Trip to China and Australia ‘eye-opening’ for Music Theatre students
For five students bracing themselves for life after Sheridan, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Taylor Garwood, Bethany Monaghan, Matthew Reid, Izaha Cochran and Aaron Ryder recently enjoyed the summer of their young lifetimes, accompanying Sheridan Canadian Music Theatre Project Producing Artistic Director Michael Rubinoff on a tour of China and Australia. The main purposes of the month-long trip were to explore potential partnerships with foreign schools and represent the College at the Australian premiere of Come From Away — the international sensation musical that was Rubinoff’s brainchild and initially workshopped by Sheridan students. But in addition to serving as part of their mandatory internship, the trip’s biggest benefit to the five Honours Bachelor of Musical Theatre Performance students might have been developing a newfound appreciation for just how many opportunities await them across the globe.
“Because we’re going into fourth year, I’ve been experiencing a lot of stress about how in nine to 10 months I’ll be graduating with this degree in Music Theatre,” Garwood says. “But I learned so much about myself from going on this trip. You realize how small the world is, and yet there’s so much out there. You just have to go out and get it.” Adds Ryder: “Ending college is the end of the known for me. I grew up as a kid wanting to be an actor, and it’s easy to feel like my life success is hanging on that. One of the best parts of this trip was seeing how people are living their dreams in so many different ways.”
Students inspired by Chinese approach to arts
The group’s first stop came in China, where Rubinoff and his students visited with representatives of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music to compare curriculum and discuss partnership options such as faculty and student exchanges. “Their scheduled breaks would allow their students to come to Canada during the second production slot of Theatre Sheridan,” notes Rubinoff, who has been developing relationships with Chinese schools for the past five years. “I’d love to have our students go there in the future as well to immerse themselves in more applied artistic learning.”
“One of the things we talk about at Sheridan is cultural appropriation and representation. As creators and advocates for these different voices, how can we change the way we’re performing and creating music theatre to be more inclusive?” – Bethany Monaghan
Garwood, Monaghan, Reid, Cochran and Ryder also watched the Conservatory students rehearse an upcoming Mandarin opera, visited the construction site of a spectacular government-funded opera house and met with executives from Disney Shanghai. “It was eye-opening for me to see how much they put into their arts and culture,” recalls Garwood. “They really care about it, and I think they treat it differently than we do in Canada.” Meanwhile, Reid noticed a fundamental difference in how musical theatre is taught. “They spend more one-on-one time coaching vocal and acting techniques. We have such a busy schedule that we don’t really have time for more than once a week, but they’ve managed to find a way to do more. Especially in the earlier years, that’s so critical in developing your foundation.”
Monaghan was struck by the sight of Chinese characters and culture in productions that are typically heavily Caucasian in North America. “We saw opportunities for change in the way people are portrayed on stage. It’s the same story, you’re cheering for the same characters,” she says of watching a Mandarin production of Beauty and the Beast. “One of the things we talk about at Sheridan is cultural appropriation and representation. As creators and advocates for these different voices, how can we change the way we’re performing and creating music theatre to be more inclusive? I think that’s really something special to take forward, especially as we prepare to exit Sheridan and enter the professional industry.”
Come From Away premiere an emotional experience
After two weeks in China, the Sheridan group headed 8,000 kilometres south to spend another two weeks in Australia. There, they attended the Melbourne premiere of Come From Away, getting the chance to mingle with directors, actors and even some of the people who are depicted in the story of how Newfoundland residents took in 7,000 stranded travelers in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“We were already in the neighbourhood,” Rubinoff smiles when asked about adding a second stop to the trip. “But Come From Away has just been an incredibly positive thing for Sheridan, and we don’t always get these rich opportunities to share these experiences with our students.”
