Miss Saigon Musical Hits High Notes Bringing Colourful Characters to Life
Our heroine Kim runs frantically, searching through the roaring crowd. She appears anxious, almost hysterical, grasping at every straw. This is a scene from the classic musical Miss Saigon. On December 18, at the annual drama festival, this play was brought to life in a performance at YWIES Guangzhou.
The festival is a platform for drama students to stage performances on campus. As many as 30 students participated this time around. In the British and American education systems, drama is seen as an aesthetic skill that offers an important, if alternative, way of learning about the world and its nuances. At the end of the 18th century, Schiller, a German philosopher, introduced his model of aesthetic education. For him, the realisation of human "integrity" was the goal of any sound aesthetic pursuit. This, he felt, would enable people to be integrated in perfect harmony.
The notion of integrity echoes the educational dream of YWIES.
What’s Brewing with All the Research?
A month before the performance, students were busy rehearsing.
"They've done enough research," said Jemma Green, the drama faculty head, waving a thick research report put together by students with detailed background information on Miss Saigon, covering the Vietnam War, post-war ecology, and an interpretation of events and characters in the musical.
Time to Get Out of That Comfort Zone
"I want to interpret her story through my own understanding, as if I'm talking to myself," said Nancy Huang, a Year 12 student. She was the heroine of the school’s musical play. The lead character Kim, a lowly bargirl from a poor family, meets Chris, an American soldier, sparking a love story that lasts till the war ends and Chris departs.
Earlier, Nancy had been flipping through various versions of Miss Saigon. "She entrusted herself to this vortex, but she found the rope – which was her faith – to get out of it. Unfortunately, in the end, she destroyed herself, which also demonstrated a collapse of that faith. When she later met Chris's wife, she realised her son’s future was hopeless and her love story had come to an end.”
Nancy sensed that the heroine – a delicate, sensitive and insecure lady – had something in common with own self. A month before the performance, she decided to step out of her comfort zone to interpret this tragic role. "I can do better," she said to herself.
How to Slip into Another’s Skin with Confidence
Roy Liang played the second male main role, an engineer, who runs the joint where Kim works. The engineer is selfish, money obsessed, greedy and fearful of death. He is a pub owner with a crazy "American Dream" of ultimately immigrating to an overseas "paradise”.
Roy loved the character. “I was excited to learn that I could act as the engineer. When I watched different versions of the play, I was attracted to the role.” The drama festival is held every June but, due to the epidemic, it was postponed and the original casting choice had graduated and left school, giving Roy this unique opportunity.
It was the first time Roy had stepped onto the stage at a drama festival. He had spent all his spare time on this, including during the morning breaks and late at night, practicing and reworking the part.
He set himself the task of perfecting every detail. The first challenge was pronunciation. “The audience may not be able to hear what you are singing on the stage. Even if that is the case, I have to sing the correct tune.” He recorded each of his songs, played them back, and identified mistakes. And so he polished his role, again and again.
It was a whole new challenge. “I hadn't come across this type of character before and wondered how to play someone without much education. The teacher taught me not to flinch, to be funnier, and to play the part more confidently.”
Why a Bar Street Was Set in Jungle Green
In addition to playing one of the roles, Lily Zhao was also responsible for the stage design and props. Her research report not only presented historical materials and role interpretation, but also analysed the local climatic conditions.
Jemma says that her original idea was to use an interior bar scene as the stage setting but Lily's research suggested that a bar street would be more suitable.
The bar street was full of neon, but Vietnam was in fact poor and backward after the war. The contrast of “entertainment in the chaos of war” was what Lily chose to highlight with jungle green as the main backing tone to signify tropical rainforest and the war that was fought in this setting. Against the grey-green, the bright bar signs were particularly eye-catching.
There are three key scenes in the show – a bar in Vietnam, and a bedroom in both Vietnam and the United States. For the bedroom sets, Lily employed scenery behind the windows to distinguish each area. “This background with its small details highlighted the atmosphere of the musical,” she said.
Lights, Cameras, Action – and Dazzled Parents
Then, December 18 arrived. Nancy and her classmates raced to prepare for two performances. The morning’s audience consisted of students while the afternoon show was packed with parents. Principals and teachers managed the logistics.
Although the theatre lighting was dim, we could still distinguish the expressions on faces as people erupted with laughter or stifled a tear.
Kim managed to touch the hearts of the audience. She had run away from home and met Chris, hoping her luck would turn. When the American returned to his country, Kim was wooed by another admirer, Thuy. She adamantly refused the insistent overtures, in the end pulling the trigger to end her life.
For this musical at YWIES Guangzhou, in addition to two stages, the auditorium also served as an extended performance area. In the opening scene, Kim ran through the crowd, looking for the returning hero, drawing the audience into the performance.
