Last Sunday, a caravan of buses arrived at the Abu Dhabi National Theater in the early night's humidity, carrying freshmen and returning students to one of the most anticipated events at NYU Abu Dhabi.
As a university rite of passage, the RealAD show often leaves students in awe of its entertainment value, but also prompts freshmen to think about tackling the various obstacles of a first year at university.
The show features student performers and songwriters who spend a summer in New York rehearsing and crafting its content. On campus, the lead up to the performance is often surrounded by much chatter and fascination, though the history and process behind the spectacle is unknown to most.
Called the Reality Show, it officially premiered in 2005 at NYU New York and is now in its eleventh cycle there. With it from the very beginning was Preston Martin, a Tisch School of Arts graduate and theater aficionado who worked himself up from actor to assistant to show director.
The theatre piece has undergone several changes since its inception, mirroring the growth of NYUAD’s student body since 2010.
“Students are increasingly braver and coming up with specifics that need to be addressed, such as body image and homesickness,” says Martin. “But we try to avoid making these topics feel too dark, deep or explicit, and like to focus on how they specifically resonate on campus.”
The Reality Show was originally sponsored by Assistant Vice President of NYU Student Mental Health Zoe Ragouzeos, which perhaps explains why the Health and Wellness Center hotline is blurted out so many times over the course of the performance.
The emphasis on mental health was made in response to multiple suicide attempts at NYUNY during the year before the first performance. By raising awareness among students and encouraging them to seek help when in need, the show strove to prevent similar instances from happening in the future.
The second motivation behind the Reality Show's conception was to playfully depict what it is like to study at the university.
“The most important factor was that it was made by the students. We could hire a writer [and] some theater makers to come in and write a show, but it’s supposed to be drawn from true-to-life experience,” Martin elaborated.
Parallel to its sister shows in New York and Shanghai, Abu Dhabi's Real AD show is supposed to reflect the environment and specific context of the culture in which the school is situated.
Each campus has different topics and the individual ways in which they resonate among the student body. For example, New York and Shanghai campuses are based in bustling cities, whereas NYUAD is situated in the relative quiet of Saadiyat Island.
Music is also a central aspect of the show, with catchy lyrics and tunes that draw in the audience. Musical Director Ian Axness described the process of choosing the material for the show as a culminative one which reuses and remakes songs from past shows.
As the actors sing and ruminate on these songs throughout the first rehearsals, they naturally come up with new versions that make the old ones obsolete.
“It is less about me choosing music but rather taking what they bring in and sort of crafting it,” Axness said.
Above all, Real AD's musical elements aim to shift the audience’s perspective from a head place to a heart place, so that students may enjoy songs in a sensory experience while simultaneously grasping their underlying messages.
“The songs are edited fastidiously to make sure that we are saying exactly what we want to say, be it informational and extra polite or just super fun,” said Axness.
University President John Sexton made an appearance at this year's RealAD show in order to tell his traditional Charlie story and offer some words of wisdom. His talk before the beginning of the actual show was his final one as president, and it was reminiscent of his other appearances at events like Candidate Weekend.
It was as if this time, students were listening with particular intent. Of course, the classic stories were retold, yet scattered among them were some pressing words of advice:
“The future is shaped now by your hands. This place is yours to cherish and shape. You have to stay connected to the class above and below you,” said Sexton. “Press on. Onward and upward. Take care of each other.”
Natalie Kopczewski is creative editor. Email her at email@example.com.