26 January 2016
As we rehearse and get to know each other, individual character traits, habits, and idiosyncrasies emerge. There’s the one boy who knows all the music and sings along with everything, regardless of whether it’s his part; there’s the little boy whose shoelaces are always untied; there’s the one who slides into place at the last minute; there’s the one who lingers in the dining room after his classmates have left and scoops up the remaining food; and there’s the one who, for three days, has been eating the protective paper off the bottom of the steamed buns, thinking it was a kind of sugary coating. (Actually that was one of our American team members.)
Then there are the quirks of the beautiful hotel, a stately building seemingly lost in time, with frayed carpeting and walls that are just barely clean enough. The weather has been the coldest in recent years here in Guangzhou. It snowed this week for the first time in eighty years. Our partners and hosts have been so generous and caring, treating us like royalty even in the midst of these freezing temperatures. It feels colder in the studio than outside, mostly because the windows are ajar in order to accommodate a rope tied around the building’s framework that may well be keeping the entire structure upright. I still don’t know whether there’s a bowling alley.
The acting has improved now that one of the teachers translated the synopsis into Chinese. On the first day the students were moving around simply because that’s what their instructors wanted them to do, and they looked like it. Now they understand that they are part of a story to be told, and they are starting to act with that motivation. Encouraging risk-taking continues to be a challenge, one to which the students are slowly starting to rise. The ten principals have made the most progress, and for the most part they act big and aren’t afraid to make a mistake in front of their friends. With the others, there’s more hesitation: They visibly begin to make an entrance and then second-guess themselves and shy away.
We work long days, from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. with an hour for lunch and a half-hour in the mid-afternoon. We practice strict discipline, locking latecomers out of warm-ups and potentially short sections of the show if misbehavior continues. The students are learning about Broadway and not aware of the show regimen, urgency and hard work it takes to sing, dance and act while learning thirty five songs in seven days. The children are a talkative bunch, and the worst offenders during rehearsal are pointed out and offer a bow and an apology to their classmates for wasting their time. By and by the seriousness of our journey is sinking in, and kids who spent their after-dinner hours on the second day playing video games spent those hours on the third day practicing their singing and choreography. They are realizing that by slacking off they will let their classmates and teachers down; deep inside they likely subconsciously realize they will disappoint themselves as well.
They have varying facility with English, and the fast lyrics are particularly challenging. Slow repetition of short phrases to be subsequently joined together and sung quicker seems to be doing the trick. Many of the kids aren’t used to singing and can barely project; they need to remember that singing is just speaking on pitch. They all have the capability to handle the complicated choreography and unfamiliar language, but it takes unwavering attention and total commitment. We’re gaining momentum and confidence and even though we stumble, we are well on our way toward a stellar performance and sense of personal accomplishment.