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To the Fringe or bust!
A pack of Gainesville High students prepares to descend on a drama festival in Scotland
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Gainesville High School drama students rehearse "Swing!" on Wednesday evening at the school's Performing Arts Center. The students will perform the singing and dancing show multiple times during a two-week period at the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In some cases, organizing teenagers is a bit like herding cats.

So, try getting three dozen ninth-graders through graduated seniors together to perform a non-stop, high-energy, hour-and-a-half long performance of singing and dancing set to classic swing tunes.

And then round them up and take them to Scotland.

Whew.

But as teenagers go, the kids in Gainesville High School's drama department have been pretty organized - they've been orchestrating evening rehearsals for as many of the three-dozen students in the play who can make it (keeping in mind that many students have jobs or pesky family vacations to attend). They've marked out the area of the stage they'll be performing on in Scotland, which is about half what they're used to at the GHS Performing Arts Center. And the students who serve as music and dance captains for the show aren't shy about telling their peers to step it up or go home.

They have good reason to step it up, though. The group is scheduled to perform as part

of the American High School Theatre Festival, which takes place as part of the International Fringe Festival next month in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The festival is a tradition that's almost 60 years old. It's an invitation-only event that brings theater companies from around the United States and the world to showcase their talents in one massive month long theater extravaganza. About 50 high schools from across the United State have been invited to perform, including Gainesville High.

At this year's Fringe Festival, there will be 31,320 performances of 2,088 different shows in 247 venues around the city.

The GHS students, under the direction of Pam Ware, are coming to the festival armed with a well-honed production of "Swing!," which they performed earlier this year at the high school. But now, the kids said, they're ready to bring this fun romp through the 1940s to an international level.

"Finally getting to see it and everything come together, it will be rewarding. Very rewarding," said Callie Sartain, who will register for her classes at the Freshman Academy during a break in final rehearsals on Monday, the last day before the group hops a plane to London.

On Tuesday, the group departs for the United Kingdom and performances of "Swing!" are scheduled through Aug. 9. The students return Aug. 11.

The trip costs $5,000 per student, and parents and kids alike have been furiously fundraising to help defray the costs. Events included auctioning off a car, a tour of homes and multiple "pajama dramas" the students hosted for elementary-aged kids interested in drama; the students would stay overnight at The Warehouse and learn singing, dancing and play theater games.

Rising senior Chandler Darby said many of the students started rehearsing for the Fringe Festival production of "Swing!" during the past school year, and now that the cast has had the summer to polish the choreography, it's a matter of making the production a part of their daily routine.

"Now the whole production is like second nature to us, which is really good," he said. "And we're all kind of like this big ‘Swing!' family. Now it's just a lot of fun, and it will be good to bring it to Scotland when it's in that kind of condition, when we can still have fun and still now what we're doing."

As he and Mack Boyd, a rising sophomore, waited for rehearsal to start earlier last week, they recalled the production earlier this year and how the cast still wasn't sure about that swing dance thing.

While some in the production have dance experience, it was mainly in ballet - completely different from swing dancing. And others had never danced before at all.

"About a week before it happened, we were like, ‘What are we doing here?' he said, recalling the May production. "And then, like right before performances, we started clicking and we were like, ‘Hey, we can probably do this.'"

And now it's time to focus on the next step, he added.

"Right now we're all really excited and we're trying to get ready for it," he said. "Everybody's really excited and pumped abut the trip."

This whole experience of learning strange new dance moves, constantly running back and forth and getting to know each other has only pulled the group together, the students say.

When asked to describe the cast, rising sophomore MaryTess Syfan had just three words: "Family. Crazy. Caring."

Ironically, the drama the surrounds them onstage doesn't follow them backstage.

So many students in that group are involved in so many other activities, many students said, that the traditional boundaries of high school cliques are stretched, with athletes eating lunch with hard-core drama geeks, and many rehearsal times shifting to make room for Key Club meetings or soccer practice.

