All Hands on Set: The Making of GATSBY SHANGHAI

gatsby shanghai banner image

After a semester spent toiling over choreography, set design, and getting the bilingual script just right (all while still managing their coursework), a cast and crew of more than 40 NYU Shanghai students will bring GATSBY SHANGHAI, a modern musical production, to life on stage on May 10 and 11. The show, directed by Cindy Li ’24 and inspired by Peter Joucla’s stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, has a post-COVID contemporary twist that is set here in Shanghai. 

Song and dance performances blend pop, hip-hop, rap, and R&B, and the backdrops and sets merge physical and digital worlds. The production marks the Thespian Society’s first in-person theater performance since 2019 and is the result of the collaborative efforts of NYU Shanghai’s Thespians Society, Program on Creativity + Innovation, Arts & Sciences, English for Academic Purposes (EAP), Chinese Language Program, and music department, among others. 

We sat down backstage with the creatives behind GATSBY SHANGHAI to find out what inspired them to bring this story to life and how they worked together to make it all happen.

Synopsis: It is 2024, post-COVID in Pudong, Shanghai. Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire, passionately pursues the elusive Daisy Bai. Nick Chang, a younger newcomer to Pudong, is drawn into their world of obsession, greed, and danger. The groundbreaking and heart-pumping wave of modern Shanghai engulfs the lives of the men and women (recent graduates) as they transform through their own emotional uproar and deepest traumas.


cindy li as myrtle

Cindy Li ’24 - Director and Producer, Performing as Myrtle Wu


What’s your role?

I’m spearheading the production since this is my passion project. As I recently told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, this project was not only a way for us to do what we love, but I really wanted to tell a story that tied together the various cultures around us through simple emotions and fun experiences. This is a Shanghai story. This is an NYU Shanghai story. And this is our story.

What was it like turning your vision into a reality?

This was a mere idea last summer. I had been talking about this with my friends—many of them supportive. My experience working with different departments around the school helped resolve many issues. People always say we slowly dive deeper into our own work, and there isn’t anything for the whole community, so this is my effort to change that. We wanted to create a family, and we wanted those watching to also feel the warmth.


cindy li leading gatsby shanghai

What’s your favorite scene?

My favorite scene would be the fighting scene between the main characters, where Jeff Qasemi performing as Tommy Buchanan really shines. He has no prior acting experience but wanted to support me, so he took on the heavy task and absolutely kills the role. I also love when our two first year singers sing super well together. I cry every time.



owen photo

Owen Roubeni ’27 - Performing as Jay Gatsby

How did you prepare for your role as Gatsby? 

I was excited to bring forth that very rich and high class persona that, to me, is very fun to act out. The balance between this mysterious man who hosts the best parties, to a misunderstood hopeless romantic, is a very interesting character to play, and I love the challenge. I tend to memorize the scene after we rehearse it for the first time. I like to rehearse lines with my father. The best thing for me is consistency and to practice a healthy lifestyle simultaneously such as good sleep, working out, and eating relatively healthy. I love theater, and I love being a part of a community of other talented actors. From elementary school to now, I’ve done at least two shows a year, sometimes even four. 

How would you describe working on this show? Any challenges?

Working together on this production was very rewarding! My first show overseas, in a new environment, was overwhelming at first, but there was so much support from the cast and crew. Everyone’s very talented and it was such an honor to work with them. For me personally, the long monologue lines were tricky, as well as the dancing. I’m no dancer, especially hip-hop! There were so many resources for us to reach out and get help on parts for the show whether that be lines, dance, singing, etc.


owen as jay gatsby

What is your favorite scene?

My favorite scene in the show is when Jay Gatsby is first introduced to the audience in the party scene. The dance is fun, and Gatsby still holds this mysterious vibe while showing everyone just how rich he really is. It leaves the audience wondering, “Who is this guy? I want to get to know him.”



regan as jordan baker

Regan Slattery ’26 -  Costume Director, Performing as Jordan Baker


What’s your role? 

