Episode 198: Going Big with a production in China
Kimberly Mack is an English Teacher in China at an International School. This past year she wanted to go “big” with her first year middle school speech class. And big they went! Listen in to her about her students experience putting on their musical, doing the set, sewing costumes, and singing in their non native language.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 198 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode198.
Have you ever heard a teacher say, “My students could never do that”?
It always shocks me a little.
Now, granted, I am not a full-time teacher. I’m not a teacher. I’m not in the classroom. Perhaps, when a teacher says, “My students could never do that,” there is a good reason.
But I have a very vivid memory from about ten years ago when I was at a school and they were working on one of my plays. I was talking to the students and I said, “You guys always seem really confident. You seem so confident onstage. That’s amazing.” One of the students said to me, “Well, our teacher believed in us. She never thought that we couldn’t do it. And so, we thought the same.”
I just love that. When someone believes in you, that’s a very powerful feeling, isn’t it?
Today, we’re talking to a teacher who had that same feeling and she wanted to go big with her group. Big meant putting on a musical with her middle school students at the international school where she worked.
Let’s hear her story, shall we?
See you on the other side.
LINDSAY: Hello everyone!
I am talking to Kimberly Mack today.
LINDSAY: Now, I know, over the summer, that you are stateside, right?
KIMBERLY: Yes, I am.
LINDSAY: But tell everybody where you usually are during the year?
KIMBERLY: I normally teach over in Lijiang which is in Yunnan province over in China. It’s down southwest.
LINDSAY: That was an awesome pronunciation.
KIMBERLY: I’ve been working on that.
LINDSAY: Well, I’m sure you must have to say it quite a bit.
Are you teaching in an international school? Or do you teach Chinese students?
KIMBERLY: Yes, it’s an international school, but we have Chinese, Indian, Korean, and American students there.
LINDSAY: What is it like? Let’s start with that. What is it like to have such a multicultural student base?
KIMBERLY: It’s been really interesting. I went there right after college. It was my very first experience as a teacher. It was neat because, here we are getting to share the American culture with all of these students, teaching them English. Some of them would come into our school knowing absolutely nothing of English and we’ve got to start from the ground up and see them progress. It’s just been a really amazing opportunity.
LINDSAY: All right. Now, that leads very naturally to my next question.
How long have you been teaching?
KIMBERLY: Two years.
LINDSAY: What about teaching has been a surprise for you?
KIMBERLY: I guess the biggest thing is how much these students are able to pick up so quickly, yet they’re reading these English words, but then they have no idea what the meanings are because they just don’t translate. Here, you’re having to tell not just the word but the meaning and explain these things that would be common words in America.
LINDSAY: Cool. So, that’s the student experience.
Now, what about your experience just being a teacher? What was your expectation of being a teacher and how has that played out?
KIMBERLY: I’ve actually always wanted to be a teacher since my parents were both teachers for twenty-plus years. It’s been like a dream come true in a way. It’s been really hard being in a different country, trying to be able to get used to the culture as well as trying to fit in times to learn the language on top of teaching and everything that comes with it. It was a lot more work than I was anticipating.
LINDSAY: Well, teaching is hard enough as it is. Add in the cultural aspect, you must be exhausted all the time.
LINDSAY: Did you know you wanted to try out? Because I know, lots of folks, when they get out of school, they head overseas and try just because it’s a great opportunity to travel, to try out an international school. How did you end up in China?
KIMBERLY: The short story is this is always something I’ve wanted to do since sixth grade myself – go to China. I was able, during college, to connect with this international school and I thought that that would be an amazing opportunity to be able to pursue this lifelong dream of going to China and teaching at the same time.
LINDSAY: Well, you’ve got it all, man! You’ve got the teaching dream and the China dream and they all came together in this.
KIMBERLY: They did.
LINDSAY: So, the reason that you and I are talking today is that you shared with me a pretty fascinating story in that, at your school, you had an experience with The Sound of Music which I think is, first of all, pretty awesome. But I think that what you said is that, first of all, you were just going to play with the book of The Sound of Music and just getting used to the English. But then, you dove in with both feet and actually produced the music as well.
KIMBERLY: Yes, we did.
LINDSAY: All right. Tell me about your decision to try The Sound of Music and why The Sound of Music with your students. What was that all about?
KIMBERLY: This kind of came from a couple of different reasons. I’ve always loved that movie. It’s one of my favorites forever. Well, I asked to teach speech my second year and we actually moved our school location, so we were going through our library and we actually found a copy of the play.
So, here I had this play. I wouldn’t have to sit and type something up or create my own version of anything. I was able to pull from a book that already had it written out for us. So, that was part of the reason.
