High School Musical: China’s Premiere

High School Musical: China’s Premiere

In 2008-2009, I taught at Guangxi University in Nanning, China. The particular college I worked for is called Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), and all instruction is in English. The dean was always looking for opportunities for the students to use their English outside the classroom, and because I had a background in theater, I got the hair-brained idea to produce and direct a production of Disney’s High School Musical, using a cast and crew of students who had absolutely no theater experience.

When I pitched the idea to the dean, he looked pleased and said, “how long will this show run – 15 or 20 minutes?” “Oh, no,” I said, “we’re going to do the whole show. An hour and a half.” I thought he was going to fall out of his chair.

What I didn’t know was that nobody, but nobody in southern China had tried to put on a full-length English language musical. The Vice-Dean told me she had wanted to do such a project for five years, but never had anyone to do it – meaning there had not been anyone as crazy as me to suggest it, much less to produce and direct it.

The project immediately became hugely important to the college. Our first organizational meeting was attended by 40 members of the drama club, the student union president, the leader of the student union (a position higher than president), the minister and vice-minister of the university’s culture department, and a faculty professor, plus me and my choreographer, Brenley Nicole Muyen, another teacher at SCIC. The big musical number that closes the show is “We’re All In This Together.” It certainly applied to this production of HSM.

Auditions followed a reverse schedule of how they would go in America. I was used to actors wanting to audition as early as possible. Not so in China, where it is considered too “forward” to put yourself ahead of your fellow students. The first night only 15 people showed up to audition, and 14 of those were girls. There were almost more student volunteers working the audition (shuttling people from waiting room to audition room, etc.) than there were auditioners. Then 50 people showed up the second day, and finally 80 showed up the third day. All the best people waited until the third day to audition.

China’s premiere of “High School Musical”, directed by Robert Woods.

My next eye-opener came after I cast the show. There was a political blow-up over the casting of “Gabriella,” the lead girl. Seems a couple of girls who didn’t get the part went to the SCIC student union and said we cast the wrong girl. The student union representative then came to me and said, “you have to replace the lead girl. She’s not cute enough or tall enough. Replace her, or the student union will not support the show.” I was furious. Both I and my choreographer told them in very frank language that we were not changing the casting, and that not only did we think the girl we cast was very cute, but we had cast her because she was the strongest singer and strongest actor, and also the one who looked best with the lead boy. I tried threatening that if we could not have our choice for the lead, then we would just cancel the show. But the rumbling continued. As with everything in China, direct confrontation did not work. China is a collectivistic culture, so everything needs to be done by consensus. I enlisted the aid of the faculty member who was in charge of the student union, and she worked things out.

The performance date (one night only) was scheduled for March 15, 2009. We had our first read-through of the script on December 10, 2008, and I was really pleased. The kids were all reading their parts cold, in English, which of course is a foreign language to them, and they not only read well, they even began acting it a bit. It boosted my confidence that we would have a good show. We started blocking rehearsals the next week. Oh, but first I had to draw a map of the stage and teach everyone what was stage left and right, and upstage and down stage. And of course, every time I used those terms during rehearsals, I had to explain them again.

Finding a rehearsal room was a challenge. The first blocking rehearsals were done in the SCIC staff ping-pong room, with the ping-pong table moved out of the way. Then we had a blocking rehearsal on the outdoor patio of one of the dorm buildings. Finally, we got access to a big room above the east campus cafeteria, but we never had it to ourselves. While we tried to rehearse on one side of the room, other groups practiced dancing, kung fu, and cheerleading on the other side. I could hardly hear myself think, but my Chinese students did not seem to notice. Living in a country of 1.3 billion people, they were quite used to distractions.

Then the semester ended. I could only hope that the students would learn their lines and songs during the month-long break.

We started up again on February 16, and went hard at it. We rehearsed every day, Monday through Friday, from 5:30 – 7:00 pm (that was the only time no one had classes, because Chinese college students go to class from 7:40 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.), and on weekends we rehearsed for 4 hours on Saturday and 7 hours on Sunday. The first two weeks back, I was completely in despair. No one had learned their material, except for the two leads. I had to drill the chorus on all their songs, note by note. Brenley spent hours working the dancers – when she could get them to show up. It was very frustrating. Half the time only a few dancers would show up. The actors and singers were more disciplined about coming to rehearsal, but no one ever comes on time. We schedule rehearsal for 5:30 pm, and maybe we get started by 5:50. There was simply no way to enforce the kind of discipline that I was used to with American actors.

And then there was the rehearsal space problem. We were given access to a room on east campus that was large enough, but half of it was occupied by approximately 5,000 plastic stools, which were full of mosquitos, and it had no electric outlets, so we couldn’t plug in the computer or speakers to play the music. After three very frustrating rehearsals in that space, we got kicked out when the university rented the room to a bank. Finally, we got access to a huge room in the gym, with wood floors, mirrors on the walls, and plenty of space. That was a lifesaver. We were able to really get work done there.

