LET’S START THIS STORY with a bit of honesty. When a new student named Anna texted me last summer, saying she had emailed our school counselor about starting a Thespian troupe at the Western Academy of Beijing, I did what many people would do: I Googled the term to find out what she was talking about. “Ha, yeah sure,” I texted back, “I know what that is. We should start one.” It turns out Thespians have a chronic theatre obsession, which I could totally get behind.

Exhibit A: The author’s best confused look during a performance of Puss in Boots.

Exhibit A: The author’s best confused look during a performance of Puss in Boots. Photo courtesy of Jonas Böttner.

You should know, I have been in show business since 2008. I could barely reach the microphone when I presented my debut monologue in Puss in Boots at the “world-renowned” Clubhaus in Ludwigsfelde, Germany. (See Exhibit A for reference.) I have always loved making faces, and there was something especially rewarding about mugging in front of an audience.

About a year after my grand premiere, my father’s work took our family approximately 5,500 miles from our native Germany to the city of Fuzhou in southeast China. Production budgets were tight, with a maximum of seven students in the entire school at its best times. This meant getting along with everyone in the cast — the other three to six people in school — was a necessity. But we always had fun, writing our own 20-minute Christmas productions for a 20-member audience.

After three years, my family moved to Shenzhen, then took a one-year break in Germany before arriving in Beijing for my freshman year of high school. At this point, I’d spent seven years of my life settling in then leaving things behind, again and again. But theatre stuck. Of course, my ambition, expectations, skills, and repertoire grew. The school productions also grew and apparently became “more sophisticated,” but the spirit of camaraderie I first fell in love with remained.

During my sophomore year at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), I played my favorite character in arguably the best musical ever (change my mind): Monsieur Thénadier in Les Misérables. Anyone who knows the role will understand my realization: Even today, making faces, pretending to be drunk, using a strange voice, and being a public nuisance are among the most enjoyable skills called for onstage.

Thespian Troupe 8768 launched with a 24-hour theatre event.
Thespian Troupe 8768 launched with a 24-hour theatre event. Photo courtesy of Jonas Böttner.

That next summer before my junior year brought the lingering post-musical depression that hovers over an uneventful holiday. As a student ambassador at WAB, I received messages and questions from new students entering school in the fall. Most were careful, curious, inquiring. Except one. She seemed to have clear ideas about her future at WAB, and she dug in before even setting foot in the school. Anna had talked to current students, drama teachers, counselors, and administrators to begin the process that marked the birth of a Thespian troupe president.

During the first weeks of the new school year, meetings were set up, people recruited, Student Council assembly slots reserved, and conversations commenced. We talked about funding, inductions, merchandise — anything related to what would become Troupe 8768. Initially, I stood on the sidelines, blown away by the rapid pace at which Anna moved her plan forward. I gave her a thumbs up once in a while, telling her to keep going, while at the same time learning day after day how this whole Thespian thing worked. Despite Anna’s seemingly endless enthusiasm, things moved slowly with our administration. Our first Thespian-exclusive event got up and running just after winter break: a 24-hour theatre.

Under the skeptical eyes of the overnight security guards, with parent permission slips collected and food donated by our troupe director, we set to work at 5 p.m. on a Friday. As any person in their right mind knows, putting 15 teenagers in a room together to work through the night is a horrible idea. So, that’s exactly what we did. I recall blurred moments of sleep deprivation with a smile on my face. I remember the event as one of the most ridiculous and hilarious nights of my life, creating a piece of comedy with the best people imaginable. Of course, we didn’t last past 2 a.m., instead falling asleep for a few hours in a couch circle we had formed on our stage.

After rehearsing the next morning and finding the most absurd costumes possible, we presented our terribly inappropriate piece to our parents, some teachers, and the school principal. Our play focused around the idea of couple’s therapy, with each couple that came in only serving to promote the alcoholism of the therapist (played by me). The production was far from perfect (and probably funnier to us, in our delirious state, than to the audience), but considering it was written in 24 hours, it was a masterpiece.

Incidentally the same Friday as our event, I received my Thespian induction email. I was happy out of my mind. A few days later, another ITS email popped up: “Would you want to come to the International Thespian Festival on a grant?” This is when I learned that theatre nerds get together each year for shows, workshops, competitions, information sessions, auditions, dance parties, and everything in between. I replied with an adamant, “Yes!” After debating with my parents, they agreed, under the “on a grant” condition. After all, it was on the other side of the globe in a country I’d never been to. I frantically collected transcripts and recommendations and updated my résumé, submitting them with an “It can’t hurt to apply” attitude, knowing there’d be many qualified contenders. I was thrilled when I received the award.

After a painful 19-hour flight (Exhibit B) with a two-hour delay in Chicago, we stepped off the plane at the Lincoln airport with our mini-delegation: Anna, her mother Julie, and me. A friendly policeman greeted us at the airport. Then an even friendlier taxi driver took us to the university, where we almost got lost because the campus is gigantic. Luckily, a friendly UNL student helped us. Did I mention that Nebraskans, as well as Thespians from across the U.S., are friendly? I’d go so far as to say I didn’t meet a single unfriendly person at the festival. Cheeky? Possibly. Ambitious and talented? Yes. Flamboyant? Absolutely. Obsessed with theatre? Most definitely. Unfriendly? Not a chance.

Exhibit B: The author and Thespian troupe president Anna McClanahan during their 19-hour flight to the 2019 International Thespian Festival. The flight was still fun until this point.
Exhibit B: The author and Thespian troupe president Anna McClanahan during their 19-hour flight to the 2019 International Thespian Festival. The flight was still fun until this point. Photo courtesy of Jonas Böttner.

Most days at the festival, I found myself unable to decide which workshop I would rather attend, but here are some that stood out. During the first workshop Anna and I attended, Our New Musical, we sang through not-yet-finalized songs from Sam Carner and Derek Gregor’s new musical, Techies. We got to practice with Broadway conductors, and our group was invited to perform in the showcase, one of the Friday late-night events. It sounded awesome, although it admittedly felt intimidating to be surrounded by so many amazing singers.

Getting There: Professional Advice, on the other hand, was more comforting, as Chris Bundy shared tips from Thespian alumni who are now professionals with stable jobs in the entertainment industry. The I Got the Part – Now What workshop with Jake Cullens introduced a script analysis technique I plan to use every time I pick up a play in the future. And another late-night event, The Improv Challenge with Mike Rock, was the funniest workshop I’ve ever attended.

Of course, we went to see lots of shows too, some of which I wouldn’t have traded for their Broadway counterparts. We saw Noises Off, which was brilliantly complex yet smooth in its choreography; Peter and the Starcatcher, which was heartwarming; The Scottsboro Boys, which was an incredible cultural experience; and Be More Chill, which was so well executed.

What I saw in six days in Nebraska was impressive to say the least, but I’ll also put it another way: Our acting troupe director (Anna’s mom) jokingly asked me after day one, “Is it all you ever dreamed of?” To which I replied, “Ja,” the German shorthand for, “I’m coming to Indiana next year.”

The inaugural Thespian inductions at Western Academy of Beijing.
The inaugural Thespian inductions at Western Academy of Beijing. Photo courtesy of Jonas Böttner.
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