Tom Ossowski to Direct INTO THE WOODS at Bejing's Central Academy of Drama

By: Jan. 02, 2014
A Sondheim musical always raises the bar, but perhaps never so much as in director Tom Ossowski's staging of the first Mandarin language version of Into the Woods at Bejing's Central Academy of Drama.

"American Musical Theatre is new, new, new on the Chinese cultural scene," says Ossowski. "This is all just starting in China, and because the Academy sets the standard for all theatre in China, our production of Into the Woods is helping China begin to translate and introduce American musicals to a whole new audience."

An associate professor in the acclaimed BFA Music Theatre Program at Florida State University, Ossowski encountered unique challenges working with a company comprised primarily of juniors in the Academy's Music Theatre Program, their professors, and professional designers.

"It's exhilarating," he says, "but different. The students here did not grow up going to see musicals; they do not have video access like we do in the States; and they're dealing with seeing everything they do see in English. Did I say new? China is just beginning to navigate music theatre with an eye toward developing their own cultural history with the genre."

The two-week run of Into the Woods to capacity houses in December set the stage for more to come. With more performances across China (and maybe other parts of Asia) projected for summer 2014, the production also has other professional theatres considering transferring the show to their own houses.

"While I can't be on sabbatical forever," says Ossowski, "I've had some discussion of future collaboration in China. I would love to build on this season's positive experience." In the summer months, he shifts his attention to Northwest Nebraska's historic Post Playhouse, where he dons his artistic director persona for a repertory season of American Musical Theatre. "Unlike their Bejing counterparts," he quips, "this audience knows who Rogers and Hammerstein were."

He found, however, that the collective themes of Into the Woods - families, parenting, growing up -- resonated with his company even when the fairy tales and cultural statements did not.

"We worked on translation every day," he explains, "trying to make things more accessible . . . and I've changed, too, as I learned more and more about China, the culture, and of course the university."

The Mandarin script had gone through two versions before Ossowski came on board and then another major revision with his input-and constant reconfiguring throughout the rehearsal process.

Working through three interpreters (Tom knew no Mandarin when he arrived in Bejing in September), he was able to draw on their individual strengths in communicating with the company and shaping the production.

"Very talented people," he says with a touch of awe and a great deal of respect. "English first language or Chinese first language. Music background. Theatre background. You're routinely adjusting depending on the translator."

Over his four-month stay in Bejing, Ossowski cultivated the camaraderie and collaborative teamwork of a theatre ensemble. From the opening number for the International Theatre Conference and the entertainment throughout the Chinese National Theatre Awards Ceremony, he got to know and better understand his potential performers before actually casting Into the Woods, and in the aftermath of the production he offered master classes in playwriting, directing, theatre history, and criticism.

But before heading home, he took the time to visit tourist attractions like the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall.

"I want to take it all in," he says. Especially now that I can impress people with my mastery of the Chinese language. I can say Good Morning, How are You, and Can I have a to-go box? How universal can you get!"