“We thought we were all gonna be in Shanghai. / Corona came around and said, ‘Nice try.’ / You thought you could predict and plan ahead? Not true. / Guess what? Here's more chaos. / What you gonna do?”
So ends the first minute of NYU Shanghai’s first-ever virtual performance of the Reality Show, a beloved tradition in which second-year students write and choreograph an original musical introducing first-years to the joys and challenges of life on Century Avenue.
NYU Shanghai’s Reality Show typically takes place live on stage in a theater packed with the entire first-year class and presided over by NYU President Andrew Hamilton, who travels to Shanghai each year to take in the performance in person. But this year, anti-COVID travel restrictions meant cast members couldn’t travel to New York City this summer to spend two immersive months working on stage together with producers and directors as usual, or even be present together in Shanghai at the start of the fall semester.
Instead, the cast put an entire 34-minute show together over Zoom from their homes around the world, and first-year students (and all community members with NYU NetIDs) have been able to view the show via online platform NYU Stream from September 24 to October 1, China Standard Time.
The cast greets the Class of 2024 with a video welcome that sympathizes with first-years’ confusing experience of entering college during a pandemic. The whole 34-minute show was filmed from each student’s home via cell phone, video call, and the occasional mom-operated camera.
For the NYU Shanghai Reality Show 2020 cast (listed in full below), the online format presented a host of challenges – first and foremost, how to create a musical production without being able to share the same real rehearsal space.
“That was the hardest thing: We never got to all sing together because it was almost impossible to harmonize over Zoom,” said cast member Olivia Stewart ’23, who joined the show from home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Hugo Wang Pengyu ’23 recounted how difficult it was to perform “choreography” in a group video call, and how challenging it was to explain some of the strange, slow, synchronous movements to the audience stuck at home with him in Taiyuan, Shanxi.
“My mom came into my room to drop off some water and stuff, and she thought I was in a cult or something!” Wang said.
Each student had to become their own production manager and videographer, adding a whole new dimension of creativity and complexity.
“I had such a hard time filming [musical number] Relearn/Unlearn, because I was trying to find a space where I could do a full body shot, and then the directors wanted another angle,” said Issa Yap ’23 who filmed all of her scenes at home in Manila, Philippines. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, how do I do this?’”
The cast also struggled with what topics to present to new students as the pandemic situation evolved and information about the start of the semester continued to fluctuate.
“My piece ‘Punk Quarantine’ used to be about procrastination, because that’s something every student has to struggle with. But as plans started changing … we were like, ‘We’re gonna need a song about quarantine,’ so I had to rework the entire song to be about that,” said Will Foster ’23, who joined the cast from his home in Maryland.
Will Foster ’23 transformed a musical sketch originally about procrastination into a sketch about quarantine when students learned they would have to complete 14 days of mandatory quarantine upon arriving in Shanghai for the fall.
But in spite of the many obstacles - including months of uncertainty about whether the show might be able to take place live - the result is a cohesive and engaging performance rife with humor and punctuated with poignant moments to which every viewer affected by the pandemic can deeply relate.
“My favorite part was the segment with Hugo and his [personal assistant], ‘NYUSHer’ - the little purple ball with blinking big eyes was really amusing,” said NYU Shanghai first-year and Shanghai native Li Yuxuan ’24, who watched the show from her dorm room. “This year's Reality Show used this kind of easy way to tell us first-years that there's always someone at NYUSH who's willing to help us. I like the core spirit, and it's really warm.”
“I actually didn't pay attention to the Reality Show tradition before,” said Li, who was initially reluctant to take a break from her Global Perspectives on Society (GPS) assignment to watch the show with her roommate.
“At first, I thought it was a forty-minute educational video and kinda boring, but it turned out to be extremely amazing. All the stories and small creative videos are great, and I can imagine the hard work behind the scenes. The show definitely exceeded my expectations.”
Hugo Wang Pengyu ’23 consults his imaginary personal assistant/best friend NYUSHER to avoid heading off to campus unprepared.
NYU Shanghai Reality Show 2018 cast member Cindy Luo ’21 of Johannesburg, South Africa – who watched this year’s performance in an online watch party with fellow former cast members – was impressed by the 2020 cast’s ability to thrive in the virtual format.
“This year I was so surprised by the amount of humor,” Luo said. “They used a lot of typical Zoom problems like disconnection and [intentionally] making some of their voices go off-key – that was pretty funny.”
“I just found it amazing how, even with all the difficulties, they were able to have everybody sing together and do movements together.”
Luo gave a special shout-out to 2020 cast member Yap’s COVID baking sketch and its ingenious use of props, something that past Reality Show casts have largely had to forego.
“It’s really such a privilege to use props and effects! Especially for the song ‘Whole Damn Year’ – I loved how they made it black and white so it looked really emotional,” she said. “On stage, we had to do all of that through our expressions.”
Issa Yap ’23’s slightly off-kilter baker character uses compulsive baking and video calls with friends to chase away the COVID blues.
NYU Shanghai Dean of Students David Pe praised the cast for coming together to welcome the Class of 2024 in spite of the difficulties they faced in their own personal and academic lives during the pandemic.
“The creativity, passion, and devotion from this cast went above and beyond. They truly embraced every aspect of what life is like for college students during these challenging times,” said Pe, who has advised the casts of numerous past Reality Shows.
“I hope that everyone who watched the show was able to connect to the message that you are not going through this alone, and you have a community waiting to support you when you need help.”
Cast members said that message was something they lived every day in their interactions with their fellow performers.
Spoken word piece “Community” urges students not to be afraid to reach out to their classmates. After all, “I might be the one you’re looking for.”
“During this time, everyone has felt a sense of loneliness, and everyone has wanted to be a part of something greater than themselves,” said Dagla Rodriguez ’23, who filmed her performance at home in New York City. “So knowing that … don’t be afraid to be the first person to reach out, because I think what you’ll find is that more often than not, people will reciprocate and really appreciate that – they’re just waiting for someone else to take that first step.”
“Maybe you are the one I’m looking for, maybe I am the one you’re looking for, maybe we are the one we are looking for,” said cast member Matt Zhao Jiashi ’23 of Changchun, Jilin, echoing the words of one of Reality Show 2020’s most stirring pieces.
“I think that speaks really loudly to me, because maybe the way to build this community is that we have to change our perspectives: We have to not only ask, but also give to other people. That is also a very important thing I learned throughout rehearsal, and that will definitely stay with me throughout my life, hopefully.”
Congratulations to the cast of NYU Shanghai Reality Show 2020 (all Class of 2023) for a job well done: Stella Choi Jiwon, Mia Fan Jiayin, Will Foster, Dagla Rodriguez, Eddy Shao Zihan, Olivia Stewart, Hugo Wang Pengyu, Rainee Wang Yunyi, Issa Yap, and Matt Zhao Jiashi.
Executive Producer: Linda G. Mills
Producer: Zoe Ragouzeos
Producer: Josh Taylor
Producer: Preston Martin
NYU Media Production
Senior Director: Elisa Guarino
Manager: Kendall Boyda
We Are Not Strangers sung by the 2019 Cast of The Reality Show: NYC
The Reality Show: Shanghai Creative Team
Director: Preston Martin
Associate Director: Neema Atri
Music Director: Nate Weida
Assistant Director: Angel Lin
Project Manager: Victor Yao
Founding Director: Elizabeth Swados (1951-2016)
Dean of Students: David Pe
Student Affairs: Joyce Tan