RIC alumna takes Hope High School theatre production to Scotland

For the third time since 2000, the theatre program at Providence’s Hope High School will participate in the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In each case, the production’s prime mover was Christine Auxier, who holds bachelor’s (1979) and master’s (1990) degrees from Rhode Island College in the areas of theatre and education.

Christine Auxier
On August 9, 10, 12 and 13, the Hope troupe will be performing Laurie Brooks’ “Triangle,” a play about the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (“shirtwaist” is a type of women’s blouse). The fire occurred on March 25, 1911, in New York, and claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, many of whom died because managers had locked doors to the stairwells and exits to prevent theft.

In past years Hope High actors performed “Rowing to America: The Immigrant Project” (2000) and a student-written adaptation of “Beowulf” (2004).

This year’s festival will take place from August 5-29 and will feature some 18,000 events encompassing music, theatre, dance and comedy from all over the world. According to Auxier, it would take an individual three years of 24-hour days to see everything at the Festival Fringe.

Also accompanying the Hope theatre group will be Alonzo Jones, the technical director for this production of “Triangle” and a 1997 RIC theatre alumnus, who is also a former student of Auxier’s at Hope High School. Jones is currently the technical director and manager of Rites and Reason Theatre at Brown University.

The Hope High School Theatre Program was selected as part of the American High School Theatre Festival (AHSTF). Each year, the AHSTF brings about 40 productions from across the U.S. and Canada to Edinburgh.

The road to the festival begins with a nomination from someone in the field. This year for Hope, it was a theatre teacher, and in 2004 it was the president of the Rhode Island Theatre Education Association.

Alonzo Jones
Since the nomination is based on the overall quality of the theatre program and not on a single production, the school is asked to provide a 15-minute video of selected productions, which is sent to 10 different judges, most of whom are college theatre professors and other theatre professionals, who make the final decisions.

But it was Auxier, along with her students, who decided to do “Triangle.”

She described her typical approach to selecting plays with her students: “I’ll ask them what they want, and then I’ll go from there, rather than just to pick a play and say ‘live with it.’ I’d rather that they have that buy in. And when they have that buy in, they commit more to it.”

This time, the students were looking for a drama, as they had recently done a good amount of comedy. They wanted a play that used the ensemble and that was “about something important.”

Auxier saw “Triangle” as dramatizing a landmark in American labor history, since the fire spurred legislation and union activity that improved fire safety and general working conditions, especially through the efforts of the Triangle Factory women workers.

There were personal connections for Auxier, too. Her grandfather worked at the Alice Mills Rubber Manufacturing Plant in Woonsocket, which recently burned, and her mother and aunt were garment workers as teenagers.

Immigration is another theme that Auxier felt the students could relate to. Most of the victims at the Triangle Factory had immigrated from Italy and Eastern Europe, and many students at Hope or their families are fairly new to the U.S.

“The play is also about the promises we made immigrants who came in off of Ellis Island and what happened to them when they got here,” Auxier said. “As the ensemble in “Triangle” states, ‘We came in search of freedom. A better life. . . . No more famine, poverty, oppression. Programs that cut us down like cattle in a charnel house. Our hopes, our dream, our miracle.’”

“They all thought they were going to have a better life, and in some cases the next generation had it. But we’re kind of doing the same thing now. It’s like history repeating itself.”

Hope High School students in the play "Triangle."
“Triangle” uses a supernatural framework to blend its themes. In the play there are two parallel lives. There is Malena, a girl from a Mexican family who nearly 100 years later is living in the same house as Sophie, a young seamstress who perished in the Triangle fire. Sophie’s ghost has been trying to call out to people but no one has been listening, except Malena.

Sophie is filled with guilt, partly because she did not save her sister, Rose, from the fire and partly because she was responsible for having Rose work at the factory in order to keep her from running around with the wrong crowd. When Sophie and the ghosts of other dead factory girls appear to Malena, she encourages Sophie to tell her story, transporting them back in time to relive the tale.

Auxier has also taken a special approach to help her students get inside their characters. Along with having had them research documents from the era, she had them learn to sew, just as the garment workers did.

“It’s a method acting kind of thing,” she said. “They all learned how to use the machines, and some of them made, almost, their entire costume.”

Their sewing teacher was Elsie Collins, who also was responsible for designing and making the show’s costumes. Auxier had met Collins at the Scituate Art Festival and struck up a friendship. Collins is the owner of Thistle Cottage Studio in North Providence.

In Edinburgh the Hope High students will do more than give performances. They will also be drumming up an audience along the Royal Mile, a cobblestone stretch between Edinburgh Castle and Holy Rood Palace, where there is a stage that the players can use to perform excerpts from the play and promote the show.

Describing the atmosphere along the Royal Mile, Auxier noted, “There are street performers everywhere – people on unicycles riding on cobblestone, fire-eaters and acrobats.”

What’s probably most beneficial to the students is that they are treated like any other group of professionals. Critics come in and critique the groups equally.

Auxier commented, “They don’t look at you and say you’re a high school group or a college group or a professional group. It’s just done the same way. And you never know when they are going to show up.”

In addition to preparing her students for the international stage, she has also been busy with fundraising. No money for the trip to Scotland is coming from the city or the school department, but there has been support from area foundations and unions, as well as from the high school’s East Side neighborhood, which Auxier said has been “amazing.”

Seven years ago, after bringing her second production to Edinburgh, this Hope High drama teacher thought she would never find the energy to do it all again.

But the challenge of taking a troupe from an urban school to the international stage for a third time proved too tempting – so she and her students are packing their bags.