Getting a first-person glimpse at the power of the production left a lasting impact on the group. “We were all just moved emotionally after meeting the real people,” Reid says. “Then you see it on stage, and it’s just so much more incredible and touching and beautiful.” Monaghan adds, “We didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of Come From Away when we came into school. There was a buzz, but it was more like a murmur. The Canadian Music Theatre Project (CMTP, (Sheridan’s incubator for workshopping and developing new Canadian musicals) means so much more to me now because I’m seeing the success.”
Another highlight of the students’ stay in Australia was visiting the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts. Rubinoff and VCA Head of Music Theatre Tyran Parke organized a day in which the five Sheridan students each teamed up with an Australian third-year student to rehearse duets — with the added pressure of having to perform those duets in front of a mass audience mere hours later at VCA’s Grant Street Theatre. “It was amazing to get to share the day with a stranger and get to know them,” says Reid (whose partner, coincidentally, was named Sheridan). “Even though they were total strangers to us, it was actually quite easy to work with them. At their core, they’re very much the same as us, even though their training is so different.”
“Come From Away has just been an incredibly positive thing for Sheridan, and we don’t always get these rich opportunities to share these experiences with our students.” – Michael Rubinoff
That same evening, Parke interviewed Rubinoff about the process of workshopping and developing new material, followed by a Q&A period with the audience. Rubinoff describes Australia’s music theatre community as small and up-and-coming — reminding him of where Sheridan stood before the rise of the CMTP — and was happy to share his blueprints for successful growth, along with mistakes to avoid. “We have a lot to offer in telling our story in terms of how we did it, and we can do it with our students to fulfill an academic objective,” Rubinoff says. “Australia’s music theatre is still in its infancy, with a bubbling-up of young writers who have the desire to express themselves through music theatre but need the support of being able to workshop and develop and see their shows produced. That’s where it needs to go next.”
Many benefits to experiencing other cultures
Ask each student for their biggest takeaway from their summer trip, and you’ll get five different answers.
“It was eye-opening how there’s a lot more to this world than just Canada and the U.S., and realizing that there’s so much opportunity to travel and to work across the world. You just have to look for it,” Cochran says. Reid singles out the value of learning about different cultures: “As an actor, it’s so important to learn about all different ways that humans interact together because that’s what we’re trying to portray.”
Ryder remembers meeting Kingston, Ont., native Dave Bennett, a former talent agent who now works in China as the casting director for Shanghai Disney Resort. “I’ve learned how this path may not turn out how you expected, but it can take you so many different places. I mean, Michael Rubinoff is a perfect example of a guy who just really loves theatre and it’s taken him all over the world. And a story he really believed in has taken him and people from Newfoundland around the world.”
Speaking of Rubinoff, the students also enjoyed getting to see their mentor — someone they admitted to being “intimidated” by when they first came to Sheridan — in a whole new light. “He’s a genius. He’s a very important guy,” Ryder says. “One of the best gifts of this trip was getting to spend time with Michael and get to know him on a personal level.”
“As an actor, it’s so important to learn about all different ways that humans interact together because that’s what we’re trying to portray.” – Matthew Reid
So are similar trips in store for future Sheridan Music Theatre internship students? “Well, I really enjoyed Australia,” laughs Rubinoff. “But China is really important. There really is something to be learned about being dropped into a city where you’re now the minority and don’t speak the language. There are cultural differences, and I can speak personally that it’s completely changed my view of things. You need to be more tolerant and more aware. When you see distance from North American culture and the boldness in artistic decisions, it opens up your mind to the possibilities.”
“We’re thankful for Sheridan’s support, and I hope they continue to support future interns, both emotionally and financially,” Monaghan concludes. “Just like we’re still benefiting from the work that former students did on Come From Away six years ago, the foundations we’ve laid across these two countries are not just for us. They’re for everyone in this program to come.”
Pictured at top of page (from left to right): Taylor Garwood, Aaron Ryder, Matthew Reid, Michael Rubinoff, Bethany Monaghan and Izaha Cochran.
Written by: Jon Kuiperij, Marketing Copy/Content Writer.