BWW Guest Blog: Passport to Broadway in Shanghai - Day 1
Resident Musical Director Blog by Seth Weinstein
The StudentsLive team has a habit of touching down in China around the time of a major storm. As we approached on Friday morning at 3 a.m. - maybe the only hour at which a 75-minutes-early arrival is less than desirable - there was a bit of shaking, and the plane swerved as it decelerated after landing. On the drive into town from the airport, we could barely see through the windshield due to the downpour.
"You know, you flew into a typhoon," said Derek, the director of the Shanghai Community International School. "I thought you'd be diverted." Last year Amy Weinstein, the founder and director of StudentsLive, and I, Seth Weinstein, the musical director, arrived in Guangzhou just after a similar torrent.
Our choreographer, Gabriella Zimányi, had a similar experience arriving from Budapest via Vienna. Her pilot had at least given an announcement that a diversion might happen.
When we were all accounted for, Derek showed us around the school, a six-story building in the tranquil Pudong district, near Shanghai Disneyland. Our home for rehearsals would be a basement dance studio with mirrors and an electronic keyboard, and when the choreography was learned we'd move to the well-appointed theatre upstairs. This is the week before students return to school; the building was quiet (apart from some floor waxing) on this Sunday, but we'll soon have the company of teachers having their orientation.
Our students number eleven, a mix of SCIS students at this and a different campus; students from other middle and high schools (including two sisters); one college student; and the mother of one of the students: the program is open to all who wish to improve as performers of the three theatrical disciplines of acting, singing, and dancing. Our show, to be performed after just six days, is a half-hour compilation of sections of musical-theatre songs, preceded by a specially-written spoken rhythmic social-media frenzy.
After we introduced ourselves to the cast, and vice versa, Amy led everyone in acting exercises designed to get the students interacting and becoming comfortable in the 10-by-4.6-meter space that will be our stage area. With few exceptions, the actors were shy at first, wary of looking each other in the eye and feeling a connection, though some started to show confidence as the morning went on. We prepared to act with dance warmups incorporating singing and vocal warmups incorporating movement, and three actors presented their own audition songs for feedback and coaching (all will eventually do so). Goals for improvement included treating the lyrics as heightened speech - with the resultant emotional undertones - rather than syllables to be methodically and dryly attached to syllables; acting without gesticulating with the hands; and creating a true scene to act as the impetus for the song. Singers in musicals, we impressed upon them, sing because mere talking is insufficient to convey the characters' feelings.
We gave out parts and broke for lunch, during which the cast was surprisingly silent. As they ate, they studied their scripts without a word, eager to delve in and become their characters.
We started the afternoon with a cold sing-through of the score. That's right - they sang the show without knowing it. They had been provided a recording of the show beforehand, but no one had yet been taught his or her part. The challenge of being asked to sing an entire show they didn't know resulted in a nervous energy, with cast members afraid to make mistakes. "Just become your character," we told them. "It's not important to get it right." Eventually it will be, but at that time the goal was to tell the story as much as possible, even while fumbling through the score.
After that, we properly taught the first quarter of the show, a clash between rebellious children and their domineering parents. Many took to the task admirably, infusing their words with convincing attitude. A few were still worried about being note-perfect and word-perfect. They should be tomorrow, by which point the first act must be memorized, but that was not the assignment this first afternoon. "Sing out loud!" became the watchword of the day - even if they didn't have a handle on the sometimes rapid-fire lyrics.
After rehearsal, Amy asked, "Who had a breakthrough today?" Many of them answered along the lines of making connections with other cast members and feeling the freedom to become their characters. We circled up and held hands, feeling the unity of a cast and its directors. We are proud of how far they've come in just eight hours, but they still seem hesitant with each other, and escaping the bonds of fear of error may take some time.
Choreographer Blog by Gabriella Zimanyi
Today (6th of August, Sunday) was our first day with the students at the Shanghai Community International School. Our participants range from mostly middle/high schoolers all the way up to one university student and a parent too. As always, our first day was mostly about breaking the ice and getting to know the students a little bit.
I started with a warm up which, apart from preparing our bodies for the physical challenges also incorporates several dance styles (jazz,tap, hip hop-to name a few) and partial choreographies of "Our Time". It was decided to include all of this in the short 13 minutes to also build muscle memory besides warming up of course. While going through it all, Seth, our musical director gave vocal instructions -to show how musical performers often have to act/dance/sing all at the same time. It was a little overwhelming at first but the students joined in quickly. Amy emphasized in advance to let go of any perfectionism they'd have and just give it all they got. I could see many of them still trying to get everything right but the ones who could let go completely really began to be more confident towards the second of the routine.
As a casting director, Amy was looking exactly for these students in the crowd and could soon make decisions about certain roles. One of our main dance roles is a character named LeeAnn; who even becomes a choreographer at one point in the show. Due to our extensive warm up it was easy to spot the student who will play her from now on. Besides dancing itself these few minutes were great to spot the students who are the most advanced in juggling singing, acting and dancing all at once. This is another skill, which is just as important as any of the individual talents in the certain field.
Regardless of the age difference some of our younger students ended up turning into entirely grown-ups once these different layers were added on top of one another. They didn't panic or stress through these sing-throughs and could soon step into character while singing their parts and even started some basic dance steps while singing. We will start learning choreography tomorrow and I assume our greatest challenge will be to focus on the different elements all at once but I am looking forward to spotting more hidden talents of student who didn't open up as much on their first day.
Adult Participant Blog by Renata Simaika
The workshop started today, however my learning process has begun earlier, while I went through the well structured material we received. We got some tasks with very clear instructions, which was a great preparation for what we started today. I never thought I could have a breakthrough so fast, already after the very first hours, I could hear myself at some points singing so freely, no thoughts about lyrics, notes or technics, totally immersed in the story. Amazing! I could feel and see the same happening with other students, the acting coaching and music support was so brilliant, helping us to make personal connections and playing the piano in tune with our feelings at the moment. I am looking forward to the next day, when we are going to put the movements together