I wanted to do a large production for the end of the year to try to help generate funds for the school and draw people in. I had been responsible for plays the last two years and the other ones were just shorter things that maybe lasted 30 minutes, 45 minutes max, because I normally would write them myself.
So, here I was, wanting to do something that would be a little bit longer and be able to draw people in.
LINDSAY: And then, when you went to your students and said, “We’re doing The Sound of Music,” what was their response?
KIMBERLY: It was a mixed response, actually.
Two of the girls had seen the movie in Chinese and they loved it and they were so excited. They said they already knew all of the songs and they were just so excited to be able to be cast in it.
The boys were not so sure at the beginning. They were not very thrilled at the thought of having all of these lines put on them. But, as we started working on it, they actually all ended up falling in love with the plotline of The Sound of Music and it was pretty awesome to see.
LINDSAY: Why do you think that is? What was it about the plotline that spoke to that community?
KIMBERLY: I think it was because they were able to, for the first time, not only watch this in their own language to understand it better since they do have the movie in Chinese, so they were able to really understand what was going on. But, also, I think they were able to anticipate this as a challenge and see that they were able to overcome this giant obstacle of this production and they jumped in both feet and were a great help with me trying to get this produced.
LINDSAY: I think that challenge, sometimes, that is the best motivator, right? It’s like, “This is a hurdle. I have to be able to do this. It’s just a musical.”
KIMBERLY: Right. It’s just a musical. No big deal.
LINDSAY: No big deal!
So, when you were moving forward, how did you approach it? How did you approach getting it on its feet?
KIMBERLY: I started with actually bringing the movie in and we watched some of it on my computer to try to get them a little bit familiar with it in the English version. Since day one, they already had their parts and we were just going to tackle this with lots of extra practices and that I thought they could do it and they needed to prove to me that they could do it and it probably helped that that was their exam grade, too.
LINDSAY: A-ha! A challenge and a grade! I think that, all of a sudden, it’s become quite clear why this was a success.
So, your approach, you didn’t hold auditions. You precast the show?
KIMBERLY: Yes, I did.
LINDSAY: Why did you decide to do that?
KIMBERLY: A few reasons.
We only had 13 students in the speech class, so it was a very small group to work with. Like I said, I had thought about doing The Sound of Music since August and here it was, March, where we were actually starting to do it.
I’d been watching them and seen who I thought would do well in each part. Also, we still had a few kids who were nervous about speaking English in front of people, so I didn’t want them to feel like they had to audition and, because they did poorly, they got a certain role. I preferred to just cast them all myself based on what I had seen of them and how they had grown that year.
LINDSAY: Yeah, it takes a lot of the pressure off because auditioning is an added pressure all on its own.
We have a lot of folks who, in their own communities, are working with English as a second language and a lot of them are trying to figure out ways that they can include them in their drama classes and then figure out a way to really help them connect.
How did you help them connect when they were struggling?
KIMBERLY: Our school was really great at helping me with that in the sense that they had an ESL class for the ones who came in just the year before knowing no English. That was one concern that they had when I approached them asking for the speech class. It was that four of the 13 had just started learning English the year before. They were concerned that their English level wouldn’t be up to par.
And so, they had this ESL class. And, in speech, we had been going through a lot of things leading up to this production. And then, during the practices, we spent a lot of times with a few of them with their pronunciation and their words and not only the pronunciation but how they should say it with their expressions and things like that.
LINDSAY: I see. How much time did they spend on comprehension and that kind of thing? Did they translate it into their native language and make sure they understood it that way? Or was it just a lot of rote? How did they work on their comprehension?
KIMBERLY: A little bit of both.
I had one student in particular. I saw his script and he had written all the Chinese above every one of his lines. So, he did that to help him understand the meanings.
I did have an assignment for them to watch at least their part in Chinese so that they would be able to hear it and understand what their character was supposed to be saying or getting across to everybody else. And then, we did some rote memorization as well.
LINDSAY: How long did you work on the show?
KIMBERLY: We started about March and we performed it the first week of June – about three months,
LINDSAY: Math says that that’s three months.
KIMBERLY: Yes, I had to sit there and count that.
LINDSAY: That’s okay. My worst thing is when I have to go into a class and I have to make groups and I’m like, “Okay, there’s 23 of you, I want four groups.” I’m like, “Oh, just figure it out yourselves. I can’t even.”
Did you think that that was enough time for them?
KIMBERLY: I wanted a little bit more time, honestly. But we were able to spend extra time with extra practices that I penciled in the last couple of weeks.
My problem was we only had speech class Mondays and Fridays. So, I only had them two days a week, and any teacher knows that Mondays and Fridays are the most days that are taken off for holidays. In those three months, I had about three different holidays and we missed these classes. So, we had to make it up with extra practices penciled in, but it did turn out to be a good amount of time at the end.
