(@umjschool grad student James Drysdale just returned from a tour of China with the Montana Repertory Theater. He is assembling a film about their production of the classic American drama “To Kill A Mockingbird” in two Chinese cities.)
On my last night in Beijing before heading for Chongqing, my unique roll as an embedded journalist on this cultural exchange to China came into sharp relief. The actors had been gearing up for their only two-show day of the tour, and they were working tirelessly to train three Chinese middle-schoolers who would join them in the performances.
I was busy talking to students who would be in the audience, and was lining up interviews for post-show impressions and takeaways. It was going to be an important afternoon and evening for me in terms of capturing interesting aspects to the stories I was pursuing.
Then suddenly everything changed. With ten minutes until showtime, it became apparent that one of our actors, Danielle Sather, was so ill that she needed to be rushed to the hospital. The cast had no time to prepare for her absence. Everything would have to be done on the fly. Her dialogue would need to be filled in and her character’s role in advancing the story would have to be absorbed by others. This all happened quickly, with young Chinese boys on stage who had never acted in front of an audience in their lives.
“What a story,” I thought to myself. There was only one problem: with everyone else on our trip intricately tied to a production that was already being pushed to the limit, there was only one person left to go with Dani to the hospital. Me. It was immediately clear that my role had changed in an instant from that of observer to participant. There was no time to discuss, and it was an easy choice.
The hours I spent with Dani in the hospital were a turning point in my trip in terms of my relationship to the cast. I was suddenly part of the family, and not just some random onlooker. Journalistically, the jury is still out on how this change will positively or negatively affect my ability to tell this story. But personally, it has been a positive shift, and allowed me to engage with the cast on a more intimate level.