Six-hundred students in Hong Kong auditioned for the roles of the six youngest Von Trapp children for the Hong Kong production of The Sound of Music.
Each prospective actor donned black clothing and attached their number as they attempted to sing, act, and dance their way to a place in the final 18, and ultimately, one of just six roles.
This is a scene that is familiar to director Jonny Bowles. In addition to directing young people across the globe for The Sound of Music, he has previously worked as a children's director on numerous musicals, including A Chorus Line and The Wizard of Oz.
When asked how he carved his career, he said "it's just something that's just happened".
But working with young performers is more difficult than working with adults, a fact Bowles knows all too well. He said some people try to appear memorable with striking clothing, but both he and his associate producer Rachael Abbott find that doesn't help people stand out at all.
To stand out, people need to respond well to feedback, "gel well as a family", and "have the most potential".
As performers, "if [they] are actually trying to do something, it means that they're thinking about it, and if they're thinking about it, chances are they're the right person to teach for this show, because they've got some kind of a thought", said Bowles.
These characteristics are vital because the performers need to pull off three-part harmonies, intricate choreography, and natural acting to make sure they are on par with the professional performers. And all of this needs to happen in just under a month.
This is made harder with younger actors as "there has to be an element of strictness", said Bowles. "[But] you've got to handle it in the right way so that it doesn't have this sort of detrimental effect where you lose them and you lose their ability to get any better."
Although working with amateur actors has its problems, Bowles and Abbott did concede that theatre is a magical tool that changes people. "I've seen kids who had really bad attitude problems and weren't team players, but by the end, they were the nicest children and so lovely and just really grew as people," said Bowles.
When asked why, Bowles said it all came down to the same reasons they chose them in the first place - discipline and the willingness to cooperate. "They've got to be in a certain place at a certain time. They can't just wander around," he said. And as Bowles added, "it's important to not be afraid to speak up and also be a team player … something happens when [people] support each other".
The pressure is on
Picture a stage peppered with spotlights, facing a judge's panel. This was the scene we walked into during The Sound of Music auditions.
Rows of hopefuls stood side by side onstage, standing upright with their hands behind their backs.
At first, their army-like formation seemed strange, but then it became clear what was going on.
Each row was one set of the seven Von Trapp siblings, taking turns to recite the same scene.
In the scene, the Von Trapp siblings introduce themselves to the main character Maria for the first time.
Jonny Bowles, the musical's director, who was calling out instructions, quickly reminded me that these auditions really were for a professional West End production.
"You've got to keep the flow going, or you'll lose the audience," Bowles told the performers, as one row of hopefuls completed the scene. "And we've got to be careful with the words - all of it has to be exactly as it is [in the script]."
Having whittled the audition numbers down from 600 to 146, Bowles now faces the mammoth task of narrowing it down to just 18 finalists, before finally deciding who will get the six roles.
With so much competition, the pressure is on the children as well. Auditions not only consist of acting out scenes, but also singing three-part harmonies and performing dance scenes. This means that to successfully secure a role, students have to be triple threats (for example, they have to be skilled in acting, singing and dancing).
With so many people vying for the six roles and merely three days of auditions, children only have a few moments to prove they are good enough to work with West End professionals.
A big part of the decision hinges on how well they can receive and act upon feedback, which Bowles never stops giving. Bowles stops the actors in the middle of a scene. "All right, let's try that again," says the director to a boy auditioning for the role of Kurt. "You've got to have that directness. 'I'm Kurt. I'm 14. I'm a boy' - bam, bam, bam."
The whole scene starts again from the beginning, and this time the boy delivers his lines like they're bullets. Satisfied, Bowles lets the scene play on until he spots another detail to tweak - and the process is repeated with each new row.
It is clear that Bowles is aiming to bring the production as close to perfection as possible. His attention to detail makes the auditions a painstaking process, but one that is necessary for the show to meet West End standards.
As we are leaving, the next row of Von Trapp siblings finishes the scene. Bowles scribbles something on his clipboard and says, "Very good. It's almost there, but it isn't perfect".
Rehearsals start on April 20 until the actual performances, which will be from May 15 to June 21 at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts