It started when I got off the plane. Sure, the ride itself was normal – the long side, heading from Helsinki to Shanghai, I was seated next to a guy who decided my armrest was his property, but I just watched some movies and stared out the window. The flight itself was only 8 1/2 hours (it’s ten going back) but then going through customs and immigration was a bit tricky. I didn’t know the name of the hotel I would be staying at (the info was in my bag). When the officer asked, I just explained I was there with a clown show. “Then just put that,” he said. So yes, my official entry form states my residence is “clown show.”
But once I landed, I was met by Lily, who would be one of our local producers (she was from Shanghai even though she now lived in Atlanta). We had several hours to kill before our flight to Wuhan, where our first show was going to be, so we chatted and had a bite to eat. And it was during this first meal I heard a phrase I would hear several times over the next few days, a phrase which would be the resounding reason and explanation for all events, good or bad. Three little words with which all the ills of the world could be righted: This is China.
And how did I come by such knowledge? I asked about laundry facilities and I was told it was very expensive here and I should probably just wash my clothes in the sink and then hang them to dry in my hotel room. When I looked questioningly, I received the mystical incantation – This is China.
The rest of that first day was getting to Wuhan (another two and a half hour flight) and ensconced in the hotel. Our first real day of work would be the next day. So since I had some time to kill (and if I stayed around the hotel I’d fall asleep which would screw with my jet lag) I decided to take a walk to the local mall – called Wanda.
Getting there was no problem, pretty much a straight shot down the major roadway and walking around was interesting, seeing the differences in shops and products, but it was coming back where things got a bit interesting. I was listening to my book as I walked and through the headphones I could what sounded like a sonic boom. I looked up and couldn’t see anything so I kept walking. A few seconds later, I caught a flash of light out of the corner of my eye and then again, that sonic boom noise. Then the rain came. It was a deluge the likes of which I hadn’t seen in a while and I still didn’t know how far my hotel was. I was able to grab my umbrella and run (well…jog) back to the hotel and only get a little soaked. Leaving my wet clothes hanging I finally crashed out, waiting to get to work in the morning.
Morning came bright and early. This would be our first show on the tour and only show in Wuhan. No problem. We meet up with Jodie, our other Chinese (now living in America) tour manager and head to the venue…which is gorgeous. It rings of the classic Chinese style, but at the same time, feels like a modern comedy club, with tables and chairs instead of theatre seats. There’s a couple of chandeliers illuminating the scene as well.
I’m on my own to start with as the clowns have to go to the embassy to get their visas extended (seems someone didn’t do the math correctly and even though they asked for enough time, they were only given 30 days). Not a problem. The lighting was actually pretty easy since we had LEDs which could change colors. This meant we only had to hang 35% of the normal amount of instruments, but programming them for the show still took a bit of time, as did building the paper wall (we had to wait for the paper to arrive before we could build the wall and then we had to hang the wall before we could actually set the lights).
But eventually we got it all done and then we started a simple tech run. This is where those dreaded words started coming back to me. We keep asking for technicians who speak at least a little English. Didn’t get them. So the board and spotlight operators needed translation, which came in the form of Lily, who would be replacing me when I left (I could only work the beginning of the tour as a) I had classes to teach and b) I didn’t want to be away from Rasa and Monki for that long). Lily, however, was not focused on the job at hand. Instead, she was constantly on her phone (she might have been doing logistics for future venues, I’ll give her the benefit of that doubt, but that said, the number of people who were on their phones when they should’ve been paying attention to the show was staggering and even if she was setting up future logistics, it probably could have waited for the 75 minutes of showtime). Because of this lack of attention, she would get frustrated with me when I would ask her to translate or to stick with me. And when I asked for things like the spot operator to do a ballyhoo move or iris down (although I actually just said “make it smaller”) I was told “They can’t do that – This is China!”
We also didn’t have the proper instruments to project our gobos, the stencil cut-outs which show “Aga-Boom” across the paper drop at the beginning and end of the show, as well as several other textual or graphic enhancements during specifc acts. We did, however, have a computer and projector, so, just for fun, we got “Aga-Boom” in Chinese splashed across the drop.
Eventually, I showed the spot operator what I was talking about, although he still never quite got it, he certainly got better. This is one of the problems with translating cues. The timing is almost never right. But in the end, the show went off and the audience laughed and that’s all that matters. Once the show came down, we packed everything up and put it on a truck to go to the next town while we all went out for dinner.
The company had been invited out by a prominent local politician (at least that was the best I could piece together) who, along with his assistant, had come to see the show. We went to a traditional local place, which was like a Chinese version of fondue. In the middle of the table was a pot of boiling liquid. Well, technically, it was two liquids, maybe three. The pot was bisected with a smaller circle in the middle. Once side was quite spicy while the other was not as much. The middle section was kinda sorta a combination of the two, but I think it was supposed to be used for smaller items so they didn’t get lost in the cauldron.
Around the table were plates of all sorts of food, things like fish balls and ham and bacon and congealed blood (no, I didn’t try it but Zack said it was great – I’ll be taking him at his word on that one). There were also plates of fresh vegetables. When Iryna asked for some of those vegetables and then had the audacity to try and eat them, they were almost literally slapped out of her hand by Jodie, who veritably screamed across the table at her “Not Raw!” This, it seemed, was Jodie’s primary method of communication. She didn’t so much as talk to you as yell in your direction. Well, that and she called everyone honey and was extremely physical, grabbing you by the arm and moving you where she wanted you to be.
