For interim director of the BFA in Musical Theatre program MaryAnn Hu, the path to musical theatre was anything but straightforward.
“I’m one of those people that did things kind of backwards,” Professor Hu said. Starting as a pop singer in a girl group and working with the East West Players after high school, Hu landed her first Broadway role while living in Los Angeles. “These days, with self-taping and the digital age, it’s very different. Geography doesn’t play as big of a role. But back in those days, you didn’t really do it in that direction. I was very lucky.”
Professor Hu’s Broadway experience, which includes roles in Disney’s Frozen, My Fair Lady, Sunday in the Park with George, The King and I, South Pacific and Miss Saigon, is only part of her varied career. She has recurred on a sitcom, does frequent television work and is an active presence on stage in both New York and Los Angeles.
An active performer who splits her time between the coasts, Professor Hu realized she had an interest in teaching after a snowy trek through a Manhattan blizzard seven years ago. Her friend and mentor, actor Michael McElroy, was teaching a course at New York University. Professor Hu, curious about teaching, asked if she could observe his class.
“I trudged out in the snow just to observe him teach because I respect him so much as an artist, but also as an educator—which says a lot about Michael, because I’m from L.A. and I hate the snow,” Professor Hu said, noting that the class was almost canceled due to the blizzard conditions. She ended up attending, though, and felt inspired to pursue teaching herself. “I audited his class and I thought, oh, this is very interesting. I love what he does. And I think I can do that, too, because we share similar philosophies.”
Professor Hu began teaching at USC during the pandemic, learning to make adjustments teaching musical theatre and acting over Zoom. Now, with in-person classes once again the norm, she tries to emphasize physicality and connection to her students, something that she says the younger generation may have missed out on during the health crisis.
“Musical theatre is all about how you integrate and respond to the live music. It’s a collaboration with the other people in the room with you,” Professor Hu said. “I’m not opposed to the use of technology in teaching and performance, but there’s something about live theatre and that connection that you just can’t replace. Its visceral.”
Recently joining the full-time faculty as Assistant Professor of Theatre Practice in Musical Theatre, Professor Hu’s excitement about some of the new offerings for the BFA in Musical Theatre program this year was tangible.
“We have some really exciting things happening in the spring,” Professor Hu said, listing a litany of visitors and opportunities for students arranged by the program. Professor Hu mentioned visits by high-profile casting directors, the opportunity to work with London-based group Frantic Assembly on physical acting techniques and visits from prominent actors, singers and choreographers, among many others.
More than anything, though, Professor Hu seeks to encourage students to be less married to the results of their work and more engaged in the process of creating. She aims to engage in more work helping students tap into their own creativity, empathy and sense of connection.
“It’s one thing to give them scripted stuff, but it’s another to actually ask them to step into the world of their imagination and not be so married to trying to make something interesting rather than creating something new,” Professor Hu said.
In addition to being a working actor and teacher, Professor Hu is a mindfulness and meditation coach, earning her certification during the pandemic. She believes that theatre can be used as a tool for empathy and wellness that extends beyond the self, connecting people with each other and leading to something bigger.
“I believe that theatre can be like a gym or a clinic for empathy,” Professor Hu said. “When you experience a piece of theatre, even if you never see the person sitting next to you again, you shared something together for just a moment. Again, it’s about connection. Which is what we need more of in this world, even it if it is ephemeral.”
Professor Hu believes that learning from working actors in the industry is an essential part of studying at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. One of the things that attracted Professor Hu to the BFA in Musical Theatre program is its emphasis on young artists learning from working actors like herself, with real world experience in the arts and entertainment industry.
“Knowing where the industry is going and having that practical real-world experience and then being able to integrate that to create an environment for these students who are going to be entering the professional world,” Professor Hu said. “I think that’s really important.”
Professor Hu believes that theatre is for everyone. Discussing a class she taught in the Fall semester helping students prepare their audition books, Professor Hu couldn’t help but smile at working with students from many different disciplines. She described it as a rewarding part of teaching. “The class attracts people from other schools, too, so sometimes we’ll get an engineering major or a chem major or an econ major,” Professor Hu said. “I love seeing the growth in them. Even having the courage to get up and sing in front of people, when they may have never done it before, is truly inspiring.”