth Night, taking place just prior to HSU’s December graduation. The play chronicles the riotous disorder expected of the occasion in Shakespeare’s day, with the plot drawn from the short story Of Apollonius and Silla.
The play is directed by Nolen and will be in the Van Ellis Theatre November 29, 30, and December 1, then again on December 6, 7, and 8 at 7:30 p.m.
But first, catch the adventurous duo during Art Walk this Thursday. “We will probably be rehearsing right before Art Walk, maybe right after 5:00 around the HSU campus,” says Cress.