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Their singing echoed down the cobblestoned streets of Edinburgh: an entire group of teenagers belting out musical numbers and carnival-barking at passersby. They were impossible to miss in bright, neon-green shirts emblazoned with QR codes, which linked to a website offering tickets for the teens’ upcoming performance at the Festival Fringe—the prestigious arts and theater gathering that takes place in Scotland each year.
“Just across the road, just around the corner!” they sang. “Wait ’til you see what’s next!”
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Busking is a time-honored way for festival artists to market their shows, but these neon-clad teenagers drew so much attention that some local street performers felt threatened on their own turf and asked the kids to find a different spot to perform. But that wasn’t the locals’ only question. They also wanted to know: Who were these young upstarts, anyway? And where did they come from?
Last month, about 80 students from the Denver School of the Arts (DSA) made the trek to Edinburgh to perform at the highly regarded Scottish theater festival, which took place from August 5 to August 29. The festival is known for pushing artistic boundaries and being a platform for discovering new talent—like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose solo stage performance of Fleabag in 2013 later became a hit television series.
DSA’s theater and stagecraft department first performed at the Festival Fringe in 2002 and has since tried to make an appearance every four years. One of those planned trips was set to take place in 2020, but as the schools’ director of theater, Shawn Hann, began organizing the overseas trip, COVID-19 hit. Organizers cancelled the festival. And as the world changed overnight and cities entered lockdown, Hann had an idea: What if she had her students write a musical about what it was like living through such a strange and turbulent time?
The result is re:ACTION, a distinctly Gen Z and Colorado-centric take on life in 2020. The musical, framed around songs provided to Hann by the Tony-award winning composer Jason Robert Brown, zeroes in on the unique ways the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and mass shootings have affected high schoolers. “It’s like our SparkNotes on 2020,” says Nicole Siegler, currently a sophomore at DSA who helped write and starred in re:ACTION.
The premise of the hour-long musical is, perhaps unsurprisingly, meta: In re:ACTION, a bunch of Colorado theater students are planning to travel to New York to perform a musical. In its earliest scenes, the audience gets a glimpse of the characters’ pre-pandemic lives, which includes a blossoming romance between Jordan and Cassidy, a gay couple struggling with the pressures of social media, as well as other teenager-y problems that Gen X parents in the audience would remember with a bit of nostalgia.
“Do any of you have Mr. Williams?” asks one character in an opening scene. “Is it true we have a test today? I swear to God—precalculus is going to be the end of me!”
But then the challenges of 2020 make their unwelcome appearances, as they did in real life, and high school morphs into something unrecognizable: awkward, technical-difficulty-ridden Zoom classes and exasperated teachers reminding students again and again that “YOU’RE ON MUTE!”; kids constantly texting one another about how strange, lonely, and sad they feel during lockdown; teenagers falling ill to the virus; and high schoolers reckoning with the social and racial unrest associated with the Black Lives Matter protests.
Siegler says she drew upon real-life conversations she’d had to write a scene in re:ACTION in which her character, Krystal, is trying to explain to her white friends how to best support her in the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. “I’m exhausted trying to explain to people what it means to be Black to people who will never understand,” her character says in the scene. “I have no one else to turn to in this predominantly white school. People who wouldn’t give me the time of day are suddenly very interested in how white privilege is affecting me and my life. It’s not my job to tell them; I shouldn’t have to be the one to educate them on this.”
The musical also tackles other difficult conversations, some that are Colorado-specific, including mention of how poorly public schools are funded in the state and how the Boulder King Soopers shooting once again reminded Gen Z how it’s been threatened—over and over—by gun violence. “As a cast, we were ambitious about our goals, and I think that can be said about our generation as a whole,” explains Ben Feldman, a current DSA senior who performed in the musical. Although a lot of the topics are heavy, Feldman says, “I think the biggest theme is hope.”
Feldman believes audiences at Fringe agreed with him. “It was well received,” he says. “They see we’re ready to build our future.”
DSA theater students hope that re:ACTION has a future, too. While there aren’t any performances of the musical currently scheduled in Denver, Feldman says it’s a possibility that other high schools might take up the show and stage it. Siegler brought up another intriguing prospect: that some theater troupe in the future takes the script and performs it as a kind of time capsule.
“I think it’d be really cool if, in 20 to 40 years, when hopefully COVID-19 isn’t as prominent, people can watch that and [experience] things that happened that they didn’t go through,” Siegler says. “I hope this show can happen again and again.”