LINDSAY: As they rehearsed, how did they change?
KIMBERLY: It was great to see the change in the sense that, in the first month or so, they were just strictly reading their lines and they weren’t putting any of their own emotion behind it or getting that feeling across. I think that was probably one of my biggest challenges – to tell them, “Hey, you’re a real person onstage. You need to be able to move like people move. Don’t just stand there.” Getting some of this movement coming into it and putting their own personalities inside.
I think the biggest change was the boy who played the captain and that scene where he yells at Maria after the children come out of the water and they’re in their clothing from the curtains, and he just yells at her. It was really neat to see this boy. He started really, really yelling at her and he ended up losing her voice one practice because he was yelling so loud and so harsh and just putting tons of emotion into this character.
LINDSAY: That’s interesting. I thought that story was going to go in a different direction. It’s perfect!
Did the cultural differences ever come into play with these students trying to put on different characters? Did you ever have to have some discussions about “I can’t do this because of my background” and just having that discussion about the fact that they’re trying to play other people who aren’t them?
KIMBERLY: Yes, we actually did have that come up, especially with the boy who played Rolf. You know, Rolf turns Nazi at the end.
LINDSAY: Ah, yes.
KIMBERLY: That was a real struggle for him to accept this fact, but we had this talk. Franz who was the butler, they don’t have these butlers like this and they wouldn’t treat them like they did. And so, we did have that come up with a few of the boys especially.
LINDSAY: Why do you think that is? Why do you think that that was an issue with the boys instead of the girls?
KIMBERLY: I think because the girls maybe mainly played just the family scene. They weren’t really anything that different from the stage of life they were in at the time – other than the age differences – whereas the boys were playing more variety of people.
You had, like I said, Rolf who is this telegram delivery man and he turns into a Nazi and you have the butler and Uncle Max who’s this charismatic character who just loves money and loves being with the rich people. I think that was a little harder for them to grasp at this stage of life that they’re in and understand how that thought process would go for those characters.
LINDSAY: What an interesting thing to think about in that not only is it that the guys are not being able to comprehend a certain stage of life but that the girls may be in the same stage of life and that it wasn’t necessarily their ethnicity. It was just being a girl and about how that maybe translates – you know, wherever you’re from.
My favorite thing is learning similarities and differences – you know, when you go someplace completely new and the differences are the things that usually jump out at you. But, when you find out, you react to that exactly the same way that I do. That must happen to you every day.
KIMBERLY: We have seen a few of that happen, yes.
LINDSAY: You also identified that your students painted and helped create the set and learned to sew the play clothes. Was this the first time that they had done that kind of thing?
KIMBERLY: As far as I know, yes, that was.
LINDSAY: What was that like for them?
KIMBERLY: It was amazing for them; really stressful for me.
LINDSAY: I got it.
KIMBERLY: I don’t actually sew very well myself, so I had to contact some outside help for that and bring the in. So, there was the scheduling of that. I’m not an artist at all either, so I had our art teacher pencil in the background, and then we just painted. I figured I could help paint. To oversee this, it was fascinating that we split it up to where the girls did the sewing and the boys did the set and the girls loved it and they loved being able to create these clothes and they always were asking me, “Oh, are we going to sew today?” and I’m like, “Uh, no.”
The boys were great. They loved getting messy and paint all over themselves. It was just something that I had wanted to do to help them to feel responsible and try to put maybe a little bit more effort into this play knowing that they had helped with it and I think it turned into a great learning opportunity for all of them and the different things that they were able to do with that.
LINDSAY: Now, you’re starting to get into some life skills that are happening here, too – working as a group to make something come together as opposed to “you just have my part and I have my lines.”
KIMBERLY: Right, for sure.
LINDSAY: I think that’s wonderful. Also, to understand that there are many, many roles in putting something together. Sets don’t appear magically and neither do costumes.
KIMBERLY: Unfortunately, they don’t.
LINDSAY: So, what was the performance like for them? What did they think was going to happen and how did they respond?
KIMBERLY: Like I said, we had been putting a lot of time into these extra practices, but we only had a few actual dress rehearsals and I think that was one of the harder things for them because, here, they’re actually now having to practice, of course, changing into their many different outfits for the first time in a crunch time.
And then, the location that we were going to, we actually did not have microphones because we couldn’t find enough microphones for everybody. So, they had to do it on their own. I think that was one of their biggest things when we went to the location and had these dress rehearsals. They were like, “Wait a minute. I now have to be extra loud to project my voice.”