Because all of my student actors and crew were first-timers, I wore a lot of hats for the production: director, producer, propmaster, costume procurer (basketball outfits), and sound engineer. Because we did not have a huge chorus, we needed to record them all singing the songs, and then perform to that recording, so when they sang in performance, their volume would be doubled. We had a small recording studio at SCIC, so on the final weekend before the opening, after rehearsing all day, the chorus came to the studio and spent three hours on both Saturday and Sunday nights recording the chorus songs, with myself operating the recording equipment. Then I spent another 10 hours editing and mixing the sound, so it would match the Disney-recorded musical accompaniment we were using for the rest of the songs in the show.

China’s premiere of “High School Musical”, directed by Robert Woods.

Despite all the headaches, the show was coming together, which was truly amazing when I stopped to think about what the students had done. After all, they were performing the show entirely in what to them is a foreign language – English. The fact that they all learned their parts was incredible, but that they also really acted their characters was just marvelous.

But the last week of rehearsals, it was looking very shaky. The run-throughs were going fine – that is, when we had a room to do them in. We were supposed to get into the actual theater for the first time on Friday, March 13 (I should have known that was going to be a bad day) for a technical rehearsal – to set the lights, try out the sound system, etc. I had earlier learned that the sound system in the theater was not capable of handling our needs. I wanted wireless microphones for each of my 12 lead actors. The sound system in the theater would handle only 4 microphones at a time, and after that it would just produce garbled noise. I had rented a professional sound system, but we could only afford one day of use, and even that was rather expensive. So we would not have microphones for tech rehearsals on Friday or Saturday, but only on Sunday for a final rehearsal and the performance.

I thought we could still set lights on Friday. When we got in to the theater Friday afternoon, we were informed that if we wanted lights, it was another 500 yuan. Never mind that we had paid 700 yuan per day to rent the theater; that price didn’t include use of the stage lighting. We paid the extra fee. Now we could turn the lights on, but we were not allowed to refocus their positions. They put light on the stage wherever they were pointing. We could not adjust them. So my elaborate lighting plan was scrapped, and instead it became, “turn the lights on when the curtain goes up, and turn them off when the curtain goes down.” On Saturday, we had a sort-of dress rehearsal, but we had to do it without stage lighting (couldn’t afford another 500 yuan for that day) and no one had costumes, except for the boys playing the basketball team members, who at least wore their uniforms. We also still had no microphones, and our sound system was still what we had used in rehearsals – my laptop computer, hooked up to fairly small speakers.

In the rehearsal rooms, that had been fine, but on stage in a big theater it wasn’t nearly loud enough, so everyone had trouble hearing the music and they were always getting ahead of or behind the music, and singing off key.  Our final opportunity for a dress rehearsal was Sunday, 3:00 to 5:00. The sound system that I had rented came at 1:30, along with the men to set it up and run it. The set up took an hour and a half. Finally, we started the run-through at a little after 3:00. It went pretty smoothly, except for one little hitch. The four leads (Troy, Gabriella, and Sharpay) had all left to go have their hair and makeup done professionally. The idea that the lead actors would simply not show up for the final dress rehearsal had never entered my mind. So the run-through was done with me, or others in the cast, voicing all the lead parts.

All during the rehearsal, the sound man kept adjusting volume levels on the 12 wireless microphones, and I had to keep running around the stage and backstage, directing the movement of furniture and props, and other assorted madness. And of course, there was no stage lighting. We could only afford to turn the lights on for the actual performance that night.

China’s premiere of “High School Musical”, directed by Robert Woods.

But there was one last surprise. The curtain in the theater opened and closed using a hand crank device. When we went to close the curtain after the afternoon rehearsal, the handle for the crank was missing. We searched everywhere, except for a locked room on the second floor of the theater. We figured it had to be in there. But the man with the key to that room was not around and wouldn’t arrive until 7:15 pm that night, and the pre-show festivities were due to start at 7:30. Well, the man finally arrived about 7:25, and yes, he said the handle was in that locked room. But he wouldn’t open the room until we paid him 500 yuan. The crank handle was being held for ransom! We had no choice but to pay. We needed to get that curtain closed. So another 500 yuan that we did not have was spent, and the curtain was finally closed just as the last of the audience was being seated.

In the theater they say, “bad dress rehearsal, good performance.” Thank goodness it turned out to be true. The performance was fantastic. The students all stepped up their performance levels to far beyond anything they had achieved in rehearsals, the audience was enthralled, and the performance ran smoothly and without a hitch. Most importantly, we proved that a Western-style musical could be successfully performed, in English, with student actors. It was a huge achievement for everyone involved, and in the process I grew to appreciate the challenges and joys of directing in a foreign culture.