On a snow day in March, Highlands High School students Ben Eglian and Kaiya Linkugel chose not to spend the day napping or sled riding with friends during a coveted day off school. Instead, they made the trek through the icy streets to Newport's Pepper Pod, where the duo had their first discussion about Escape Routes.
Escape Routes is a play written by senior Ben Eglian, which dives headfirst into the hearts and minds of today's teenagers. Eglian enlisted the help of junior Kaiya Linkugel to serve as co-director on the project, which debuts this month as part of Cincinnati Fringe Festival's FringeNext division. FringeNext features four plays chosen from high school students. With the exception of Highlands High School's Theater Department Director Jason Burgess serving as producer, the play is entirely run by students.
Escape Routes introduces audiences to the lives of two seemingly different students: Clark and Johnny. “It follows the story of a conflicted valedictorian named Clark, who is forced to take a philosophy class for the last semester of his senior year because he needs to get his arts credit. He's taken Calculus and Anatomy and stuff all through high school to get these high grades. He's looking for a place to sit, and the only place to sit is by this guy named Johnny, who is the complete punk of the school, the exact opposite of Clark. He has a 1.0 grade point average, and doesn't really care about school,” said Eglian. As the play unfolds, we discover more about Johnny and are able to glimpse his intelligence. The two are forced to work together on a project about the meaning of life, and end up spending time together thanks to the assignment. “They start hanging out because of the project and stuff, and an unlikely friendship develops between the two. It sort of builds a juxtaposition between the two that while they would seem so different statistically, they're very similar when they get to know each other. They start hanging out with Johnny's friends and stuff, and they all start developing different ideas on life and stuff, especially Clark. Clark starts to develop himself a lot more, and doing calculus and anatomy and trying to become a neurologist is not what he wants to do. He has other aspirations in life that he's always had,” said Eglian.
Escape Routes has been a year in the making for Eglian when a thought popped into his head in May of 2014. “It just kind of popped into my head because I was thinking about being friends with one of my best friends, who I saw a representation of Clark being me and Johnny being him,” said Eglian. “It kind of built from there.” Eglian then looked to the story of Clark and Johnny when a school assignment called for a script. In November 2014, Eglian began work on a 10-page writing assignment for an acting class. Cincinnati Fringe Festival requires 20 pages of a script to be submitted, so Eglian dove back into the story to grind out another 10 pages for the festival's application. Once he found out that the play had been submitted, he started working on completing the script. Casting for the play began this past March, and the play's final draft was completed in April.
No one has ever claimed that writing is easy, which Eglian experienced firsthand while writing Escape Routes. The Escape Routes process took Eglian through an entire range of emotions. Some parts of the play were difficult to write and emotionally draining, but others were rather enjoyable for Eglian. “I'd say most of it was a stream of consciousness if you know what that is, where it's just writing whatever comes to your mind. So it was that, and a lot of just digging into myself and trying to find exactly what I wanted to say...I like where it got, but it was sometimes emotionally draining to write about because there are sad things that happen in the show, and it took a lot out of me to write that. Trying to get it all done in a set amount of time too was very difficult,” said Eglian.
Writing Escape Routes was Eglian's first real foray into the life of a playwright. “When I submitted Escape Routes to Fringe, I made it known that I'd never really written anything in my life as far as something as extensive as this.” While much of his story was directly inspired by his high school experience, music was also a major factor in his approach to storytelling. Eglian, a member of the local band Break & Run, credits music for helping him form some of the themes seen throughout Escape Routes. Musician Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots has been a major point of inspiration for Eglian. “All of my big ideas that I've come up with in life and stuff, and my ideas in life as I hold them now, and a lot of the themes in Escape Routes too are deeply rooted in what I've interpreted some of his songs to mean...A lot of the songs he's written and stuff about dealing with fear as an emotion, the idea of getting past fear, and many of their songs talk about ways of doing that and stuff and finding life's purpose. One of their songs talks about creating something completely new of yourself, like the idea of finding something that only you understand and nobody else can understand, and if you can find that, you'll see purpose start to form. That, I'd say, is the major idea in Escape Routes. I feel like it's a message that everyone needs to hear,” said Eglian.
Once Eglian had his sights set on the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, he quickly recruited the help of Fringe veteran and classmate Kaiya Linkugel. Linkugel's play, Names, was showcased in last year's FringeNEXT category. She was able to take her experiences from last year's festival and apply them to her position as co-director on Escape Routes. “It's more of a challenge, but in a good way. It's different to direct a play that's not yours, and also to be collaborating. It's way more fun. I have a great time with Ben. We get along really well,” said Linkugel.
