In College of Fine Arts and Communications, Department of Theatre and Media Arts, Experiential Learning, Tours

Assistant stage manager Susan Kupferer discusses lessons learned on tour

Susan and Matthew Kupferer visit the Great Wall of China. (Courtesy of Susan Kupferer)

Behind 160 student performers, eight performing groups and an anniversary celebration 40 years in the making was a small — but resilient — crew of technicians.

BYU’s China Spectacular wrapped on June 3 after six performances in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Though BYU is known for its international reach and well-traveled ensembles, a tour of this scale was unprecedented for the university.

For now-graduated theatre student Susan Kupferer and her husband Matthew, the tour also meant an unprecedented chance to grow as technicians.

“We decided that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Kupferer, who served as the show’s assistant stage manager under theatre professor Jennifer Reed. “Everyone was talking about the collaboration involved and the celebration of 40 years of friendship between BYU and China, and we knew that we wanted to be a part of it.” 

Kupferer was no stranger to BYU tours — having worked behind-the-scenes for the Ballroom Dance Company the year before — but the China Spectacular presented her with many new experiences and challenges, including the task of packing and repacking hundreds of costumes to meet the 50-pound luggage limit for air travel. 

Susan Kupferer was in charge of packing hundreds of BYU Spectacular costumes. (Courtesy of Susan Kupferer)

After countless hours of production meetings, rehearsals and painstaking technical preparation, Kupferer and the rest of the crew felt they had covered their bases. BYU was ready to take on China.

Only there was a hitch.

While the technicians, performers and supporting staff safely made the trip, many of the show’s technical elements failed to arrive with them — including the majority of the sound equipment, key lighting equipment, projectors and irreplaceable puppets that had been crafted specifically for the Cougarettes’ collaboration with Vocal Point — forcing both cast and crew to adapt, and adapt quickly.

Though Kupferer’s duties as assistant stage manager were less affected than other technical roles, she felt compelled to step up and help those who were essentially starting over from scratch.

“It was a major adjustment for everyone,” she said. “It was just one of those ‘lift where you stand’ times to try to help those people who were struggling to make the show happen. The equipment delay was stressful and complicated, but our production team was so awesome, so experienced and so talented.”

Backstage during BYU’s China Spectacular. (Courtesy of Susan Kupferer)

Kupferer gives special credit to the problem-solving and perseverance of technical director Travis Coyne. Under his leadership, the crew rented all the equipment that could be replaced and worked to recreate the programming they had practiced in their campus performances.

While their last-minute efforts were universally deemed worthy to be called a China Spectacular — and their original equipment did eventually arrive for the final two performances — Kupferer acknowledged that it was difficult to know what the show could have been.

“We had planned and prayed about this show,” said Kupferer. “We made this show for these people, so why didn’t our equipment come through? Why couldn’t we give them the show that we planned?” 

In the end, the setback provided Kupferer with some of the most important career and life lessons that she will take from her time at BYU.

“I think it’s so important to be able to recognize your potential, but it’s sometimes frustrating that you can’t be there quite yet,” said Kupferer. “This experience taught me that you have to work toward your potential — that’s what we’re all here to do. Heavenly Father requires a lot of hard things of us, but sometimes those things are put in our path so that we can learn from them. It’s our job to overcome them prayerfully and be able to learn and grow from them.”

From a lesson in persistence to hiking the Great Wall to seeing friendships blossom across disciplines, Kupferer feels that the China tour truly was the trip of a lifetime she had hoped for. 

“I think people don’t realize how unique it was and how big of a difference it made to people over there,” she said. “You become family with the people you’re touring with, and we were there with 200 people. It was so cool to see everyone collaborate, share and connect. I learned how to be a support to others, to really bear each other’s burden and what it means to do that. One of my favorite things was to see the joy that we can find in each other.”

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