The production itself went extremely well. I had some extra help backstage to get the kids changed on time. There were a few mishaps, of course, and the children just kept going. By that time, we had learned how to just keep the lines moving. That was the biggest thing I think I was stressing to them because we had many practices where people weren’t there, and so other children had to say their lines and they just showed that they were really listening in these different practices because they did it that night and a lot of audience said it looked flawless to them even though, here I am, picking it because I know what’s supposed to be going on.
LINDSAY: That’s the thing you always tell them. An audience has no idea that you’ve made a mistake until you tell them by breaking character.
KIMBERLY: Right. Or your facial expressions.
LINDSAY: I think that’s the point where I get a knot in the pit of my stomach. It’s when you can see that something has gone awry onstage, but no one is helping – like, no one is coming in and jumping in. It’s like, “Somebody, do something!”
There was this one time particularly where, after Maria and the captain got married, they were supposed to come out onstage, but Maria was changing, and I didn’t know she was because that was the first time she decided to change. And so, the kids come out, “Father! Mother! You’re home!” and mother is not there, but father is there lying for her! It was really great, and she just came right out at her next line and said it and just kept it moving and it was good. No one in the audience, when I asked them about it, said that they noticed anything. So, I was feeling great that they’d just kept it going.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s the awesomest! That’s the best that it was just like nothing is going to faze them now. You know, exams. “What’s an exam? I covered for someone onstage!”
LINDSAY: As we wrap this up, you’ve done it and you’ve had the experience. What was the big takeaway for you for putting something up like this?
KIMBERLY: I think the biggest thing was just to show the positivity. I don’t even know if that’s the word.
LINDSAY: It is now!
KIMBERLY: But to show that positive attitude to the kids. When I expected great things from them, they came out and just did it. To keep that positive attitude going and to expect great things from them and tell them that I expect them to do it well, so they’d better do it. I think that was one of the biggest things as well as learning how to correct with kindness and not just correct and lash out at them for missing something, but trying to show them why it was important to do it the way that we had practiced and that everyone else depends on each other for these lines.
LINDSAY: I love that phrase – “correct with kindness.” It’s not brain surgery or rocket science. It’s putting on a play!
KIMBERLY: Right. I want them to have fun, so we’ve got to be able to have fun with each other.
LINDSAY: Having fun, but then with high expectations, I think that’s the balance. It’s not just running around and being all loosey-goosey. It’s like, “I expect better of you. I expect good of you and that you can do this.”
I think that’s the best takeaway from any experience – to set expectations and correct with kindness. I think that’s great.
KIMBERLY: Thank you! Came up with that on the spot!
LINDSAY: Oh, that’s great.
Well, thank you so much for sharing your experience today, Kimberly. It’s been a lovely talk.
KIMBERLY: Of course! Thank you so much, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Kimberly!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS!
Any links to today’s episode can be found in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode198.
So, it’s the beginning of the year. It’s a time when a lot of folks are starting rehearsals for spring shows. So, I just thought this would be a great time to point out some of the steps you need to take when producing a show, particularly around royalties.
When do you need to purchase royalties? Can I get a discount if I’m not charging admission? Why do I have to pay royalties if I’m not charging admission?
We have a great FAQ page over on Theatrefolk with all of these questions answered. I’ve put a link into the show notes. Let’s just go over a couple of those thoughts about royalties.
When do you need to purchase royalties?
Well, a royalty is just like a rental fee. You pay a fee when you rent a car. You rent a car and then you have to give it back. You don’t get to keep the car. You don’t change the color of the car. You just pay the fee, run the car.
It’s the same thing with a play. You pay a fee when you put on a play – any play. That’s how the playwright gets paid. People ask us all the time, “Well, why aren’t the plays just fee, particularly because we’re in education?” Well, it should be educational. The play should be free.
Well, somebody wrote that play and they own that play. Even we don’t own the plays here at Theatrefolk. We are just representing the play. I always like to say, “You wouldn’t ask your dentist if you can get a free cleaning.” You can’t have the play for free.
Royalties come into play whenever there is an audience. It doesn’t matter if they’re a paying audience. It doesn’t matter if they’re just a friends and family audience. If someone’s watching their play and they’re quiet on the floor or they’re in chairs and they applaud at the end, you bow, it’s an audience and there’s a royalty fee.
When you’re on our website, all the information for how much the royalty is for each title – because for each title it’s going to be different – it’s right there on the play’s page and that’s the best thing that you can do if you’re having questions. If you’re looking for information about a certain title, go to the page that is on the website and have a little search around there and you are going to find all the information you are looking for.
Again, have a look at the FAQ page if you have any questions about royalties or click in the link in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode198.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast and there you’ll see we’re on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. That’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.