On the last day at my Toronto office before I boarded a plane to Beijing, China a student of mine named Vito. knocked on the door carrying a handful of paper with notes on it. Being the co-coordinator of the Toronto Film School’s Acting for Film, Television and Theatre Diploma program and also Vito’s camera acting teacher, I thought he wanted to get my opinion on a script. Instead Vito, who knew I was heading on a work trip to China, had thoughtfully written five pages of recommendations of things to do while I was in Beijing. The Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, Sanlitun, Houhai, Wangfujing, Chinese Acrobats, the best Peking Duck restaurants, just to name a few. He had even written everything in Chinese characters so I could just point to them on the sheet and have my taxi drivers take me there.
“Vito! Thank you kindly,” I said, “but I’m going to China to audition actors and meet filmmakers. I don’t know how much time I’ll have to do all these things,” I told him.
Vito looked at me with the same passion he always showed me in acting class. “Make the time,” he said. “It’s worth it!”
He was right. It dawned on me that I was going to a country with a rich history of civilization that spans over 6000 years. It’s one of the most intriguing cultures with some of the tastiest food around the globe. A place where the international business world is descending upon in search of partnerships, clients, and in the case of Toronto Film School, highly motivated and talented artists, actors and filmmakers.
I had only been working with Vito for a few months but his performances in our acting studios were some of the most interesting and charismatic ones I had ever seen in my program. In many ways, he was the benchmark for what I was looking for in new students from China. He had minimal acting experience when he entered our school but he made up for his lack of experience through his passion, commitment, and dedication to becoming the best possible actor he could be.
My ten-day journey through China’s top three cities, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou opened my eyes to the enormous wealth of talent that China has to offer, and the desire for many young actors to explore their dreams overseas in creative Canadian programs in film, fashion and design that Toronto Film School offers.
I admit I was initially concerned about the English language barriers that some of the potential students might face. I did have my trusted colleague Richard, who was from China and could offer assistance in translating. However, I made it clear that if a student was unable to speak the English language, they could perform their audition monologue (a 1-2 minute speech from a movie or play) in Mandarin or Cantonese. You see I had learned in my own theatre education training that acting and drama supersedes the boundaries of language. The intentions, thoughts, and emotions of an actor can be understood by an audience member even if they don’t speak the same language. As a result, I allowed actors and actresses who felt more comfortable performing in Mandarin to simply provide me with some context of what their monologue was about and then I could just observe them acting at their best. Even though I could not understand the words they were saying, many of the performances were full of energy and emotion which is ultimately what I am looking for in accepting a student. In other cases, students who had a better grasp of the English language would audition using monologues from American films which shows they are likely more ready to handle the volume of work and fast-paced nature of Toronto Film School’s acting program. In either case, most of those who I auditioned were very professional in having all their words memorized and played with feeling. I also brought along English language scripts to test students’ abilities to read a part in an American film and connect with me as their reading partner. After travelling to three cities and a week of auditions, I was extremely encouraged by the potential acting students I had met from all parts of the country whose levels of English were much higher than I expected. These were young performers who had taken the time to fly into the big city or had spent several hours on the train to be in that audition room with me. They came ready and prepared, were very respectful and committed to the practice of acting, and dream of working in this industry more than anything else.
While it was a very busy week, I did manage to find some time to pull out V’s notes and visit some of the places he recommended. It’s hard not to be impressed by the monumental architecture and historical context of China’s magnificent sites but what struck me the most happened at a restaurant Vito recommended in Beijing. I was sitting with my colleague Richard enjoying a delicious meal of Peking Duck when I overheard a conversation happening at the table next to ours. The group was made up of American and Chinese citizens and most of the time an older woman was speaking about the film industry. I learned in without trying to seem like I was eavesdropping and heard her speak about her experiences of working on the Oscar-wining film “Driving Miss Daisy” with Morgan Freeman. I quickly checked her up on IMDB and discovered that this was a major Hollywood producer and director who was in Beijing on business! Film industry business. Perhaps she was in China making her next big hit. Perhaps they were scouting for talent much like I was. What this tells us is that the world has noticed China and the next generation of stars will likely be coming from there. Hopefully, we are the school that gets to train you on your way to success!