This time around is a far more relaxing experience for Linkugel. Being an experienced Fringe participant has allowed her to understand the importance of having fun while also ensuring that the quality and integrity of the production doesn't falter. “Last year with my own show, I was very anal and everything had to be perfect,” said Linkugel. “I'm sure that's how Ben feels. It's just way more relaxed and more fun this time, and I'm really learning how to just have fun with it and just go with it.”
With the Escape Routes team assembled, Eglian and Linkugel were ready to tackle the rehearsal process with their 11 cast members. Eglian's attention to detail while writing was beneficial in the long run. The Escape Routes cast was able to jump right in with blocking and sink their teeth into the story. “Once the script was written, it was pretty much smooth sailing from there. Writing the script was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. So pre-production, we pretty much knew what we wanted for the blocking and stuff. When we started rehearsing, we pretty much got in and did it and stuff, and it's been pretty easy from then on out,” said Eglian.
Watching his words performed on stage has been one of Eglian's favorite aspects of bringing Escape Routes to life. “Oh my gosh, it's crazy! The craziest thing was when we were casting it, and hearing people read from the script at first.” Eglian admits to have been nervous at first, worried about how how his cast, crew, and fellow students would interpret the script. “It translated perfectly,” said Eglian. “Everything we wanted was there...I've been so impressed with how it's translated on stage. I couldn't be happier.”
One of the many admirable qualities of Eglian and Linkugel's partnership is that they have a distinct voice and a message, and they aren't afraid to use Escape Routes as a vessel for that message. Metaphors play a big part in Escape Routes, and although the play is by teenagers and for teenager, both Eglian and Linkugel have worked to make sure that adults get just as much out of the play as teenagers. “I think I want people ultimately to know that in the long run, the education system will put so much emphasis on doing this or that, and you have to take these A.P. classes to be successful. They try to emphasize the idea that success and happiness are the same thing, and I would venture to say that that's not true at all. That they are, in fact, opposite. I think that's what I want people to know,” said Eglian. In the play, Clark is bound for greatness, he is on path for the Ivy Leagues, on the road to success. But he learns that it isn't what he wants to do, but instead he wants to be a writer. Like many teenagers (and adults alike), Clark is faced with choosing between what he's been told will make him successful and what actually, truly inspires him even if some might think it's the wrong the choice. “I think that that's what the play's screaming of, that you can do that. It's best if you do that because the best things in the world, the best creations, and the people who get remembered are the people who did something that was considered stupid at the time,” said Eglian.
One of the major messages that Eglian wants to convey with the show is that people should be doing what makes them happy and what inspires them each day. “If that's what makes you happy, and that's what you want to do, then do it and don't stop. Create something that you want, and find your purpose with that. If you just follow the status quo, and just do what society tells you you have to do forever, then you aren't going to find happiness, you aren't going to be happy with yourself. That's what I want people to take away from it,” said Eglian.
Hey, adults – pay attention because this show is also a way for you to gain access into the minds of today's teens, a way to bridge the gap between generations. “The majority of the people who come see the show are going to be adults, and I really want adults to stop invalidating teenagers. I think that adults are like, 'Aw, you're 17 years old, you don't know what you want to do, you're a kid.' No, I'm a person. My thoughts are just as valid as your thoughts, and in all honesty, I'm not as jaded as a lot of adults, so I have the world at my fingertips right now. I think that's a beautiful thing,” said Linkugel.
For Eglian and Linkugel, taking ownership over your life is also an important part of the show. “I think that owning yourself is a huge part of the show because I think that reason people don't own themselves, or even like themselves a lot, is because they're invalidated by their parents and their teachers maybe. I think that's a really big issue. I think that understanding that you are important, and that your life is about your life even when you're a kid. Understand that you're valid even if adults might not see that you're valid. And I want adults to see that teenagers are capable of having real thoughts and doing real things. I mean, we're doing these real things right now,” said Linkugel.
Escape Routes is likely just the beginning for Eglian and Linkugel. Eglian is off to Northern Kentucky University in the fall with a major in music. As for Linkugel, she's working on a new play that was started a few months ago, and will soon be making decisions about her own future as she starts her senior year at Highlands High School in the fall.
You can catch a performance of Escape Routes at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati. Purchase tickets for the show and find out more about Escape Routes by visiting the Cincinnati Fringe Festival's website.
Performances are at the following times:
Thursday, May 28 - 8:15PM
Saturday, May 30 - 4:40PM
Saturday, May 30 – 9:15PM
Saturday, May 30 - 4:40PM
Saturday, May 30 – 9:15PM