But dinner was good and fun and I tried a number of new things (again, not the congealed blood).
The next day we were up early so we could get to our next city, Zhengzhou. The trip to the train station was about an hour by car, with only one slight hiccup. I had left my bag behind the counter when I went for breakfast and Bob, one of our local liaisons (and the guy who had driven me to the hotel from the airport), had loaded the bags into our van and as we pulled out, I looked back and realized I didn’t see my bag. Thankfully, we hadn’t gone far so the driver turned around, at which point Zack looked and, of course, saw my bag buried under the rest of the luggage. This would actually become a bit of a theme, thinking we had lost something only to have it turn up a short while later. At the train station, Jodie asked us all for our passports so she could purchase the tickets for us. Once she came back with the tickets, we had to go through security to actually get to the main terminal. There are security check points everywhere in China. Some seem rather useless (like for getting on the metro where you have to put your bag through a scanner, but you yourself just walk around with no detector) while some are as bad as airlines. This became one of my personal issues with the way things were run – not the security, I understand that, but the lack of communication. Zack and I had never been to China previously (the clowns had come in 2015 for shows), so basically, none of us really knew what to expect. Whenever we asked though, the response was always “Don’t worry about it.” For example, since Jodie always purchased her tickets for a different part of the train, first, we’d have to figure out the correct stop ourselves (not easy in the interior of the country – international tourism isn’t a big thing anywhere, even less so in the less well-known areas). Second, and more importantly, she never let us know we had to keep our tickets so we could get out of the train station — which became a problem when Zack misplaced his (yes, he found it again, but not until after we’d had to figure out a way to get through the exit security). On the plus side, though, we traveled by bullet maglev train, reaching speeds of just over 300km an hour.
When we did arrive in Zhengzhou, we were met by a representative from the theatre company who had brought us in. The rest of that day we were free so Zack and I decided to head to the local mall (he needed an adapter). To say it was frustrating is an understatement. We found the mall okay (after a stop at Starbucks), but it was raining and slightly uncomfortable to walk around. Add in that the language factor made it hard to ask for directions…but that wasn’t the really frustrating part. Nope, that came when we tried to get food at Burger King. Yeah, yeah, I know. But we were cold and hungry and just wanted something recognizable in our bellies. The problem was that we didn’t have enough RMB (¥) for the meal so we were going to put it on a card. This is where it gets interesting. Everything in China can be paid for by app (I assume it’s similar to Apple pay or something like that) which, of course, we don’t have. And we can’t get into the “free” wifi in a number of places because the only access comes through your Chinese enable phone number.
Zack and I both started feeling the pinch because it made no sense our cards wouldn’t work, but none of the cards we had would pierce the veil. All of which meant no food. No worries, we decided to get cash from a local bank machine…until that didn’t work, either. We tried several banks until we finally found one which would take the card and relinquish the dough, but by then, we were slightly fucked off and tired. So instead, we waited until 7 when the hotel restaurant opened and just went there (and had a bowl of sweet corn soup which was, no joke, bigger than your head!).
The next morning we finally got to see our venue for the day. It was going to be a busy day: set up, two shows (matinée and evening), then tear down. I suppose at this point I should explain what it is I actually do for the show: Everything! Okay, not exactly, but behind the scenes, I do quite a bit. Dimitri, who created and directs, as well as stars in, the show, wants (and rightly so) to be able to come in and just perform. I try my best to make that happen for him. This means I have to:
- work with local crews to get our paper wall built and hung
- get the lights focused and cues set
- make sure the venue has the things asked for in our rider
- help get all the props organized and set up backstage
- call the show (often by going through an interpreter to talk to the board and spotlight operators)
And I get to do almost all of this at the same time.
Now, on days where we have a single show, this is usually pretty tight but we can get it done. With a 3pm show, I wasn’t sure how we were going to make it. And we didn’t. As it got closer to the time to open the doors, we were still trying to set cues. We finished about half the show while the audience was making their way to their seats. Of course, by then, the board operator was just a confused mess so I ended up learning a brand new board so I could run the show, which, in this case, meant reusing cues from the first half into the second half and jumping all over the place to make sure the clowns looked as good as possible. One of the nice things
about a clown show is that, for the most part, the lighting only enhances the show, it doesn’t make or break it. The performers do that and these are some of the best there is, so no matter what I ended up with lighting-wise, I knew the audience would have a great time. And they did. But for me, my own theatre ethic (beyond “The show must go on”) meant that while I was pleased with the fact that the show went off relatively smoothly, I was still disappointed I wasn’t able to do a better job of it.
That said, between shows we finished setting the cues so the second show ran a bit easier (I still ran the board, though). Also between shows, we found out another interesting custom of this particular venue: No eating inside. So while we had a nice noodle lunch delivered, we weren’t allowed to eat it inside. Instead, we had to stand on the landing outside, in the cold and wet, the clowns in full make-up, shoveling noodles into our mouths. All we could do was laugh about it – and comment on how much Iryna looked like a Star Wars character.
Finishing up in Zhengzhou after our second show, we packed and loaded the crates, getting them ready for the ride to Shanghai, which was our next destination.