"There's some people that I'd seen before but I really hadn't met them, and I've gotten to be really good friends with them," said rising senior Aly Hill, of the friends she's made in "Swing!" "There's a range of people, from upcoming freshmen to seniors and graduated seniors."

Lunchtime, for example, will find some students eating in the Warehouse one day, and then with friends from other groups the next.

"We see them during third period and we see them throughout school. We bond," she added. "There's all sorts of different people in here, from athletes to drama geeks like us."

This year there are four rising freshmen traveling to Scotland, which is a change from the last trip in 2005, when Angie Highsmith, now a rising senior, was the lone freshman.

But because these drama students will be entering high school already knowing upperclassmen, it makes the transition just that much easier, said rising freshman Megan Johnson.

"It makes you feel kind of prepared," she said. "Like, I know a bunch of people who kind of go up to high school thinking, ‘Oh I don't know anybody.' But we do."

Syfan agreed.

"It's still a little scary because you don't know what to expect, but it's like a safety net, that you know people," she said. "I sat with seniors sometimes last year, when I was a freshman. Like Angie (Highsmith); she's always been there for me. She's great."

Highsmith said this year's trip will be a chance to not only learn more about the historic places she saw three years ago during her first trip to the Fringe Festival, but it will be a chance to give back to the younger students.

As a freshman traveling with upperclassmen in 2005, she said she often looked up to them for guidance.

"I didn't know anybody, really; they were all my brothers' and sisters' friends. I was the youngest," she said. "I wasn't in the show when they did it the previous school year, so I had to learn all the dances over the summer. But I'm glad I did it because I got to learn under their professionalism and see how to perform to the best of their ability."

And it's a bit of a sobering experience, she said, knowing that this time she's one of the ones who the younger students are looking up to.

"It's a big task at hand and I'm a little nervous to tackle it, but I'm ready," she said. "It's time for me to step up, to take that leadership role.

But what happens if you throw a party and nobody shows up?

That's the one thorn in everyone's side when the students talk about their upcoming performances at the Fringe Festival. It seems that, because there are so many shows to see, the actors need to recruit audiences and do their own on-the-spot P.R.

So, GHS drama students, along with the thousands of other Fringe participants, will take to the streets - particularly, the Royal Mile through Edinburgh - to sell "Swing!"

The students have bright yellow T-shirts with the dates of their performances emblazoned across the back, which they'll wear for the public. They will also have two of playing cards with showtimes, which they'll give out to passersby.

And then there's the impromptu performances in the street, to entice people to want to see more.

"We don't even have one person guaranteed to see it, so we've got to sell ourselves," said Megan Johnson, a rising freshman.

"Basically, there's the Royal Mile, and if there's an open spot, we'll dance," added Sartain. "That whole street, it's like tons of different schools doing tons of different stuff. And you have to get people's attention to get them to come and see you."

The students plan on performing certain musical numbers from the show, but they might also end up doing a couple entire performances, said drama mom Tracy Troutman, who is going to Scotland as a chaperone and whose daughter, Charleston, is the dance captain for the production.

Troutman added that the bright yellow shirts not only help promote the show, but also help her in her role of keeping track of the kids, too.

"So they're kind of like little walking marquees up and down the Royal Mile, which is good," she said.

Ariel Thilenius, a rising sophomore, said she feels confident the shows will be a success.

"I think we're really prepared, just because we've had so many rehearsals and everyone who's in charge is really helpful," she said. "If you need to know something, or don't know a dance or something, they're really helpful."

While Thilenius and a handful of other students have been abroad before, even fewer have been to Scotland. Most student's haven't even thought about activities other than the Fringe Festival that they'll get to participate in - there's a workshop at The Globe Theatre, along with some professional plays and musicals.

"We have a packed itinerary, which I'm sure all our parents know about - because us teenagers, we really don't keep up with anything," Thilenius said.

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