Melissa Caolo, production manager for Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment (NWE), toured internationally through more than 30 countries as a stage manager and production manager for the better part of 13 years. She had become used to working through translators, dealing with differing labor rules, struggling with equipment equivalents and power conversion issues, and even adjusting to the work rhythms of a particular culture—varying times for meal breaks, siestas, and more.
Certainly, she was more prepared than most to take Broadway shows to several cities in China for NWE, but even this seasoned professional had some surprising challenges in an emerging market where there is very little infrastructure in the theatrical industry. How would crews from the United States work with crews and presenters who speak another language and have different customs?
In Inner Mongolia, a province of China, NWE did a scaled-back production of Aida that required a black linoleum dance floor. “The theatre was tiny, and the presenter willing but naïve,” Caolo recalls. “The day before the touring company arrived, the presenter asked the local crew to refinish the blonde wood floor with a fresh coat of varnish so the theatre would look its best. Clearly, he did not at all understand the tech rider. So the company members arrived to find a floor so sticky that they had to use a good deal of force to pick up their feet when walking across it. If the dance floor had been laid, it would never again come off the stage floor.”
Caolo notes that the biggest cultural differences are those of social and workplace hierarchies. “In a US touring situation, I can ask a stagehand for something out of routine protocol, without going to his supervisor, but it sometimes causes problems in China when a junior person is asked to make a decision, as it is not respectful to the person above him or her,” she says.
Worse, if a Chinese staff member or stagehand speaks to an American who outranks him, he won’t necessarily tell the whole truth. “Because I’m in charge, and everyone is there to do what I want, they will avoid delivering bad news or information contrary to what I want to hear,” Caolo says. “This really puts you at a disadvantage when problem-solving. If I ask, ‘Will the truck loaders stay until 6pm?’ that’s what I’ll be told. The person delivering that information will then work like crazy to make it happen. All the while, I’ll be unaware there is a strong possibility this won’t happen until 6pm, when all the truck loaders leave, and I’m frustrated and upset.”
Trucks and buses are also problematic. “Since we are pioneers in this market, we have to remember that there are not several trucking companies specializing in theatrical trucking,” Caolo says. “There are no air-ride trucks, no 53' trailers, and a limited understanding that being a few hours late sends us off the deep end. There are extremely strict trucking curfews throughout the country, so scheduling is a tricky dance…Trucks are not allowed to drive in the city limits of any city between the hours of 6am and 10pm.” Caolo says she finds it hard to keep track of different regulations in different parts of the country; in some places, trucks can’t drive on highways, or portions of them, during the day. “To complicate matters, the highway system is still being modernized, so there are not always good roads which allow trucks to drive at a reasonable speed,” she adds.
Tour buses? That’s sort of a new concept in China. When Caolo requested a sleeper bus for a crew with an overnight trip to the next city, the presenter seemed to understand exactly what she needed. “The ‘sleeper’ bus was a regular charter bus with plywood over the seats and army blankets,” Caolo recalls.
Getting the right equipment can also be an issue. If they bring it from home, “repairs and routine maintenance are issues if there is no dealer from whichever brand of equipment you have in your rig,” she says. But can they count on finding what they need?
“We go about problem-solving in several ways,” says Caolo. “One is to build a team of Chinese technicians we work with consistently. After over a year with a team that works on all our shows, the travel crew has come to understand what the Western production team will expect and our work practices. In turn, we have learned from our travel crew which work practices are cultural, and therefore, we must learn to integrate them into our work practices. So neither the Chinese or American teams change work practices entirely, but we get closer to understanding why a given situation went wrong, and we can avoid repeating it.”
A production team of Americans never goes into a theatre without that travel team. “There would be very little chance of success given communication issues, work practices, and cultural differences,” says Caolo. “Our travel crew is the buffer between the Americans and the local crew in each city. The travel crew explains the bizarre behavior of the Americans to the locals and vice versa. To say that the problem is solved might be a stretch, but we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were on our first outing.”
To avoid violating cultural norms, the travel crew identifies the superiors in each city, directing questions and concerns of the American crew to this person. “It feels time-consuming to Americans, who work and talk fast,” Caolo says. “We speak in a familiar way even to our bosses. This becomes okay in the theatres in China only after we have shown we are respectful and are including the local theatre staff in decisions. It’s a formal culture, and respecting that formality goes a long way.”
To get at the truth when a situation is not ideal, high-ranking Americans struggle to phrase questions in ways that make all answers acceptable. If Caolo asks, “Can you remind me what time the truck loaders will leave?” she will get accurate information; then, she can ask to speak with the person in charge of the truck loaders and negotiate with a peer if the deadline will create problems.
Caolo expects that misunderstandings will continue to lead to problems, but many can be solved. In the case of the tacky floor, crews dusted the newly varnished stage with flour and then laid the dance floor. “The presenter had to refinish the floor after the tour left. You couldn’t really be angry at the guy. He had his heart in the right place, but it was not the best day for everyone,” says Caolo.
To deal with trucking issues, Caolo increases load-in and load-out times, allowing more time between engagements than she would in the US. “We must look at truck packs in a different way,” she explains. “Working with a consistent trucking partner is very helpful. Our practices begin to be understood, and when the drivers and managers see how and what we are loading in and out, they become engaged in helping. We’ve developed a nice relationship with a vendor and now feel comfortable with estimated drive times between venues,” she says, adding that she finds out the curfew restrictions for trucking and prepares schedules accordingly. “As a rule, we add four hours to a load-in based on the United States load-in times.”
NWE brings most equipment from home, as do most tours to China from Europe or Australia. “With the laws of supply and demand in effect, the cost of renting the same equipment in China is higher than renting and shipping from the country of origin,” says Caolo. “We made good progress on sound and support equipment, like personnel lifts and chain motors. However, lighting remains a challenge.”
Caolo continues to research lighting rentals, looking for equivalents for standard units Western designers prefer. “The use of equivalents will become necessary to continue to problem solve, making tours efficient and, frankly, affordable,” she adds. “We could avoid the power conversion that comes with using equipment not sourced in China. We would also have access to the rental shop’s repair staff and replacement units.”
How do New York producers feel when NWE takes their shows out? “We approach our producing partners in the United States with a lot of honesty,” says Caolo. “We inform, tell war stories, and let everyone know that there will be problems and surprises. Anyone coming on this adventure with us needs to roll with the punches, and if you are open to the experience, you’ll have the time of your life. If you fight it, you’ll want to be on the next flight home!
Davi Napoleon a theatre historian and journalist, began writing for Live Design when it was called Theatre Crafts. The year was 1977, and the US had not yet established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Today, she is covering problems Nederlander crews had to solve while moving Broadway plays to Beijing and beyond. Who knew? She also writes a column for The Faster Times that you can follow on Facebook.