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Witness to a cultural revolution in China


Sometimes you're in the right place at the right time – and everything seems to happen for the right reason.

When Dr Laura MacDonald, Senior Lecturer (Musical Theatre) at the University of Portsmouth was awarded an AHRC International Placement Scheme Award at the Shanghai Theatre Academy it completely changed the trajectory of her research.

“The funding call acted as a catalyst and took my work in a totally new direction,” she says.

“Getting to go to China with the AHRC didn't just expand my research area, it intensified it and reinforced the value of what I do.

“I have drunk the AHRC Kool Aid and it has been transformative!”

Originally from Canada, Dr MacDonald completed her PhD in the UK, and her research was focused on the circulation of American musicals in Europe and East Asia, and how that led to an exchange between Asia, Europe and America.

“I was shopping around for funding as we are meant to do as early career researchers, and I saw that the AHRC was partnering with the Shanghai Theatre Academy,” says Dr MacDonald.

“At that point China wasn't on my research agenda at all. I knew a bit about the Cultural Revolution and I had a sense of China as a rising power in the world. But I didn't have much specific knowledge.”

However, Dr MacDonald was curious enough about the call to ask around in her research network to see if anyone had any thoughts on what was going on in China - and a contact at Disney told her that the Lion King was opening there in 2016.

“That immediately grabbed my interest,” says Dr MacDonald. “The Lion King was a globally successful musical that I had already done a lot of work on.

“When another colleague confirmed to me what an amazing institution the Shanghai Theatre Academy was, I was pretty much ready to apply. Then I heard that one of the Austrian theatre companies I had worked with was also putting on a show there and it seemed like everything was coming together.

“The rise of the Chinese middle class was also an interesting context to explore all this - with musical theatre being a very middle class form of popular culture.

“Thank goodness for the AHRC International Placement Scheme Call, otherwise I probably wouldn't have figured all this out!”

Dr MacDonald headed out to China in 2016 and it quickly became clear what a great opportunity she had in front of her.

“One of the most amazing things for me was watching rehearsals of West Side Story at the Shanghai Theatre Academy,” she says.

“I didn't know they were doing this musical - I only heard about it in passing - but I was able to observe how an American director, who had learned the original choreography from the original production, put on a musical in China.

“It was my research in a nutshell - quite literally - the American musical transposed to China.”

Dr MacDonald found it fascinating to sit and observe the meeting of the two cultures. For example, the Chinese students would sit quietly along the edge of the room at attention if they are not in a particular scene, and yet acted out in that scene would be the interaction between two rival gangs in New York in 1957.

“I could see in front of me how Chinese approaches to performance were mixing with this dynamic American dancing,” says Dr MacDonald. “And the Chinese students would take on the names of their characters, and really engage with and take on their identities, while still negotiating being Chinese theatre students.

“I couldn't have asked for a more valuable case study! And that experience really characterised my time in China; there were a series of wonderful coincidences that took my research forward in quite unexpected ways.

“Because there was so much going on, I was able to take advantage of what came up.

“Social media was a big help. I would find myself trading emojis at midnight with a director and that would lead on to an invite to watch rehearsals for A Sound of Music.”

Dr MacDonald was was also able to gain a level of access that would have been impossible in the West, such as sitting in on a workshop for a new Chinese jukebox musical called The Secret, based on the songs of a Taiwanese pop song writer, that was being written, directed and produced by a Broadway team.

“Because the Chinese industry is so young I was able to get in as a researcher and interview people at length and watch an American writer working through a Chinese translation of his script,” she says. “This access meant that I could track the production right through from the workshop to the opening night in Beijing in December 2016.

“As far as I know I'm the only researcher to have been able to do that. If I hadn't been on the ground, all this access wouldn't have been possible - and that was made possible through the AHRC.

“I sometimes think that academic research can seem self-indulgent. But being in China, the impact the country will have on the world is palpable. To think that you can do something to help communicate that is wonderful.

“At the end of the day I'm researching musical theatre – not nuclear physics or poverty. But in China I had a sense that what I was doing was important, and if I could meet more people, if I could write about this, if I could disseminate this research, then I could do something truly valuable.” 

The 2019 round of the International Placement Scheme Award is currently open. The closing date for this call is 24 January 2019.

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