Trailblazer makes a song and dance about musicals
After spending seven years in Vienna learning how to perform and direct musicals, Jilin native Sun Shaofei , 27, returned to China in 2002 determined to spread her love of the art form to students and audiences back home, starting in Beijing.
When did you discover your talent and love for music?
When I was four, my school bought some desk-sized electronic pianos and we had the chance to learn the instrument. Four months into the class, everyone was already able to read the sheet music, but I still couldn't. But, by just looking at the teacher play, I could imitate and play along. When my teacher discovered that I was actually playing by imitating her, she was shocked. She told my parents that I had a talent for this and should continue to learn music. After that I took lessons in piano, as well as dance. At the end of primary school, a friend of my mum's was moving to Beijing and mum asked me if I wanted to go along. So I moved to Beijing when I was 12, took the entrance exam for the Central Conservatory of Music Secondary School and started learning classical music formally.
How did musicals come into your life?
I actually started out playing the clarinet, but fate seemed to have a plan for me, and little by little I was led to where I am today. Every student at conservatory school has to learn an instrument, and when I first got in, I had no clue what to learn. My teacher looked at me and said I should learn a wind instrument because I was quite tall. The next thing I knew I was assigned to learn the clarinet. I liked the clarinet, but I really didn't like practising for hours every day by myself. But you have to do this if you want to become good. By the end of middle school, I decided that the clarinet was really not for me. I wanted to move to the then newly set-up Beijing Art School to learn music theatre. It was a major decision, and we had to hold a big family meeting. In the end I persuaded them to support me. At the Beijing Art School, I saw, for the first time, a video of the Broadway musical Cats, and I was captivated. It had music, as well as dancing and acting, and I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do. There I also met Niu Xinci, one of the biggest names in music theatre, and a teacher to whom I owe much. At her recommendation, I left for the Vienna Conservatory to learn about musicals.
Why Vienna and not the US? Isn't the US the home of Broadway shows?
Yes, but Vienna is still the birthplace of classical musicals. Actually, Broadway musicals are only the grander and better-known versions of the art form. Musicals also come in smaller shows, often with only a handful of performers and lasting no more than an hour. It is a more flexible art form, compared with opera, and is more adaptable to modern trends.
How did you end up directing musicals? Do you miss performing?
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I saw my acting teacher at a rehearsal, and she got into an argument with the director over how to perform something. In the end, even though she disagreed, she had to follow the director's orders. I have strong opinions, and I saw that being a director would allow me to impose my thoughts on the actors. I'd be involved in all parts of a performance, from the acting, to the lighting and the costumes. So I decided to earn my master's degree in musical direction. In my final year, I found a fellow graduate student to write a script for me, and we enlisted undergraduate students to play the parts. It was all voluntary, so rehearsals weren't easy. We rehearsed in bits and only managed to get everyone together a few times towards the end. The script was an adaptation of [Pulitzer Prize-winning novel] The Colour Purple, about discrimination.
How did you become a teacher? What sets you apart from other music theatre teachers?
I'd always wanted to come back to China, but I wasn't sure what to do. I spent about six months in Australia after Vienna, just watching the different musicals there. And then, by chance, I gave my old teacher at the conservatory school a call, and she said I should consider going back to the school to teach. I'd never thought of becoming a teacher before, but now I'm absolutely enjoying it. Being around students is a blissful thing- I see them grow. Musical performance is a relatively new subject at the school, and I'm the first teacher who specialised in musicals, rather than coming from an acting or music background.
What are the biggest challenges in teaching and promoting musicals?
Musicals are still a relatively new art form, so there are limited resources for them in China. Also, there's a misconception that musicals are for singers or dancers at the bottom of the heap. This is wrong; musicals require people who are strong in both singing and dancing, on top of acting, not the other way round.
Apart from teaching, have you also been directing?
I've directed two musicals with the students since 2009. One of the shows was on children left behind in villages by parents who went to make a living as migrant workers, and the other one was on droughts and how we can help save the planet by little things such as using less water. I'm now working on a third one about marine pollution. I get most of my ideas from the news. I hope that, apart from improving their understanding of musicals, the students also take away something more from these years in school. Most of them might not end up with a career in music, but it will be enough for me if they can remember some of these little things in life, such as saving water. I first learned about animal protection from my high school teacher. Although I wrote the script for these musicals, I used existing songs so we can't perform them commercially. But I hope to find more opportunities for my students to perform these musicals, perhaps with other schools or for charity. I'd like to bring the joy of musicals to more people. Of course, one day, I hope I'll be able to produce an original musical. I'd need a big team, and more experience, and I'm waiting for the right time.
What's your latest project?
I just finished coaching a People's Liberation Army unit for a 'red song' singing contest, and I'm so happy that we won. Rather than just doing a standard performance on a stage, I taught them to walk among the audience toward the stage when they started singing. This also highlighted the fact that soldiers are from the people. It was fun working with the PLA unit because they were so disciplined.