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A BInghamton University group led by Musical Theater Director Tommy Iafrate, left, traveled to China during the summer for performances in three cities.
Students, faculty member bring musical theater to China
November 8, 2016Tweet
A group from Binghamton University helped spread the word about American musical theater during a summer tour of China.
“We tried to teach them: While you are singing, you are also acting. While you are dancing, you are also acting,” said Tommy Iafrate, assistant professor of theatre and the director of musical theater. “All of these things happen at the same time and serve the story.”
Iafrate traveled to China in late May with six Binghamton University students and a group of students and faculty from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., for performances in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. Iafrate had made the trip to China in 2014 while serving as a piano accompanist with a contingent from Carthage.
For 2016, the trip was expanded to include Binghamton University students.
“I started out by doing outreach to Theatre Department students to see who might be interested in such a trip,” Iafrate said. “A lot of the students I knew from my classes and from directing ‘Spring Awakening’ last fall.”
Among the students to take part in the trip were Cassie Mak, a junior business administration major from Brooklyn; Aaron Penzel, a sophomore business administration major from Edison, N.J.; and Matthew Pedersen, a senior neuroscience and business administration major from Nesconset, N.Y. None of the Binghamton students had been to China before, but Penzel and Pedersen were named recipients of the Summer Scholars and Artists Fellowship to study Chinese music-related projects.
Before leaving for China, the students spent five days in Wisconsin at the end of May developing two shows: a 40-minute version of “Seussical” and a cabaret from the musical theater canon called “Life, Love and Other Nonsense.”
“We were all a little nervous because Tommy told us the Carthage students were very musically trained,” Mak said. “But it was also exciting because we were working with a diverse group of performers from both schools. There was so much opportunity to learn.”
“The excitement of collaboration was fantastic,” Pedersen said. “Going not only to a different school and working with that pool of talent and then going to a different country to present these collaborations was incredible.”
The Binghamton-Carthage team performed “Life, Love and Other Nonsense” monologues, duets and songs for trios and groups, and conducted workshops at four universities with musical theater programs: Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Shanghai Dance Academy, Xi’an Conservatory of Music and Beijing Dance Academy. The group performed “Seussical” for Chinese children at various day schools.
“There is a great program at The Singing Hearts School where kids go after school to work on their English,” Iafrate said. “The way they work on their English is by singing American musical theater.”
The Chinese children returned the favor of song by performing selections from “Beauty and the Beast.”
Iafrate and the Binghamton students also had time to discover the Chinese cities. They started in the more-westernized Shanghai before continuing to Xi’an and Beijing.
“We eased our way into Chinese culture so that by the time we were in Beijing, we were immersed,” Penzel said. “Going to Shanghai first was exciting because we could feel comfortable exploring.”
“All of our meals were in China – they weren’t given to us by the schools,” Pedersen said. “We were able to roam and find a random Chinese restaurant. It was great to have our work and our play.”
The group visited landmarks such as the Great Wall of China and the Old City Wall of Xi’an.
“My philosophy was: You are in China once – until you go again!” Penzel said.
The students also made it a point to perform at each public stop in China. They even sang on their airplane while it was delayed in Canada.
“We sang outside of the Terracotta Warriors and we did one of our numbers on the Great Wall of China,” Mak said. “You can imagine how confused the Chinese people were when they saw Americans singing a musical-theater number! They were so fascinated. They stopped in their tracks and took videos!”
Iafrate stressed the importance of spontaneous public performances.
“We want to interact with people when we go to different places and not just fly to the other side of the world and explore musical theater in a classroom,” he said. “To interact with the people of China might mean singing on the Great Wall of China or surprising people at public places with something along the lines of a flash mob.”
In Shanghai, the group also met up with fellow Binghamton University student Morgan Kriegel, who had been studying Chinese at Suzhou University since the winter. Kriegel, a junior Judaic studies major from Warwick, N.Y., helped translate for the group and called her four days “a rewarding experience.”
“They were generous enough to let me come in, watch and witness,” Kriegel said. “I was honored to be a part of this group that put on beautiful performances. They were so welcoming.”
For Iafrate, one of the highlights of the tour took place when the group participated in a traditional Chinese dance class at the Shanghai Dance Academy. Iafrate saw a man playing the piano for the class with sheet music that did not contain notes, only numbers and lines.
“We had a massive language gap, but he taught me how to read music in this different way,” he said. “They use it in China to jot down what the melody is or what the chords are. It was amazing to learn how to read music in a way that I didn’t know existed.”
The pianist later gave Iafrate a book of songs that he had written.
Five months after leaving China, the Binghamton students are still impressed by the work ethic and mindset of the “fearless” Chinese students.
“I walked around the Shanghai Conservatory at 9:30 at night and people were practicing,” Pedersen said. “They were still practicing an hour later. That’s a testament to what a true, diligent work ethic is. … It makes me think that if we are trying as hard we can, we can probably try even harder.”