WHAT DO 299 OPERA SINGERS, 500 waiters, the President of China, and eight Western production veterans have in common? No, this is not the beginning of a politically incorrect joke; they are 808 of the 4,000 people who worked together to create the opening night event for the 2005 FORTUNE Global Forum in Beijing, China. The event, which is hosted by FORTUNE Magazine, brings together business and government thought leaders to examine and discuss world economic and political trends. These individuals regularly attend corporate meetings and events worldwide. In Beijing, FORTUNE's challenge was to create an event that captured the imagination of these high profile and event-savvy attendees.
As every technical director knows, it all starts with the “room.” The room for the opening night was a 580-year-old temple. The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 A.D. during the Ming Dynasty and, because of its architectural and historical importance, was placed on the world cultural heritage list in 1998. The Temple of Heaven was the personal house of prayer for the Emperor who returned each year on the day of Winter Solstice to pray for good weather, which in Beijing means rain. The production team was graciously invited to attend a traditional prayer ceremony three weeks prior to the forum.
The Temple of Heaven is a park-like setting that consists of well-manicured grounds and 10 architecturally distinct areas. For the first night event, the Danbi Bridge, which is the main road in the Temple of Heaven between the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and the Imperial Vault of Heaven, was the site for the opening cocktail party. The Imperial Vault of Heaven was the backdrop to the dinner stage. The custom built stage was 203'×46' located at the base of the three, hand-carved marble tiers that surround the Imperial Vault of Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven quickly became the star of the show and, as with all stars, required special treatment. In addition to special technical requirements, the Temple of Heaven came with its own set of handlers. The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Parks manages the Temple of Heaven; it is charged with protecting a valuable landmark and, until the FORTUNE Global Forum, a major corporate event had never been held at its venue.
Another component of the evening was the promised appearance of the president of China. President Hu agreed to be the keynote speaker for the evening and he, too, had a group of handlers as well as an extensive security team. Hosting the event in an outdoor venue with multiple entrances and exits posed additional challenges for the president's security team; they required multiple lockouts preceding the event to conduct security sweeps and to test exit strategies in the event of an emergency. As the president's plans evolved, the production team was required drop power, light and dress out various entrances and exits to meet his security and protocol needs.
Finally, CCTV, the state run Broadcast Network, decided to broadcast the event live throughout China. The domestic and international press was covering the entire forum, but once President Hu agreed to speak on the opening night, the evening took on a new level of excitement.
The first goal of the production team was to meet the needs of the various constituents while bringing to life the FORTUNE Conference theme of China and the New Asian Century. China is considered by many to be the next economic powerhouse on the horizon and the world is lining up to do business there. Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics and corporations are working to leverage their relationships in the region to gain access to Mainland China. China is working hard to join the modern world community.
The FORTUNE team was committed to working in harmony with the aesthetics of the Temple of Heaven but at the same time wanted to showcase new as well as traditional Chinese talent while incorporating Western technology. Additionally, any branding incorporated into the program required the Western team to be sensitive to the temple's historical significance.
In the beginning, our planning meetings were not only a case study of East meets West, but of corporate events meeting government procedures. It became clear early on that our two styles of managing a project were very different. The Western concept, that meetings are time stealers that should be minimized and should include only those who need to be there, is foreign to the Chinese.
The Chinese style of managing is to bring everyone to a meeting no matter how remotely connected to the project or what the confirmed agenda. If the agenda stated that lighting was the topic for discussion, you might find yourself listening to the catering director or translation services manager or a government agency head talk about his or her concern that the lighting is bright enough or colorful enough.
Months before the event, the Chinese Culture Committee presented seven acts to the production team; each one consisted of a large cast and was filled with pageantry and color. The decision to stage an act from the Peking Opera, the Drum Dance, The 1,000 Hand Buddha, as well as a FORTUNE-crafted performance by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra with Josef Fung meant the audience would experience several of the finest entertainment groups China had to offer. It also meant that the technical requirements increased with so many performers and moving parts.
Power became the first technical discussion point. The evening entertainment consisted of four two-minute laser shows that incorporated 48 custom-made retractable panels made out of LED sticks interspersed between the four major acts. Additionally, we had to calculate power requirements for the Danbi Bridge, the North Gate, the East Gate and two catering areas. One food preparation area was to be used to serve the 1,000 VIP guests and one area to feed 4,000 performers and support staff.
The power requirements for the staging were extensive. The stage was flanked on each side with 8.4mm by 6.4mm outdoor LED Screens. For the production, the power requirements were 2,725A of 3-phase power at 220V, that is about 5,450A 3-phase at 110V. The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a wooden structure and the placement of alternative power sources took on a greater concern. After our initial meeting with the Chinese government, the decision was made for the city to deliver the power instead of the production team ordering generators. Having the municipal power company run power guaranteed a sufficient power source but it also meant the specifications needed to be submitted well in advance so the power company could calculate how and where they would generate the power and develop diagrams showing placement of cable.
