I’ve always thought of musical theatre as these grand displays of passion and enthusiasm. Watching the actors sing their heart out from afar always instilled in me a feeling of overwhelming admiration. Personally I’ve always hoped for a powerful enough voice to project across stages around the world (but I settled for writing instead heh), it gave the actors a larger-than-life persona.
Which is why having the opportunity to watch and talk to the creators behind USUCC: An Original Zoomsical (short for University School of Unified Character Craft) was such an eye-opening experience. A comedy musical that was recorded remotely, entirely on mobile phones and with actors from all across America. It’s a musical that removes the boundary between audience and actor; bringing you up close and personal to the performers themselves. A unique experience that was borne out of the circumstances that Covid brought about.
What Is USUCC?
The brainchild of Brian Ryu and Julia Krom, two filmmakers who have been working together under their YouTube channel HOCACA TV since 2019, USUCC (pronounced “U-Suck”) was inspired by Brian’s struggle with his university’s administration. Unwilling to provide a refund or grant a deferment for its students who were affected by the pandemic, the duo decided to make light of the situation while shining a light on the frustrations that many students around the world feel.
“We wanted to make fun of the situation and speak to all students who felt the exact same way. Some universities are great – my cousin got a refund from hers; but a lot of universities with big endowments just didn’t put the students first in my opinion,” Brian asserted, “A lot of the lines we used were actually based on the things we’ve actually heard when my friends and I were petitioning.”
It tells the story of an adjunct university professor who finds herself facing a mutiny from her students after the school moves online. She questions what it means to be a teacher, when she is forced to make a choice between taking care of herself and taking care of her students. A depressingly relevant theme to kick 2021 off as students continue to adapt to an increasingly online curriculum.
However, USUCC refuses to let its audience succumb to the dejectedness of its topic, choosing to present its story as a comedy. Lightheartedness lies at the centre of HOCACA TV’s content and USUCC is no different. “We wanted to recreate that same passion in our scripted content. We felt like it was a great way to make a serious situation feel less serious,” Julia claims.
The Making Of USUCC
Though not the first time they’ve worked on a musical (Who Wants To Be Mini Mouse was their first attempt at a musical web series), the scale of this play far exceeded that of their past material. Enlisting the help of cast members from Hawaii, Los Angeles, Indiana, New York and New Jersey, USUCC was a collaborative experience that was powered off the trust that everyone had for each other.
“We had to trust everyone to do a lot on their own. More than what we would usually do in an in-person shoot. Usually the director and crew do a lot for the actors when they’re on set, and that just wasn’t the case this time around,” Julia admits.
“Recording [remotely] with actors was a huge challenge for us as they aren’t super technical. Kyra [their sound mixer] had to explain every single aspect of the equipment set-up, while the actors had zero experience with it,” Brian added.
There was a lot more autonomy given to the actors than Brian and Julia were familiar with, however with the help of their crew – Troy Enoka (producer), Kyra Madden (sound mixer), Eunike Tanzil (composer), Cristyn Dang (choreographer) and Morgan Kern (editor), the production of USUCC largely went off without a hitch.
Pre-production and planning took about a month, with everyone behind the scenes clamouring to streamline the process of recording remotely; while filming took about 3 weekends.
As Brian points out, “We had to teach all the actors how to record themselves along with the technical aspects of making music. Our lyricist/sound mixer was responsible for that where we made an entire tutorial before we began. When we gave instructions to them over Zoom, it was difficult to understand so we would have to draw a picture and hoping that they could follow it.”
They also had to workaround the lack of equipment each actor had. “We filmed everything on each actor’s phones…placing them where their laptop’s webcam would be. We had to work a lot on framing,” said Julia.
What USUCC Means to Brian and Julia
Despite the guerilla filmmaking and the extreme difficulty of coordinating time zones of everyone involved, the duo were grateful for their time making USUCC. With Julia based in Los Angeles and Brian in New York, a remotely-made musical was the perfect way for them to reunite to work on a singular creative vision once more. A vision that was also shared by everyone who worked on the project.
“I think that the best way to direct is to give the experts their space. We set a creative vision and everyone we brought on all wanted the same thing,” Julia maintains.
“We wanted the musical to be a collaborative experience but we were still there for every part of the process though. It didn’t mean we just jumped out. [laughs]” Brian added.
The trust gave way to friendships being borne out of the process.
“After rehearsals or filming sessions, a lot of people would just stay behind and chat for a while. Making new friends or catching up with old ones – my favourite part was where we’re not working on the actual Zoomical. [laughs]” Brian admits.
It’s a chemistry that’s felt throughout its runtime, leaving us with performances that are as inviting as they are impressive. USUCC is a Zoom musical that yearns for your attention and guaranteed to be a feel-good experience.