Columbia on the Road



Jerome Charyn '59

Cross-Cultural Exchange
A TV star in China, Charlotte MacInnis '02 hopes to work there and in the U.S. after completing her theater degree
By Laura Butchy

Charlotte MacInnis '02 may seem like a typical young actress: She has worked in both television and theater, she moved to New York to major in theater, and in the fall she completed her acting thesis, Checkov's Three Sisters. But a closer look at her résumé reveals what sets MacInnis apart from other New York actresses (in addition to the fact that she's only months away from receiving an Ivy League degree) — most of her experience has been in Chinese television and theater.

Born in Michigan, MacInnis moved to China with her family when she was 7, when her father returned there to take a new job. While MacInnis' mother grew up just seconds from Alma Mater on 113th Street and Riverside Drive, her father was born in Fuzhou, the capital of the Chinese Fujian Province. His parents, primarily of Scottish and Norwegian descent, had moved there after growing up in the United States. Though MacInnis's parents planned to stay abroad for only a few years, seven years later the family had moved from China to Taiwan and finally settled in Beijing. "I associate myself more with China," MacInnis says of her international upbringing. "It was hard coming back here and having class in English."

Charlotte (right) and her sister, Mika
Charlotte (right) and her sister, Mika, in costume for a music video they filmed to promote the Chinese opera Dream of the Red Mansion in 1994.

Home-schooled until they were 14, Charlotte and her older sister, Mika, took classes in Chinese and were bilingual by the time they entered the International Chinese High School in Beijing. Government-run, the school caters to international students but offers a Chinese curriculum and Chinese instructors. For her senior year, MacInnis transferred to the International School of Beijing, where the American Embassy-run classes were in English.

A coincidence led the MacInnis sisters to begin performing in 1991, when Charlotte was 10 and Mika was 12. Their father's international business conferences frequently included opening and closing variety shows, and bilingual children often served as announcers. In 1991, the girls' father, who met their mother while both were attending Harvard Divinity School, volunteered his daughters, and soon the sisters were popular stage announcers.

Working as an announcer, MacInnis got to know the participating performing arts troupe and enrolled in singing lessons. Through connections at the provincial television station, MacInnis' teacher arranged for the girls to get an invitation to participate in a weekly variety show. Together, they sang Chinese opera and then moved on to folk, pop and rap. They also performed comic dialogues, called "xiang-sheng," on provincial shows, and then nationally on Central China Television.

Charlotte returns to Laughing Tea House
In April 1999, theater major Charlotte MacInnis '02 returned to make a special appearance in the anniversary episode of Laughing Tea House.

When the family moved to Beijing, MacInnis was approached by a weekly educational game show to host a segment. By this time, her sister had shifted her focus to studying traditional Chinese music, but MacInnis pursued performing. She accepted the spot on Zheng Da Zong Yi, or Laughing Tea House, and went on to film more than 100 episodes in three years.

After a family debate about whether she should stay in China for university, MacInnis left Laughing Tea House and returned to the United States to attend the school where her grandparents met. "I knew I needed to be in a larger city, and my grandmother earned her psychology Ph.D. from Columbia," MacInnis said of her decision to attend the College. "It was a combination of needing diversity and open-mindedness as well as the Core — my background in the canon of Western Civilization was not good."

As a theater major, MacInnis also cited New York as an attraction. While at Columbia, she has appeared in at least one production every semester, and in November she acted in Three Sisters for two weekends to complete her thesis requirement.

"It's a small theater department, but it's nice because there's a lot of individual attention," MacInnis said. "I like that this department is open to what you have to bring. That got me interested in how Chinese performing arts can enhance American performing arts and vice versa."

MacInnis has returned to China during her summer vacations to gain further acting experience. Two summers ago, she filmed a mini-series for national Chinese television that was about 80 percent in Chinese and 20 percent in English. "I played a half-Chinese, half-Caucasian girl named Sophia," MacInnis said with a laugh. "I got to die.

Charlotte on the phone in a play
MacInnis gained experience in China last summer when she played Julia in Dario Fo's An Ordinary Day at the Shaing Hai Dramatic Arts Center.

"Last summer I finally got involved in theater [in China]," she added. At the Shaing Hai Dramatic Arts Center, one of two national theaters in Shaing Hai, MacInnis performed Dario Fo's Ordinary Day in both languages.

As she looks toward graduation in May, MacInnis hopes to incorporate her varied experience to create a unique niche in the competitive world of acting. "If I stay in America, I'll stay in New York," she said of her career plans. "I would love to do television and theater here and there, aiming for cross-cultural exchange."

About the Author: Laura Butchy is a staff writer and editor for Columbia College Today as well as a student at Columbia's School of the Arts completing her M.F.A. in dramaturgy.


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