Toronto Film School’s John Tench recently returned from a two-week teaching residency in China with a permanent smile on his face and “double happiness” in his heart.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Tench, a longtime instructor for TFS’s Acting for Film, TV and the Theatre Diploma program, said of making the 10,500-km journey to teach at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA) this past September.
“If I were to put it all into one little soundbite, it would be ‘double happiness’…I can’t stop smiling about the joy I had in working with the students there.”
Tench’s two-week tenure at the Academy – which has enjoyed a nearly 70-year reputation as the top film school in China – came on the heels of Chinese film and television star Vivian Wei’s visit to Toronto on Aug. 7 to teach her own Master Class in acting at TFS’s Yonge-Dundas Campus.
The Wei-Tench bilateral teacher exchange between TFS and BFA was one that marked the two schools’ first official collaboration since signing a Memorandum of Understanding nearly a year ago.
Under the terms of that November 2018 MOU, both schools resolved to collaborate on student and faculty exchanges, visits and workshops, as well as to discuss future program opportunities – all with an eye to “enriching the learning experiences of students at both schools.”
“Both the Beijing Film Academy and Toronto Film School recognize that creative collaboration and cultural exchange is an exciting reality in today’s film industry,” Walter Lee, TFS’s Senior VP of Marketing and Enrolment, said at the time of the signing
“What better way to prepare students for this new reality than by having one of Canada’s best film schools and China’s top film school work together to create opportunities for faculty and student exchange and collaboration.”
For his part, Tench was tasked with imparting on BFA students some of the knowledge he’s amassed over the course of his highly successful, 40-year acting career in film, television and the theatre.
“I taught two week-long intensives – essentially condensing what would be a four-week program into one week,” said Tench, who launched his own career at the legendary Factory Theatre Lab here in Toronto, before going on to study and work in New York, London, Paris, and L.A., among others.
“It was a fairly hard-hitting class in terms of the requirements of the students – they had to learn scenes and do exercises and monologue work and on-camera work, as well as getting accustomed to the way we shoot in North America, which is a lot faster.”
Luckily for Tench, the 24 Chinese students assigned to work with him were amongst the best and brightest in BFA’s graduating class this year – many of them destined to follow in the footsteps of the BFA Performance Institute’s long line of esteemed acting alumni, which includes Zhao Wei, Liu Yifei, Huang Xiaoming and Yang Mi, among many others.
“I go to a lot of international film festivals, and watch a lot of international films, and the Chinese are really good actors. China has a long history of performing arts – the Chinese opera and theatre dates back probably a thousand years before the Greeks,” he said, lauding the high calibre of the BFA students under his charge.
“I believe (the students in my class) had to audition for the opportunity. I was told they were members of the top graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy, and it showed…The whole experience of working with the BFA students was phenomenal – they were very hard-working, very disciplined students.”
The main focus of Tench’s instruction during his two-week teaching residency, he said, was on-camera acting – something he himself has come to master over a career whose highlights include major feature film roles in Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain, Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter, and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, as well as a long list of television credits on hit TV shows such as Schitt’s Creek, Murdoch Mysteries, American Gods, Supernatural, and The X-Files, just to name a few.
“They were really interested in my version of a Camera Acting class and how I incorporate the Method, Stanislavski system and New York school of American cinema acting into our program,” Tench said, noting his initial surprise that Chinese acting students don’t typically begin to learn on-camera acting skills until their final year of studies in the performance arts.
“In China, there seems to be a lot more emphasis on…studying stage and scene work. It isn’t until the fourth year that they shift and begin to work on camera skills and camera technique – so that’s the one thing they really wanted me to focus on and talk about a lot: the speed of shooting, how we set up shots, how to master close-ups, and that kind of thing.”
With nothing but rave reviews at having his first successful teaching exchange now under his belt, Tench said he’s hopeful that, like BFA, TFS will also continue to spread its outreach to the international film community through more such exchanges.
“Every year, the Beijing Film Academy brings in about four instructors from universities and specialty programs from around the world to be in residence with their students…because they realize how important it is for us to be in an open dialogue…sharing notes and sharing innovations,” he said, noting that his residency in China was to be followed by that of a visiting professor from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
“(At Toronto Film School), the world’s our oyster – especially with our ranking the number eight film school in terms of world standing…The more we share, the more we get back.”