My Christmas post this time around features the grand celebration and show night the Varsity Christian Fellowships (VCF) had in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang, back in 2003.
The celebration was held in the Dewan Tuanku Syed Putra (DTSP) of TITAS class infamy.
(Two side notes: I was in TITAS class when the lecturer started on about how Islam is the only truth and every other religion – Christianity, Buddhism – is wrong. And he stated: “Kamu jangan offended. Ini bukan opinion, ini adalah fact!”. Talk about your muhibbah cultural sensitivity. Secondly, we got in trouble with the USM office who almost didn’t let us use the DTSP, because the previous year there had been a lot of emptied beer and liquor bottles left in the hall! We explained it wasn’t us who got stone drunk and litterbuggy in the DTSP, but the club that had used the hall immediately before us for their own celebration, whom I shall not name here).
We had lots of presentations, including dance, song, drama and music. The turnout was great, perhaps partly due to the buses we chartered just to ferry students back to their dorms after the show! We also had a quite intense awareness drive where volunteers would man the booth along the DK G (Dewan Kuliah) area.
A little history on Combined Christmas: It was started as a way to reach out to the campus students and tell them about the Christian message. Apart from that, it was also a way to bring together the various VCFs to work as a team and foster closer ties.
The VCFs who took part in 2003’s Combined Christmas were Persatuan Persaudaraan Kristian (PPK), Chi Alpha (CA), Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) and Living Word (aka Navigators).
(A note to all current USM students reading this: The CA here is not exactly the same CA that you currently know! After years of deliberation and prayer, in 2004 PPK and then-CA joined together to form… PKA, Persaudaraan Kristian Agape! If you don’t know this very rich history about the VCFs that date back to the first years of USM’s founding, do ask your leaders to fill you in!)
A little bit nostalgically, Combined Christmas has recently been replaced by other activities that serve the same evangelistic/fellowship purposes. There’s still nothing quite like that Christmas atmosphere…
Anyway, the following is the video of Combined Christmas 2003 as recorded and edited by Lim Kee Sitt (currently a wedding videographer pro), who generously filmed the event for posterity. The video is split into 9 parts for ease of loading.
Along with the videos, I will provide commentary on what is going on and how we went about it, so that future generations can take note and perhaps be inspired to host their own Christmas/Easter/other celebrations.
Enjoy, and God bless!
(For how to download these videos, see bottom of post.)
Intro 1 (direct link at here):
This is a montage showing various scenes from pre-show preparations and the night proper. It serves as a good intro and teaser. You can see the dancers (who is that guy in tan bermuda shorts and brownish hair???), drama team, choir and emcees rehearsing, the pre-show group prayer, some of the decorations, and even the DTSP itself. If you’re quick, you can spot overall main director Adeline Poh conversing with stage director Anne Leong!
Intro 2 (direct link at here):
Another montage that has scenes from before the celebration proper. You can see the ushers preparing gift packs for the audience and how the performers were given make-up.
Part 1 (direct link at here):
The night opens with a slow ballet by Grace Woo and mime by Elina Goh, then it becomes a fast paced dance set to the song Joyful Joyful as seen in the finale of Sister Act 2. The dance steps were original ones painstakingly choreographed and drilled into the dancers by Hsien Hui, former USM student and Creative Arts ministry leader of Excel Point Commmunity Church (EPCC).
Hsien Hui was just one of the dance choreographers for the various dances of the night – each dance had its own leader and team.
The dance was also performed at the Rock 2 concert in Penang.
Notice the taller dancer in red, with the specs and the brownish ponytail… I wonder who that could be? ;>
Part 2 (direct link at here):
Emcee Joshua Hooi comes out onstage and performs his ‘unique’ (i.e. incredibly lame by intentional design) brand of humour, followed by the ever-talkable Jessica Lim. They serve as the link between acts and help to clarify the message of some of the less clear scenes.
Following that, a song & dance number by the choir group, Happy Birthday Jesus is performed (lyrics near bottom of link). The song is mean to remind/educate the audience about the fact that Christmas is supposed to be the celebration of Christ‘s birth.
(And yes, the usual Commercialmas icons of Western culture such as Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty et al were intentionally left out.)
