Posted 6 months ago
By John Axtell
“My four months in China last year was amazing,” says Post Playhouse artistic director and Florida State University music theatre associate professor Tom Ossowski.
“At the Central Academy of Drama in Bejing I worked with the country’s leaders in the world of theatre and their most promising students—and a team of phenomenal translators. We bonded together as a cohesive unit to create and produce the first Mandarin-language version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.”
Crafting the show to resonate with Chinese culture and language cadence was an ongoing challenge, and when Ossowski left China at year’s end, he left happy.
The show had run for two weeks to full-capacity (800 seats each performance) houses and was scheduled to be remounted for the following summer with the same cast.
His job was done. Or so he thought.
Then came the email: Would he consider joining the faculty of the Academy and teaching first and second year university-level music theatre students for a month in the spring?
Would he? Yes. Could he? Maybe.
Tom checked his already heavily booked calendar—FSU classes and productions in the fall and spring; Post Playhouse NYC auditions in the spring, productions in the summer.
He consulted with the Academy—they were flexible; he consulted with the department chair at FSU. While Tom’s appointment offered national and international recognition and respect for both Tom and Florida State, the scheduling was more problematic—Tallahassee class schedules were fixed; production dates set.
But with a tweak here and a shift there—yes…it could be done. And so, in March, Tom Ossowski sets out once more for China’s capital city.
“I’ll be working mostly with different students than before,” he says. “The Academy auditions and interviews thousands for the acting and music theatre, design, tech, and writing programs. Once accepted, students’ classes are paired with a faculty that follows them through their four-year tenure at the school.”
Tom’s focus with the new students will be on fundamental technique; but the second years prepare for a one-hour performance at term’s end as well as training for their third-year production in November.
He will be interacting with the students primarily as a director, he notes, shifting as needed to acting coach and “method” teacher.
“Last time I worked with third and fourth levels—and a few grad students,” he recalls. “So this opportunity gives me a full-range experience with the Academy—just more concentrated. Not unlike at FSU, which is a leading musical theatre program in the States.”
His job—to build on what the other teachers implement—is made easier since he was able to sit in on their classes last fall.
“The greatest challenge for me was definitely the language,” Tom remarks. “Although I had amazing translators, Chinese has many diverse factors in communication—in intonation, body language, and cultural characteristics.
Plus my sense of humor tends to be expansive, language-based, and perhaps a bit loud—some might say raucous. The Chinese, on the other hand, are more conservative; so it took a while before we ‘got’ each other. But we did. And it was fantastic!”
And rewarding. The prospect of bringing a unique American music genre (something dear to him personally and professionally) to China, where Broadway productions are virtually a new entity, is an unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Musical theatre is brand new in China,” Tom explains. “The closes form would be the Peking Opera—which is totally different in terms of singing style and physical choices.”
But in recent years, with China more open to the West, the availability of videos offers intriguing though limited glimpses of diverse modes of entertainment.
The Chinese government has begun to invest significant monies into industries new to the country, supporting theatrical productions, which puts Tom right on the edge of an emergent international field, a new frontier.
But journeys into unknown territory still require a basic compass, and Tom’s prep includes determining shows, scenes, and songs suitable for the first-year class…material that goes initially to the translators. That first encounter between student and genre is critical, balancing cultures, creating expectations, and banishing misconception.
The highly collaborative nature of American Musical Theatre goes contrary to traditional Chinese theatre, which has a more departmental structure.
“The stage manager doesn’t call the show,” Tom offers as example. “Each sector calls separately—so your light and sound cues are delivered by different people, very likely overlapping in rapid-fire progression.”
Everyone, he notes, comes to production meetings, both surprising and impressive since the government-funded Academy is in a position to hire the country’s top designers and production crew.
The school—which encompasses stage, film, and television—offers an intensive program in design, management, and writing in addition to technical, directing, and performance tracks.
“While the obvious goal is to share our American musical sensibilities,” Tom says, “I want to do for my Academy students what their native professors did for me.” That means going beyond industry-savvy and forging personal connections.
“The Chinese people were generous in their hospitality,” he explains. “My stay in Bejing was an immersion and a learning experience. From language to food to transportation, everything was foreign, exotic…different.
As hosts they were outstanding. When Tom mentioned that he had yet to visit the famed Great Wall, the next day he found himself on a guided tour of not only the Wall but the Forbidden City, which was actually only a matter of blocks from his apartment.
“The Chinese are a warm and giving people,” he reiterates. “Proud of their country’s natural and historic resources, they went out of their way to share those intangible wealths with me.”
Because his professional music and theatre experiences and his position as associate professor of music theatre at Florida State University specifically qualify him for this new role, Tom can boldly go where few musicals have gone before.
“Both FSU and the Academy benefit from my presence in Bejing,” he says. “Two cultures…one exchange…and infinite possibilities.”