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Mina Choi Tenison

Star Struck

Spring audition for the Shanghai Theater Academy

“Please, please let me have this chance. I’ve flown all the way from Paris to audition. Please. Won’t you give me this one chance?” pleads Annie with Ding Qiwen, one of the administrators at the Shanghai Theater Academy (STA). The day is March 6, the second day of registration for the auditions, one of the many gaokao (college entrance examinations) held all over the city. The gakao results, of course, will determine the future of most high school seniors. And naturally they are suffering from a bad case of nerves.

More so at the STA. The girls arrive with thick layers of mascara and the guys strut in, hoping that a spot at the Academy will put them on the fast track to becoming a superstar. Ding, who has worked at the STA for many years, remains unmoved by the Parisian-Chinese student. She has seen and heard it all before -- the mad dash, the panicky phone calls, and even the occasional demand: “I’m sure I’ve registered so why can’t you find my name”. Without batting an eye, Ding calmly explains to Annie (who for a would-be actress was too shy to provide her surname to us) that unless she has registered for the college entrance examination, she will not be offered a place at the Academy regardless of her audition results. As Annie appears on the verge of tears, Ding reluctantly offers her a small salve: if the examination board agrees to let her register late then she can come back the next day for the auditions.

The Academy is located at the intersection of Huashan Road and Zhenning Road, where each March students arrive by the hundreds from all over the country with their parents in tow, wheeling their suitcases behind them. Some have flown in from Guangzhou, others have come via long-distance buses from Anhui, and others still via overnight train from Hunan. But they all share the same dream: the chance to study at one of China’s most prestigious acting academies.

For most students the Shanghai Theater Academy is their number one choice; the Beijing Film Academy comes a distant second. It’s not only that the STA enjoys a solid reputation; it also boasts a prime downtown location, with the added attractions of charming Xintiandi-style shikumen and shiny, state-of-the-art on-campus theaters. Little wonder then that would-be students from Guangdong and Hunan, will go to extreme lengths to enter paradise.

The audition process is gruelling and takes place over six days. Those lucky few who make the cuts will find it the longest six days of their young lives. For the hundreds who don’t, they’ll soon find themselves back home.

With only twenty-five spots available in the acting department, the odds aren’t encouraging. In addition to their scores on the college entrance exams, students are accepted or not based on their performance in the auditions. Already, 1,600 candidates have auditioned in Beijing, Chengdu and Xi’an—and only 96 of them have made the regional cut. Chen Qiyi, the administrator in charge of auditions, has returned from Beijing with a stack of videotapes of these candidates, who will be compared against the final Shanghai candidates. Of the three thousand or more applying every year, only forty will make the final list, and only twenty-five will enter.

Despite the odds, some students apply year after year. It’s said the Gong Li herself auditioned at STA for several years before giving up and enrolling at the Beijing Academy. Outside the registration hall, one brave mother pledges, “If we don’t get in this year, then we’ll come back next year.”

“We” is the operative word for almost all the candidates here. Xia Jin, a girl from Anhui, arrives at the registration with her tenacious mother, who shows more determination than she does.

Two days later, the first round of auditions begin in the misery of the spring rain on March 8th. Students dodge the rain by huddling under the campus buildings, while their parents, barred from the campus, huddle outside the gate, ironically enough, in front of the Lamborghini store on Yan’an Road. Unfortunately for Xia, she doesn’t get past the first round. But luckily for Xia, her mother is the only one to witness her disappointment. Before the age of the Internet, results were posted on a board on campus, but now they’re posted online, saving the students the embarrassment of crying in public. Meanwhile, Annie from Paris has managed to get past the registration debacle, but her sense of triumph is short-lived. Crushed, in fact, by what she sees around her -- rows upon row of slender girls, perfectly made-up. As the teachers herd the applicants into the audition hall, Annie asks: “Do you think I’m pretty? All these girls around me are so good-looking.”

Too good-looking. Like Xia, Annie also does make it past the first round. Not surprisingly, beauty and good looks count for a lot in the acting department. In fact, Chen lists the criteria for STA auditions, in the following order of priority: appearance, height, voice quality and language ability, followed by presumably lesser qualities such as singing ability.

By the morning of March 10, those less blessed with the preferred criteria have been eliminated, along with their long hours spent practicing their favorite poems or songs. The results posted on the campus board lists 285 remaining candidates -- 120 boys and 165 girls. Strangely, the remaining parents are more optimistic than ever. Some even smile. One parent from Yancheng in Jiangsu Province admits that acting is a tough career choice, but adds that her son likes it and wants it and his has her full support. That support includes accompanying him to talent shows and to local radio stations where he practices public speaking. Another mother, a former beauty queen from Guandong says: “I have placed all of my own dreams on my daughter.” For the spring auditions alone, she’s spent RMB 20,000 traveling with her dream daughter to Beijing, Tianjin, Guangdong and now Shanghai. Much more, if you count the dance, piano, and singing lessons. Every little bit counts, of course, and to help her daughter Wei Xingting gain a competitive edge, she coached her on what wear for the audition: red and pink to attract attention the first round and dark green casual Western outfit for the second. “Females have to use their advantage when the competition is fierce,” says Wei’s mother. “If you are very pretty, you can choose not to compete academically.” Nevertheless, despite all her mother’s enthusiasm and financial backing, Wei does not make it into the third round.

Fair--that’s the word going around as most parents assess the selection process during the three days of second round. STA auditions all candidates in groups of thirty or forty and each one gets two-three minutes to display his or her talents in front of the group. So the overall sentiment is that the system works; there are no secrets and no special relationships. Still, Li Xingzi, a girl from Jiangxi, suggests otherwise once she discovers that she didn’t make it into the third round. In her email to us, she moans bitterly: “I’ve now seen the darker side of this society. I always thought as long you work hard, that you can achieve, but now I know otherwise. Other students in my group got in and they were not as good as I was.”

It’s the morning of March 13, and the third and final round of auditions begins. The board shows only 50 remaining candidates. One young man, Li Jinfei arrives early to see whether his number is on the list -- it is. He breathes a sigh of relief and sits on the bench, his hands trembling. Then, he gets up and paces. His audition is not until the afternoon, but he doesn’t want to leave; he has no better place to go to. A few minutes after, Li is approached by a slim young woman wearing a baseball hat, who breaks down in tears. With some difficulty, Li tries to comfort her, but it’s no use. She leaves, despondent, with her mother trailing behind her. Li returns to his bench and sits, his jaws tightly clenched. “That’s my girlfriend, “he says. “We came here together to audition and now her dreams for Shanghai are over.”

A few hours later, the final auditions are over and the students file out of the Academy one by one. They’re all smiling, now that they know that they’re just one step away from the finish line. Two of the biggest smiles belong to Liu Yina from Guandong and Zhang Taoran from Suzhou, who excitedly discuss their improvised skit. Liu is bursting with excitement, “We were the best in the group! We were the most natural! We were so funny!” Liu’s parents, who’ve been waiting outside the Academy for three hours, receive this outburst with a mixture of relief and concern. They want to believe that their daughter will make it, but the final results will not be posted until April 10.


Note: Neither Liu nor Zhang made the final list. However, they did win entrance to STA’s broadcasting division, the less prestigious cousin of the Acting Department. Liu says that she “was shocked” when she logged onto the website and didn’t find her name on the list. But she remains upbeat. “Anyway, TV hosts can be actors.”

THAT'S SHANGHAI May 2008 Print & Web Edition

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