This and the other choir songs were directed by the choir leader, Grace Oo. Sadly, the other choir songs – in traditional matching white costumes with purple ties, singing traditional Christmas carols like Away in A Manger – were accidentally edited out of the video. The raw footage exists somewhere in my CD pile, but I haven’t found it yet.
A quick note on the music transitions… The sound system was controlled by equipment just in front of and below the raised stage. When the next song was due, the person in charge would load and play the corresponding audio CD.
Following that is another dance number, a hip-hop take on Every Move I Make. This dance was led by Angeline Lye, if I’m not mistaken.
This song and dance, along with another later on, were taken from a CD featuring Korean dancers moving and grooving to various Christian songs. Even the costuming is based on the CD 🙂
Part 3 (direct link at here):
Ah! The main chunk of the night’s programme. The task of delivering a Christian message fell upon the drama. Yours truly was in charge of it after helping the past year’s drama director, Dan Fadalini. (I still have the close-to-final versions of the script for the drama.)
I shall skimp on the details of the plot so that I don’t spoil it for you, but in brief, I wanted several things from the drama:
1) Few words. Seeing that the majority of USM students are not really that fluent in English, and from my experience on the previous year’s Combined Christmas drama that was very heavy on the talking, I wanted to craft a drama that did not rely on speaking to convey its message. Hence the drama runs as acting/mime done to music. (FYI, for the past year’s drama, we pre-recorded all the dialogue in a studio – Dan’s room with all the doors and windows closed – and then lip-synched on stage to avoid needing to use finicky microphones on the night itself.)
2) A relevant message to university students. Discussion with the other leaders in the Combined Christmas team led to choosing a more contemporary plot that students could relate to – coming to campus, newfound freedom, studies, friends, romance, conflict with parents, and hopelessness. Without giving away the plot, let me add that the finale scene was inspired – and meant to contrast with – a well known actual case that happened in USM earlier that same year! Thus the direct relevance to the audience…
3) Not too preachy, but has the Christian message. This was harder… I actually didn’t have a clue as to how to directly include Christianity until Chang Yan Yi came up with the song/mime number in Scene 7 (in part 4 of the videos). I didn’t want the audience to be turned off by a direct-to-their-faces sermon. Nevertheless, Pastor Samuel Surendran of EPCC did give a short message after the play (not shown in the videos). I also did not include the last, hopeful option found in the finale until late in the year – people felt that the original ending was too depressing without it!
Apart from that, there are various tips I would like to impart… After the next video!
Part 4 (direct link at here):
As I said, I was in charge of the drama team. And I can tell you, it wasn’t easy herding these cats into a cohesive acting force!
For one, most of my team (an all-volunteer group, with suitable minor coercion) were not natural or trained actors.
First, the cast:
Lead actress – Tan Yu Pei
Mom – Vivian Tan
Guy friends (goof offs)- Dan Fadalini, Sadat Foster
Girl friends (studious types) – Chang Yan Yi, Ooi Ming Boon
Lecturer – Emmeline Tan
Waitress – Chia Pik Yee (whom I forgot had volunteered to act until late into the year)
Playboy guy – Woon Tien Ern (in my stylish threads lol!)
Sadat Foster and Dan Fadalini were used to acting, having been involved in the previous year’s drama. The rest had a lot of learning to do – and were often infuriatingly unserious about doing it!
Often they would come late, or dawdle and chat, or half-heartedly go about it… Once I lost my temper and sent a water bottle flying, after which (and after I had cooled down) they were more cooperative.
Another time I got a sounding from the Stage director Anne Leong (yes, my current wife Anne, but not back then!) when, on the day before Combined Christmas itself, my team showed up late and not in full dress for the rehearsal. I lost my temper again too, kicking over a chair, feeling frustrated and that it wasn’t my fault (though as director, I should be responsible for strictness with my team). I left a less than good testimony on the USM technicians, I think.
For all those times, I apologize to you guys. I wasn’t very good with stress, and I know I drove you hard.
But amazingly, they surpassed my expectations to really shine on the night itself! Especially the lead actress Yu Pei. To this day I am thankful for their sacrifice that made the drama succeed.
And now for the tips… Oops! Looks like they’ll have to wait until the next video part!
Part 5 (direct link at here):
Hmm, where was I? Ah yes! The tips.
First of all, without spoken words, I had to rely on the acting, music and background to convey the more subtle plot points.