As planned, the engineer evoked numerous laughs, kitted out in a loud purple suit with a huge gold ring on his finger, as he shouted, "American dream," with arms outstretched. Roy vividly interpreted the character’s conspiracies and constant profiteering. When his American dream was shattered, he tossed his money into the air in a climactic scene. Later, Roy said that the script did not call for this but he “thought the character would do it...” It was a smart bit of improvisation.
Andy Zhang, the actor who played Chris, is a leading light of the school’s drama club and a veteran of drama festivals. Watching his performance on stage, furtively looking left or right, or speaking faster when anxious, we can honestly say he was as good as ever.
“Drama is not just performance, it's life,” says Andy. “It was the audience that drove me forward.” At the end of the performance, he felt emotionally wrung out. “It is hard to say goodbye.”
Roy was excited right through. He said that he was exhausted but derived a sense of satisfaction from the play. “For the first time in my life, I worked so hard for one thing. I think I played the role well.” His parents, who watched their son perform, said, “We saw a completely different Roy.” We’re sure he will keep that purple suit and ring in his mind for a long time.
Life Changing Decisions on Stage
Jemma, the chief director, spent much of her time observing and recording the actors. She used to be a professional stage actress but is keen to be a teacher now. As Nancy and Tommy Hu practised to get a scene right three times, Jemma stepped in to demonstrate. Her body movements, expression, and hoarse shouts drove the point home immediately. Jemma is accustomed to subtly conveying emotion and strength to students enabling them to grow naturally. As with seeds that fall on the soil to later sprout, this quiet tutelage may be rewarded with late arriving blossoms.
At the end of the 19th century, Dewey, a famous American educator, introduced a drama curriculum. He was clear why. "Drama has irreplaceable advantages in cultivating students' abilities of learning, expression, cooperation, imagination and social interaction," he said.
"The rehearsals were hard, but they allowed us to become more united," said Jemma after the play. "In the process of practice and performance, students often encounter difficulties and challenges. They need to find ways to solve them. It is very important to develop these abilities."
Students had their views too. Tommy Hu, who played Thuy, said, “Acting needs a team. It’s not just actors, but also lighting, sound and so on… Drama is not only an improvement of the individual, but also a test of how to coordinate with others and make a balanced contribution.” Roy too realised that successful performances come through team effort.
Jemma believes that drama is a course to help children grow and develop and acting can encourage them to become more confident.
Before coming to YWIES Guangzhou, Andy had never performed on stage. Three years ago, in Year 9, he stepped onto the stage for the first time and experienced stage fright. He played the wizard in Cinderella. Although he was in a supporting role, he was still nervous. “I thought everyone's eyes were on me.”
To his surprise, after the curtain call, his nervousness disappeared and was replaced by happiness. “I like working with others to accomplish a major event.” After that performance, he felt that he was able to speak with greater confidence.
When Nancy transferred to the school, she was not interested in drama. At that time, her English was not good enough to keep up with the pace of the teacher. Through acting and repeating lines her English became more fluent and her interest grew. In one performance she played a supporting role. Although she had only a few lines she was spotted by Jemma. "I think you have done a great job! Do you want to come and join the play next year?” she asked.
Nancy describes Jemma as a guiding light. “She never forces us to act in any particular manner but gives us a lot of freedom. When I sang, I worried a lot. I thought my voice would crack or I would be unable to sing,” she says, adding, then Jemma would say, “Don't worry about singing in a low voice. Just sing it out and express your feelings.”
“Drama is not about cultivating stars,” says Shannon Shang, the Chinese Co-Principal of YWIES Guangzhou. “The most important thing is to develop children's expression, self-confidence, creativity and other advanced thinking skills.” In 2015 the school introduced drama courses to all year levels and brought in experts and teachers to conduct courses.
Taking ECE as an example, there is a special role-playing corner in the classroom. Role-play is the initial form of drama and an advanced learning style for infants.
At the beginning, with limited English ability, expression is limited. Of course, drama depends not only on language but also on manner and action. Students, who have not been systematically trained, may feel shy. However, once drama is integrated into the curriculum, students have a chance to participate in script creation, acting, organising, directing, and creating props.
Nancy plans to pursue drama for future professional development. Teachers will guide her forward. Drama helped her a lot during her growth years. In addition to the improvements in her English she likes the way her range of expression broadens whilst performing.
She feels that drama is not just a course, "It's another way to look at the world." As for Nancy's mother, she believes that her daughter is free to love and pursue what she really wants in YWIES Guangzhou. "I often tell Nancy that she should be happy with studies every day. After transferring to the school, she now knows what she wants to pursue.”
Although Andy didn't plan to take up acting as a profession, he still felt that he might regret it if he did not participate. He says acting never interfered with his studies. "Drama will always be an important hobby for me."
For Andy, “Acting is like putting your own stories into a drawer. When you want to express a certain emotion, you simply search the drawer. You get a clearer understanding of yourself. It's not just about releasing pressure. Acting enables me to understand other people better."
As Karl Theodor Jaspers, the German existentialist philosopher, once said, “Education is the art of epiphany, which is to guide the eyes of the soul to withdraw and return to itself."