It was the best of times, it was the craziest of times. On our last exchange to ShangHai Normal University, in 2008, our two schools laid groundwork to do a joint project for the Shanghai World Expo, upcoming in the summer of 2010. This was not to be a modest backwater Expo. No, Shanghai city leaders were preparing to stage the biggest World's Fair ever attempted--- 14 times the size of Disneyland with 191 countries displaying and a final tally of 73 million visitors (nearly a million per day toward the Expo's close in Oct 2010). $45 billion dollars in new infrastructure was added to Shanghai, including six new subway lines. The fair itself was pegged at $55 billion, more than the Beijing Olympics. However the last of the 191 nations to sign on was the United States. A federal law that had been signed by President Clinton precluding federal monies from being spent on such world expos. But a World Expo without the USA in attendance would be a huge, giant diplomatic affront to China. Thus Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her team began canvassing every top CEO in America with a donation cup in hand--- The rush was on to build an American venue.
CSUN and SHNU, oblivious to this late choas, were frustrated at our lack of progress in securing a venue. Undaunted, we ferreted out the email address of the President of the USA Pavilion and contacted him directly at his home in far-off, neighboring Pasadena. He applauded our initiative and connected us with the head of the USA Pavilion's entertainment group, a former Vice President of Tokyo Disneyland named Larry Billman (use "Larry" he would tell us, from his years of working within the Disney culture). His staff would seek an enclosed venue at the Expo for our joint CSUN/ SHNU multi-media production and he invited us to also perform the live portion of our project on the Pavilion stage. Smiles abounded—we were in. As the months rolled on, SHNU and CSUN diligently completed the filmed portion of our project, embracing the Expo theme of "Better City, Better Life", showcasing CSUN's solar-paneled parking and the campus' tropical hydrogen fuel cell plant. But no new word from the Expo officials and with only a month til the May 1st Expo start, we were feeling very forgotten. On April 9th we asked "Larry" to please "read the tea leaves" for us, and he dutifully defended his overworked young staff. They confessed they were still looking for enclosed venue for our multimedia production, still without success, but their offer for us to perform live at The Pavilion still stood (we would later find out that the USA Pavilion's semi-enclosed stage was still being constructed offsite and would not arrive until nearly a month into the Expo).
TheatreCSUN immediately worked to expand our live performance portion, now to consist of four parts: 1)a joint opening song, 2) a medley of California songs, 3) a medley of Shanghai songs, then 4) jointly the official theme song of the Expo, "City" made popular by Jackie Chan. The character-driven opening would be Randy Newman's YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME from the "Toy Story" movie, (with each school trying to out-boast the other being a better friend, each attempting the other's language). Enlisted from the CSUN Music Department was Diane Ketchie who produced a great compilation of the "California sound" and taught it to our eight CSUN theatre performers while Prof. Katherine Baker of the Music Dept and her Chinese students volunteered to translate the "City" theme into English. Our theatre choreographer, Heather Castillo, came aboard and she turned out to have known Larry Billman in her graduate work (tunes of "It's a Small World" underscore here). All this activity was being done nearing finals when no one had extra time, when everyone was running on exhaustion. We felt some recognition was due our young about-to -be ambassadors with our decade-long tradition of performance exchange, so late one night we sent out emails to the White House, our California senators, and the State Dept seeking "atta-boy" letters for our kids. Only the State Department responded, saying they were forwarding the alert to their Public Affairs staff in Washington DC.
The May 1st Expo opening came and went. We emailed, complemented the Pavilion staff on their successful Expo opening and reminded them that we had our plane tickets and visas in hand, that we would be arriving in Shanghai on May 20th as planned. Then on May 6th word came from the Pavilion staff (a non-govt, nonprofit org) that, no, they had still not secured an official performance venue for us but wondering if "do you owe taxes?". Seems the State Dept was unexpectedly contacting them, wanting to contact us immediately. Howsoever our seemingly "stealth" project got to her attention we are not certain, but Hillary Clinton chose us from a list of possible entertainment for her rapidly approaching State Department donors dinner. She would later reminisce, recalling CSUN from her campaign speech here in 2008 and her husband's post-earthquake visit in 1994. The idea of American and Chinese singing in harmony would make a terrific closing moment for her gala affair to be held at the Pavilion. We were soon in touch with Alys Spensley, the US consulate's Expo Liaison Officer who alerted us that we would soon be getting a call from Washington DC. This was to be a very secret dinner, as the idea of a roomful of the top American CEO's would be a terrorist target of the highest degree. We agreed to and abided by the secrecy (mostly) and rehearsals soon went into hyperdrive. All posed for our special credential photographs. Then the students and faculty, including retiring chair Peter Grego, incoming theatre chair Garry Lennon, and company manager Bill Taylor, arrived in Shanghai late on Thursday May 20th. The next evening would be a final audition in front of the top State Department staff from Washington—CSUN and SHNU would have just one day of joint rehearsing before being tested—the dinner was to be that Saturday evening. Because of space considerations at the dinner only eight students were able to perform. While the dinner guests were at tables in the main lobby, our group was sequestered in another part of the Pavilion. The single chaperone for CSUN was Peter Grego and Gao Ting from SHNU, so tight was security. All were soon greeted backstage by Hillary Clinton, who paused to chat and pose for group photographs. She said she had heard good things about the joint CSUN/SHNU group, and praised them on such a great joint performance idea. Outside barricades and security were soon encircling the USA Pavilion, with the Pavilion staff told only hours before who their dinner guests would be. Whole streets were now cordoned off. Garry Lennon and Bill Taylor lead the rest of our students outside for a headstart exploring the Expo at night. Inside, the performance went well, until the final number (which was almost cut in final rehearsal). This was the bilingual version of the Expo theme song "City". For weeks and months the people of Shanghai had heard this song repeatedly sung by Jackie Chan, but Westerners had never heard the song in English. As in those magic moments that seemingly only happen in theatre, a miracle occurred. The song was sung first in Chinese and then in English. Total silence. Waiters halted to listen, frozen in the middle of pouring coffee. The Secret Service men let their earplugs dangle. Secretary Clinton had what she had trusted CSUN and SHNU to deliver—a showstopping conclusion to a most memorable evening. P.S. We did finally get a venue, for eight performances over four days, drawing crowds to the large Americas Stage, adjacent to the Canadian pavilion. Prof. Barry Cleveland, stage manager Jen Potell, and CSUN-Beijing student Lisa Farber provided the backstage technical expertise. Prof Robert Gustafson and his CTVA students had cameras in hand, documenting the event.