I have been putting off a post about the status of Pippin for several days now because things have been moving at lightening speed. The following series of reflections will happen over several posts… In other words, it’s a long story, so I’ll break it up into chapters for you.
This past weekend, I pushed to block two fairly complex scenes. Vice-chancellor Julia Hsiao came to see the first one of the two rehearsals that weekend. She gave her two cents to the cast telling them that they needed to “look alive” and “be an actor at all times.” In typical Chinese fashion, the students clapped at the end of her “speech.” The next day she visited a singing rehearsal and that is where the “evaluation,” if one can call it that, took a nose dive. Julia noticed that the singing, for lack of a better word, sucked. She immediately mobilized an “emergency” meeting for that afternoon between the key folks involved in the show.
At this point, I must point out that Julia Hsiao instills panic among the people here at Shantou University. Days before her arrival, word gets around and things get done to accomodate her. She sweeps through on her one week visits and attempts to make the necessary major changes at the institutional level. They call her the “reformer” here because her job is to make the University function increasingly like a Western educational institution. She cuts any program or practice that uses the justification of “it has always been done that way….” As such, what Julia wants, Julia gets. So when an “emergency” meeting is called, people know there in for some “reforming.”
That said, it’s slightly difficult to reform a musical of which there is no precendent. Our meeting was focused around two questions: 1) Why aren’t there more talented singers and dancers in the musical? and 2) How can we salvage the musical considering our past mistakes?
As for question one, it became very obvious that it boiled down to auditions. I took the best 25 students from the 51 that auditioned. Julia’s questioned why no one stopped to think that the people cast were not the best in the school. She came down hardest upon Rain, my day-to-day adminstrator, because she knows the students well enough to know that the ones that auditioned weren’t that good. In all honesty, I thought auditions went fine; I was prepared to work with the best of those who auditioned as any director must do. Since this is the first time this school has put on a musical, only the adventurous students auditioned, not the good singers and dancers that wanted to take part in well established activities on campus like classes and contests.
As for question two, I was quite taken aback by the verb to “salvage” because I was under the impression that the effort wasn’t half bad. Students were working diligently. I was pretty much on track with blocking. Tech stuff was moving along. But Julia wanted to kickstart a redoubled effort to improve the quality of the show. She is right in the fact that I can only teach so much; students have a starting foundation level of ability and it’s my job to build on top of that. She wanted to give me new students who have a greater foundation so that the show will naturally go further. However, it’s a little late for new students. I’m not going to give up my current cast even if a quarter of them can’t really sing or dance. So I lobbied so that none of my cast would be replaced.
So the edict was put forth: have supplementary singers and dancers, an off-stage singing group piped in over the sound system and a dance group just for a few dance breaks. Although that doesn’t exactly give the current cast much confidence, it’s somewhat of a solution to improving the quality of the show. I was promised four-part singing and advanced dancing choreographed by a real-live teacher. I could handle a strong surge of greater dedication and hard work. Who could ask for anything more, right?