The next challenge was audio. We needed a speaker system to cover 1,000 guests in an outdoor venue, a live broadcast mix to be distributed to CCTV, more than 50 press and radio outlets, and an 8-channel matrix headset system.
On a side note, during rehearsals, the head representative from the Chinese culture group heatedly complained to me that the act on stage was not properly miked. I patiently explained through the local interpreter that the problem was not that it was improperly miked but that there were no microphones at all. The Chinese team had failed to tell the Western team of the addition of the Ancient Orchestra so there were no microphones in place for this group. Imagine the conversation on headsets when a 14-piece orchestra appeared on stage, emerging out of the massive strike of the previous act unbeknownst to the audio or lighting designers. While stories like these are amusing in the retelling over drinks at the bar, at the time it required the Western running crew to develop solutions in real time.
Next, we had to configure a solution for setting microphones for the 120-piece Beijing Symphony Orchestra. A representative from the Chinese Government suggested that we use 120 wireless microphones but we settled on 64 hardwired microphones. Eight audio technicians placed 64 microphones during the two-minute laser show transition. We would also be required to set microphones for the 14-piece Ancient Orchestra during the two-minute laser show transition.
Believe it or not, setting up the headset system became a challenge. Apparently, the Chinese do not use a two-way multiple channel communication system when producing events. The Western team requested an 8-channel system but by show time it had become a 2-channel system with one channel dedicated to Mandarin and one channel dedicated to English. There were a couple of tense moments five minutes before the show when the English channel went down but fortunately, we were able to source the problem and fix it in time for the first cue.
The Western team was charged with designing and implementing the lighting looks for the first-night performance. The lighting for the performance consisted of 1,200 lighting units; 60% were mounted on ten 65' high towers, while the rest were used to light the marble three-tiered handrails. The lighting units for the building and the four two-minute transition laser shows were to be designed by the Chinese production team.
The initial plan was to take the two lighting systems and make them one by developing a single lighting plot. We would feed their board with a DMX signal so that they could control their units for the four laser shows and we could control the units during the performances. We even suggested that the same company provide all the units to make the process seamless. That was the plan.
However, a number of complications developed. First we were informed that we could not source all equipment through a single vendor; the government requested that we bring in a local lighting company because they felt they would understand the special requirements of such a historical building. The second problem was we never received their lighting plot. The Chinese have an extensive approval process and I believe they could never get their plot approved. We did finally receive an equipment list after weeks of asking. Additionally, the board they provided could not accept DMX from our MA Lighting grandMA console.
After resolving those issues, we started to cue the show. The Chinese seemed to only understand two cues, on or off and bright or brighter. It became difficult when we wanted to incorporate their lighting into our cues. The other challenge was the placement of the 10 towers. There was tension between placement of modern technology and the aesthetics of the venue. After multiple meetings and conversations, I believe we satisfactorily resolved the issue keeping the integrity of the venue and getting the best output from the equipment.
A group unique to the Chinese government and the Temple of Heaven was the Safety Committee. The Safety Committee was a government-supplied board whose mandate was to ensure that no damage was done to the temple and that no harm came to the workers or the guests of the event. There were meetings twice daily with the Safety Committee. Unfortunately, these sessions were mostly lectures by the government vehemently reminding vendors that they would be fined if they did not complete the task to the specifications set down by the government.
In theory, the concept was a good one, but the process never developed into a positive force. CCTV did not fall under the guidelines of the Safety Committee and as a result, decisions made during the Safety Committee meetings were often negated by the actions of CCTV. One such example would be laying cable. The Safety Committee approved the ground plan showing placement of all cable but when CCTV set up their system, they disregarded the plan. Allowing one group to work outside the overall framework ended the effectiveness of the process.
Ultimately, while we were able to control and manage the miscommunications due to language and cultural temperament, the limitations of a 580-year-old building and the needs of 4,000 performers and staff, we could not control one thing: the weather. Rain in Beijing is a rarity, but the Chinese government meteorologist predicted rain for the opening night. Therefore, 72 hours before the opening curtain at the Temple of Heaven, the decision was made to reconfigure the acts and move the opening night to Great Hall of the People and the second night would be hosted by the City of Beijing at the Temple of Heaven. Both nights ended up being a huge success but it should be noted that when producing an outdoor event, one should never ask for “good weather” at the altar of a Temple whose answered prayer would be rain.
Martin Goldenberg is president and owner of Marlyn Productions, Inc., a company that provides technical direction, stage management and directors for all types of events. They also consult on theatrical and AV installations. He received the 2004 SRO Technical Director of the Year. Visit www.marlynproductions.com.
Christine Somers is president and owner of Somers & Associates, Inc., a creative services company that designs and produces live events for government agencies, associations, and corporations. Visit www.somersandassociates.com.