First up, the music – I used a combination of various music genres and snippets to bring about the right mood for each scene. See if you can catch them all. In order, the song snippets used are:
Scene 1 – Mama Hao, One Week (by Barenaked Ladies, on Dan’s suggestion)
Scene 2 – Alright (by Jamiroquai), Smooth Criminal (Alien Ant Farm version), Some Enchanted Evening, Smooth Criminal (reprise)
Scene 3 – Mama Hao
Scene 4 – The Entertainer (sped up), Imperial March (from Star Wars)
Scene 5 – Canon in D, Flight of the Bumblebee (Maksim Mvirca version), Mama Hao
Scene 6 – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (Yngwie Malmsteem’s rock version), Victory Fanfare (Final Fantasy VII version I think)
Scene 8 – The Suits Are Picking Up the Bill (by Squirrel Nut Zippers)
Scene 9 – Some song by Turk Murphy (I forget which), Mama Hao, Succession of Witches (Final Fantasy 8 Piano Collection, just a snippet), Menghitung Hari (Kris Dayanti, at Kean Loong’s suggestion), Celes (Final Fantasy 6 Piano Collection), Magus’ Castle (Chrono Trigger), a track that I forget where I got it from, Magus’ Castle (reprise)
The Mama Hao song above was a headache – I couldn’t find a recording of it anywhere! (This was after file sharing programs, but before Youtube became mainstream.) So I tried recording Emmeline singing it sadly (didn’t turn out so great), before getting Jonathan Chen to play it on his violin.
The music was cut, edited and spliced together, volume and speed increased or decreased, fade in or fade out, all using SoundForge and Wavelab. I still have the completed music montages for each scene.
I like to think that watching lots of old no-dialogue cartoons that rely on music and sound effects like Tom & Jerry subconciously guided my style.
Next up, the background – Instead of the usual static physical backdrop, I had the bright idea to use the huge screen for Powerpoint presentations in the DTSP. In this manner, I could constantly change scenes with minimal stage work!
I believe I was one of the pioneers of using Powerpoint as the backdrop for a drama (well, in my own little sphere at least).
Annoyingly, each computer I ran the Powerpoint on would have different layout for the words! So I would think something went wrong, rearrange the words and fontsize… Only to have it mness up again on the next computer! In the end, the computer used for the night itself gave me that problem too late to fix, which you’ll notice with the opening titles of each Scene that are somewhat out of line.
Anyway, I, the director, was up in the control room above the second floor, tens of metres away from the stage, in order to control the Powerpoint slides. That seriously affected my real-time directing of the drama!
And we had only two working walkie-talkies, which the main coordinators needed to use. Handphones were impractical, partly because the busy people in a noise-filled environment simply couldn’t hear their phones ringing!
So I couldn’t both cue the actors and sound guy (who is down by the stage, as you recall) while controlling the intricate Powepoint slides from up there.
Or could I…
I realized that I could control the action with the Powerpoints! All I had to do was cue the actors using different slides – which you may have noticed with the END SCENE messages, and especially where the actors move in reaction to the background such as in Scene 1 and Scene 4.
So in this way, I could control the actors and music according to the clear sequence of events in my head – to a degree. I often gestured wildly and PSYCHICALLY WISHED MY THOUGHTS AT THEM to hopefully get them to “Move now! Come on! Move!” at the right times, as if sheer force of will could influence their minds.
Same went for the lights – the stage lights were controlled by the USM technician from inside the control room, so I could tell him when to switch them on and off. But the spotlights were manned by people outside the room, and they seldom glanced my way, focused on the fun as it were. “Point at her… Point at her… POINT AT HER!!!…”
The only time I left the control room was for the prop used in the finale, which I had entrusted to Victor but then changed my mind at the last minute. Unfortunately, I didn’t tell him that I had re-set the relevant prop, and he didn’t tell me that he had re-re-set it after I did, which led to a minor goof – but to me it was huge and embarassing, even though I quickly salvaged it as best I could (turned out better that way in retrospect), and I hurt my hand punching the wall in anger over it afterwards.
Third, the stage props – I didn’t know the importance of good stage handling, but thankfully Anne did. She discreetly placed markers on the stage floor and directed the stage team to quickly and efficiently move the necessary props in and out for each scene (which lends to the name of her blog!).
