The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 28, 2003


Zooming ahead: A Carlisle middle schooler finds a niche in public television

If the "Imagineers" at Disney World ever wanted to design the picture-perfect 12-year-old, they might well choose Elena Shieh as their model. The Carlisle sixth grader embodies all the potential of pre-adolescence: she's articulate, enthusiastic, creative and well-mannered. What's more, she seems to have the energy of ten average kids · energy she pours into favorite activities such as skating, tennis, playing the flute and cooking. Elena is already well-known among her schoolmates in Carlisle for her exuberance and numerous talents. At the end of March, she'll become a household name among kids nationwide, as she debuts in a TV role on the PBS show, Zoom.

Elena Shieh (Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)
Elena vividly recalls the day her Zoom adventure began. It was over a year ago, on a January afternoon when she and her sister Erica, a 13-year-old, were watching the show's daily broadcast. "At the end, they had an announcement about how to get in touch with them if you wanted to try out for the show," she says. "I didn't really pay attention, but my sister was interested, so she called them. They told her that it was too late to attend an open audition, but that we could send them a videotape instead." Elena and Erica each made a short tape and mailed it to the WGBH studios. Her tape was quite simple, Elena recalls: "I just talked about playing the flute."

Auditions for Zoom

Something about both girls' presentations caught the eye of Zoom producers, and in a matter of days, they were attending the next level of auditions. Activities at the auditions included creative challenges such as describing how to make a grilled cheese sandwich or inventing an explanation for the origin of bubble gum. "It started with over 2,000 kids," Elena says. The next cut winnowed the number to 300; Erica continued through one more round.

When Elena realized she had made it to the final 24, the possibility of becoming a cast member began to seem like a reality to her. Finally, the day arrived that a final decision was to be announced. Elena knew that the station planned to contact her mother at work. "As soon as I got home from school, I called my mom to ask her what she'd heard," she recalls. "When she said I'd made it, I was so excited I hung up on her! Then I started jumping up and down on my bed, and my sister was yelling, 'I can't believe this!'"

Once the auditions were over, there was still work to do before taping began. "Last spring, we attended what's called Camp Zoom," Elena explains. "It's where you get used to working with the other cast members and also learn about how a show gets produced. We did costuming, too, and they took a lot of pictures of us." The cast comprises seven kids between the ages of 8 and 13. Four were returning from the previous season; two others, along with Elena, were new to the show.

Elena becomes "Shing-Ying"

Somewhat unexpectedly, the first task Elena faced had to do with her name. "There was a girl in the cast the year before named Aline," she explains. "The producers thought it was confusing that my name was so similar, so they asked me if there was anything else I was called. My mother came up with the idea of using my Chinese name, Shing-Ying." With the show's emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, the Zoom producers loved the idea, and although Elena had never been called by her Chinese name before, she quickly became accustomed to it. "Shing means heart, and ying means smart," she says. Elena is bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese, which is her parents' native tongue. She is currently studying French at school.

Three days after finishing fifth grade last June, Elena began taping the show. The cast met five days a week at WGBH's Allston studio for a total of six weeks. "The hardest part was getting up early every morning during the summer," she says, but quickly adds that the 6 a.m. wakeups were the only aspect of being on the show that she found difficult. Overall, she loved the experience. "We always had fun. Working together, we'd all get hyper and it seemed so easy." The cast members bonded quickly, and Elena fully expects that they will stay lifelong friends. "We talk all the time now on the phone or on-line," she says. "Sometimes the girls get together to have a sleepover or go shopping."

Elena explains that the show is divided into a variety of segments · cooking projects, science experiments, reading letters from viewers, and so forth · and that taping is done by segment, rather than by episode. Therefore, one day might be entirely dedicated to science, another to cooking. "Even though everyone has to be at the set every day during taping, a lot of times you're only actually doing something about two hours of the day," Elena says. "The rest of time, you go to something called the Zoom Zone, where you can just hang out, play games, or listen to music. There's a boom box you can play music on, so I spent a lot of my free time making up dances."

Other than the early wakeups, Elena found her TV stint to be both fun and fairly easy. She says her only real challenge on screen was that she has a tendency to talk too fast. "The voice coach helped me to slow down, but she had to remind me often," she admits. Taping ended in early August, which gave the Shieh family time to take a vacation to Niagara Falls before the girls had to return to school (along with Erica, who is in seventh grade, Elena has a sister named Emily who is a freshman in college).

New Zoom season begins on Monday

The new season of Zoom will premiere on Monday, March 31, on WBGH Channel 2 weekdays from 5 to 6 p.m. Elena looks forward to seeing herself and her new friends on TV, but doesn't expect her life to change too much as a result. "Since I used a different name on the show, I don't think people will realize it's me," she says. Meanwhile, a host of springtime activities are keeping her busy right here in Carlisle. A longtime flutist, she recently took up the piccolo for the school band, and she looks forward to beginning her first season of lacrosse. Although she loves competitive figure skating and was highly ranked in years past, she has put skating aside for now in favor of team sports. Another favorite activity is visiting Emily at college, where Elena observed on a recent visit that "kids go to classes in their pajamas sometimes."

Additionally, tryouts are currently under way for the next season of Zoom, and Elena is hopeful that she'll be reappearing on the show next year. As to her future, she says that a career in television is definitely a possibility. "I'd like to be a news anchor, like Peter Jennings," she muses. "But I might decide to be a chef instead." After just an hour with this young and dynamic powerhouse, it's fairly easy to imagine that she'll be both · as well as whatever else catches her interest.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito