Yesterday evening, Pippin made Shantou TV news. Sure, I could understand almost nothing of what was actually said about the show but there were some great clips with the band and cast. They had an interview with Dr. Jun Liu, the Executive Director of the English Language Center here at Shantou University.
I have given numerous interviews in the last several days following the first performance. Student journalism associations on campus were interested as well as several media outlets outside the school. I sent off a few e-mail interviews, two of which went to big city media (somewhere in Guangzhou and 21st Century in Beijing). I met with a Shantou city journalist several times, the first of which was over a week ago after a press conference at the University. He just kept on coming back. I ended up doing two TV interviews and one personal interview over lunch.
I also spent a few moments with students from the Shantou Beat, the English student newspaper on campus. After the interview, the student emailed me the transcript. I was surprised that what was written was nothing of what I said. It brought my high thoughts of English language work at the school back down to earth. As much as I think most students here can understand me in English, that’s not always the case.
Below are my email answers to a few questions asked of me by Michelle at 21st Century:
- Are you a fan of musicals? When did you first get to know musicals? How?
- I am huge fan of musicals because they have the power to reach people in unassuming ways. Behind the spectacular music, sets, and lights there lies simple truths. I got to know musicals when I was quite young by both seeing touring Broadway shows or going to New York to see shows. In high school (secondary school), I had the opportunity to take part in musical productions for first time.
- I was brought here by Shantou University Vice-Chancellor Julia Hsiao. After much persuation to come to China, of all places, I accepted work here on something fantastically new and different.
- I chose Pippin because it is one of the most flexible musicals ever written. It does not have to be done a certain way, like many traditional American musicals, for it to be a success. Our production has taken advantage of this flexibility by adapting the show to a Chinese audience as well as scaling the show to size of the University and the strengths of our students. The message of Pippin also fits really well with an educational institution. It examines a problem that faces all graduates of higher education: what to do when one leaves school and walks out into the scary world. The show ultimately shows the audience to follow your heart not what others tell you.
- Pippin is originally set in medieval Europe. That is a far away time and place for an audience of Chinese students in the digital age. I wanted to reach them not by shocking them into liking something entirely foreign in time and place but to bring a Chinese aesthetic to the show that would please their eyes. Therefore, the sets and costumes of the show reflect that choice to add what I call the “Chinese twist” to the show. On top of that, we also adjusted some of the lines in the show to truly make it a comedy for audience. For example, “good food” was changed to “good Shantou food,” making for a good local laugh. Customization was key to keeping the audience engaged.
- The most challenging part for the actors was likely the fact that they could not simply just memorize the lines, they had to understand what they were saying. That’s really hard for English as a Second Language speakers. A line toward the end of the show requires the chorus to yell “comprimiser!” Well, for the longest time, the chorus did not know what that meant. Only when they understood did their acting come alive. The hardest part for me as a director was making it clear that this production was not just something to have fun with but something to be taken seriously. I pushed my students hard because I had high expectations for them. They ultimately had to realize that this was not just another fun event on campus, this was a big deal.
- I really enjoyed working the students here. They have great energy and willingness to learn. Since they had no experience, I had the pleasure of building a theater community from the ground up. Unlike many other college-age actors in the U.S., they are not jaded or scarred by years of previous musicals. Students here loved every moment on stage without fail.