In the cast I portray Jordan Baker, and in the crew I've been working as costume director. I was extremely excited because I absolutely adore theater. I attended a school called Regional Center for the Arts in high school where I studied acting, and being able to get back into all things theater was really exciting and fun to me.

What has your experience been working on this project?

It was a big time commitment, but I didn't really care, because it's something I love so much. I would describe this as definitely chaotic at points. I don't think I have ever done a production where everything went perfectly, however in the end it is all coming together, and I think we are all looking forward to sharing it. I think if the audience could understand one thing, it would be how much the cast and crew have worked tirelessly to present this show to everyone. We have given up other things we love in order to attend rehearsals, had sleepless nights to figure out set pieces, and have put everything we could into making this show. 

costume design and acting

What’s your favorite scene?

My favorite moment is the last scene between Nick and Gatsby. I think the moment shows so much about the two characters and makes the relationship between them incredibly complex; it shows what kind of person Gatsby truly is.




Korrina Poindexter-Benbow ’25 - Set Director 


What’s your role?

​My main role in GATSBY SHANGHAI is the set director. I love my role as it brings each of the scenes together and helps set the ambiance for the actors to interact. We create the environment, and that's pretty cool. I also helped adapt the play as part of the script team which definitely helped me envision and make sure the scenes we wanted to do were feasible and well-planned out. 

Did you have previous experience with set directing?  

Prior to GATSBY SHANGHAI, I had been involved with Odyssey Of The Mind for seven years, which is a competitive problem-solving scene that builds their set from scratch, writes scripts, makes costumes, and acts. With this experience, I became used to working with many materials and creating sets from the ground up. I knew I would need a strong team to help me with building the [Gatsby Shanghai] set, as one person cannot simply build a set alone. Thankfully, over time, my team found that passion, and a few other passionate individuals joined, and the set was done in no time.

gatsby shanghai backdrop and set

What’s your favorite scene? 

Definitely has to be the duet between Wilson and Gatsby. It's emotional, beautiful, and genuinely makes me want to cry and listen to it a million times over and over again. I would like the audience to know that a lot of thought went into designing the characters in this play, and I would even say some represent individuals we have all encountered. There are so many hidden nuances that reflect a much bigger meaning.



justin liu

Justin Liu ’26 - Finance and so much more


What’s your role?

My main role has been assisting Cindy with finance operations, setting up some fundraisers to pad the budget as well as assisting with contacting vendors for any food or supplies that we needed for the cast and crew. As we have moved through the production and practices. I joined the set and stage team and assisted with the design and upkeep/fixing of some of the props and designing how they were supposed to look. I also joined the crew team as well as the sound and lighting team. Both these teams are integral to the production as the crew team ensures that we can seamlessly create sets in between scenes and lighting and sound ensures that the audience can both see and hear how we intended our scenes to look! 

What was one challenge you faced?

[Building] the car [prop] was definitely the biggest challenge, since it needed continuous upkeep and additional support. We used scrap pieces of wood and bamboo to make sure that the car would hold until the end of production. It was fun to create the actual design of the car, but it made me realize the difference between designing something and actually implementing it in the "real-world" to ensure that it wouldn't break upon touching. 

What’s your favorite scene? 

Act 2 Scene 5, I think. This is at the end of Owen and Jerry's duet, where Jerry begins singing his solo. We really worked on the lighting transitions and spotlight focus on this scene so that it would turn out well and so that the audience could enjoy it! 


group photo gatsby cast


Evan Pan - Nick Chang

Jeff Qasemi- Tom

Owen Roubeni - Gatsby

Katherine Tosi - Guest #1

Ma Jingyi - Guest #2

Rachel Li - Guest #3

Lila Tsendjav -Daisy

Regan Slattery - Jordan, Athena Manapsal - Lucille

Gerry Song - Wilson

Cindy Li - Myrtle 

Jason Liu - Butler, Policeman, Chauffeur