At the end of May, a group of Highlands High School students premiered the play Escape Routes at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. Fort Thomas Matters first covered the show's trip to the festival by speaking with writer and co-director Ben Eglian and co-director Kaiya Linkugel in the days leading up to the premiere. During the festival, Escape Routes quickly won over audiences in the Cincinnati area, and was presented an award for their theatrical achievements. Fort Thomas Matters recently caught up with Eglian again to discuss the impact that Escape Route's experience at Fringe Fest has left on him.
Eglian's show was part of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival's high school division, FringeNext, which features four shows that were carefully chosen to perform at the festival. FringeNext was created to help showcase new talent and encourage teenagers to push the limits of their creative abilities. Escape Routes left a mark on audiences, and the production walked away with the FringeNext Audience Pick award for their performances at the festival. “The day I got this award was probably the best day of my life. It was the most insane thing because I had to go up and give a speech the night that I won and stuff. It was just incredible, absolutely incredible. There weren't really any words,” said Eglian.
When Eglian started writing Escape Routes, he didn't know it would eventually make it to a stage, therefore the thought of it ever winning an award far exceeded his initial expectations. “The whole idea of Escape Routes started out as just an idea,” said Eglian. “I didn't know what it would go into, and I didn't even know I would submit it into FringeNext. I thought that it was a cool idea, but I had never written a show before.” Luckily for local audiences, Eglian didn't let his lack of experience stop him from spending endless hours perfecting the play. “The fact that not only did it get accepted (for the Cincinnati Fringe Festival), but it was chosen by all these audiences of Greater Cincinnati is the best. That people understood it so well, and liked the concept so much to have that award is insane,” said Eglian.
Eglian also served as co-director for Escape Routes, and seeing his words come to life onstage was a very fulfilling experience for him. That doesn't mean that he didn't have to endure all the initial nervousness that accompanies the debut of a new show. “The first night you're just kind of praying that people pick this up, and laugh at the funny parts, and cry at the dramatic parts. When we first got the audiences in and they were laughing and they were getting upset at the sad parts, it was just absolutely crazy,” said Eglian.
Seeing audiences experience the show for the first time, and truly absorb the message he was putting out into the world with Escape Routes was an important moment for Eglian. “It's mind boggling still for me to think that was something I was writing on my laptop really late at night, and now 100 people are seeing this at a professional venue, and processing this, and I'm controlling their emotions based on what I came up with that night. It's insane. Greatest feeling ever, definitely,” said Eglian.
Escape Routes also served as a lesson in how to handle constructive criticism. Like everything in life, it's hard to win over everyone. The show received many good reviews, but there was a common negative review that stated that the show was too ambitious and that it perhaps was trying to tackle too many themes at once. Eglian wasn't discourage by this criticism, and instead was able to find the silver lining amongst the negative reviews. “They said, though, that the fact that the show is really ambitious is actually a good thing because that's what FringeNext is all about – trying new things, experimenting, and opening up new doors to our minds. It was a very broad show, and people both liked that and disliked that. Personally, I liked the fact that the show was very ambitious. I thought that it needed to be that way, that it needed to cover all the things I experienced in high school. I felt like if I were to leave any of it out, it would have just been ignorant of me. I felt like everything in the show had a good purpose to it,” said Eglian. He firmly believes that the themes discussed in the play all needed to be talked about, and Escape Routes created a platform for teens to honestly and truthfully express themselves and their life experiences.
Not only did Escape Routes win over the festival's audiences, but is also reminded festval organizers not to underestimate the talent of teenagers. “When we won the award, they were telling us (Fringe Festival organizers) that when they first read Escape Routes that they were really unsure of it because of how ambitious it was. They thought there was no way high schoolers can pull this off and do this show, but they said that they were proved so wrong in that assumption. That was very moving to hear that. Very inspiring, definitely,” said Eglian.
Now that the Fringe Festival is behind him, Eglian is ready to focus on his next creative endeavor – college. Eglian will be studying music at Northern Kentucky University starting this fall. His band, Break & Run, is also recording their first EP this summer. While Eglian doesn't have any writing projects in the works right now, it's safe to say Escape Routes won't be the last time we hear from him.