Without a firm command and careful plotting of each scene (which I did not provide until bugged for it), it would have been slow, clumsy and chaotic to shift the props in the dark. I opted to use as minimal physical props as possible. And if you’ll notice, we forgot to use some of them after we had prepared them – such as the drinks for scene 2!
Part 6 (direct link at here):
This part of the video has the closing of the drama, where I was up in the rafters high, high, scarily high above the hall for the aformentioned finale prop.
A guy whom I cannot remember the name of (sorry dude!) or whether he was from CCC or Living Word (sorry peoples!) helped me to move the Powerpoint slides while I was away… Quite a bit too slow IMHO, even after I gave specific instructions to him.
Later he was in charge of moving the slides for the upcoming songs, since I was part of the choir. (I therefore was in dance, choir and drama for the night!)
And the message of the story, without giving away the plot, is:
When you think you have nothing left, there is always still one thing – one Person – you can cling to. His name is Jesus, and He will never leave you nor forsake you.
After that, the emcees summarized the message of the drama (which I thanked and congratulated them on doing a good job for after watching the video).
I forget when Pastor Sam came out to speak his message and talk a bit about the drama (he was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of Bible verses in Scene 7), but during that time the audience were given feedback forms to fill in – an important procedure to encourage them to find out more about Christianity and to let us know if they wanted us to contact them. I can’t remember how many interested people we had, as counted during the post-mortem meeting.
Part 7 (direct link at here):
Another dance from the Korean CD, choreographed by Grace Woo. This one is a touching and powerful one to You Can Lean On Me. I seem to recall it being particularly moving and very different from what is usually seen in dances.
The emcees come out and speak again before the next part.
Part 8 (direct link at here):
It’s the Christmas Jazz Trio featuring ‘jazzman’ Jonathan Chen on violin, Choong Kean Loong on guitar, and Esther Siew’s vocals! They were a hit with the audience.
I remember on the morning of the Combined Christmas day, I got up out of the top bunk bed groggy from the late night’s last minute rushing preparations… And knocked over Kean’s guitar! It landed face-down and at least one string snapped!
Jon and Kean went to buy new strings and restringed the guitar before the night. However, Jon’s violin string snapped as well, during the performance itself! You’ll notice a slight jump at one point, where the video was edited out when they were restringing the violin.
Part 9 (direct link at here):
I forget whose idea this was, but it was most likely Grace Woo’s. She and some others led the audience in dancing and moving to a song which I forget the name of.
We learnt to do this (especially the fun bounce-twice-with-arms-in-air-woo!woo! part) at a Christian creative arts camp. It was great fun there, so we though to involve the audience in the night’s festivities as well.
I remember thinking the song was a bit too long, and the movements a bit too complex before the woo!woo! part.
The night ended, as often Christmas celebrations do, with everyone singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad while going into the crowd to shake hands with and greet the audience. It’s not shown in the video.
Um, not too proudly, most of us cut short the supposed-to-be sharing the gospel to interested audience members while mixing around, and instead gathered around and take photos for our own remembrance. Sorry!
And that’s it for Combined Christmas 2003!
For 2004, I had a 70% finished plan for a really cool combined drama-choir-dance extravaganza about the life of Jesus, but we chose another angle instead.
I still remember all the details if anyone is interested!
If you have any queries about how the night and pre-preparations were run, feel free to ask too.
Just drop me a comment in the box below or email me, yes? Comments are welcome!
God bless to all, and to all a Merry Christmas!
HOW TO DOWNLOAD YOUTUBE VIDEOS
You can do it with RealPlayer or other programs like my preferred free program Orbit Downloader, but here’s the easiest way that requires the least installations.
1) Copy the link/http/web address of the Youtube video.
2) Go to http://www.techcrunch.com/get-youtube-movie/ (if you keep forgetting the site, just Google for ‘techcrunch youtube’)
3) Paste the link into the empty box and click the Get Video button next to it. A link will appear underneath. Click the link to download the file.
4) Once the file is downloaded, rename it as you please. Make sure the last characters are .flv
You will need an FLV player program to run the FLV video. Get it at http://applian.com/flvplayer/ or any other will do. It’s just 2 or so mb.
Now either set FLV files to always be run using the FLV player, or open the player and drag the video files onto it.