Stage Management and Show Calling: Working in Different Languages
A question I am often asked is how challenging it is to work with different languages and different cultures in events and it is a great topic for conversation. I am very privileged to get to work globally in many countries. Fortunately, English does seem to be the common language when it comes to events.
There is no exact reason for this but fundamentally I think it is fair to say that most people who have English as their first language, do not have a second! If you are English like me and work in events, you find yourself surrounded by people who speak a second, third and even a fourth language and very often fluently.
English therefore by default becomes the language spoken by most. Being surrounded by people who can switch from Arabic to French to English without even drawing breath, is very impressive and often makes me feel like the dumb Brit! However very often when meeting the show crew, English may not be as fluent as you would like, so you are faced with trying to call the show when no one can understand you as much as you need.
The first thing that I never forget is this; I am working in their country. It is not their fault they cannot speak English, it is my fault I cannot speak theirs. So I have to find a solution.
In general I have only come across challenges when working on smaller shows. Reason being that on ceremonies or national days often most crew are international as they require specialisms that only some countries can offer – for example large automation systems in ceremonies tend to be from the UK, US or Australia and therefore the commonality of speaking English comes in.
One exception to this was in Beijing on a wonderful show I called in the Water Cube. We had a small amount of automation in the show that was being run by a local company who spoke little English. For safety we had a local show caller working alongside me who was fluent in both English and Mandarin. During tech she communicated directly with the operators. I worked out the timings and cue points and taught her how to call these sections.
Sitting next to me in the show, I would call the standbys and GOs in English on the show call channel so all were aware of what was happening and she would simultaneously call the cues in Mandarin on a separate channel direct to those operators.
She had a copy of my book in front of her and her own timecode reader. It was essential that she was sat next to me as if at a split second I had reason not to call the cue, I would put my hand up to signal to stop calling.
If there was any delay in the cue running after it was called, she was able to tell me directly what was happening and so the responsibility whether to continue with the cue or not was still with me. Whereas this would not be an ideal way of working for a very heavy automated show, for this show it worked well and offered no concerns.
Having two callers is a luxury of course and would not work for many shows. One particular show that springs to mind is a tech conference I show called in Rome several years ago. Employed by a French agency, the question was asked of me if I spoke Italian? Besides ‘ciao’, that was pretty much it. (I should point out that I now work regularly with wonderful Italian agencies and you would think I would have progressed my language skills further than this – I am embarrassed to say not, but I have learnt how to use ‘ciao’ in many situations!)
So I was very clear that English was my only language, however on arrival it was very apparent as I walked around meeting the crew that for most of them, English was not spoken by them. It was a moment of thinking how can this work and why am I here? But not one to shirk a challenge, and with no other option, I had to work out how to make the show happen. As with everything we do in a show, safety is always a top concern, and in some situations not being able to communicate clearly could have serious implications. But every show is different and looking at this particular show, what’s the worst that could happen. And the answer, really nothing bad. A cue might be missed, or played wrong, but there was no safety concern with this and although we aim to deliver the cleanest show possible, in this situation there was no other option.
The operators for this show were split into 2 locations. On one side of the room, most of the crew were behind a gauze set that comprised graphic and video village, while front of house was set up for sound and lighting. Based on who spoke the least English would determine my calling position. Generally I prefer to sit near sound in this type of show as they are most likely to be off comms while listening to mics so I can easily get their attention but with this particular show both sound and lighting operators spoke no English at all, so I positioned myself in between them.
With the help of a translator we loaded files and set lighting states and got in a good state for rehearsals but running a tight show was still to prove tricky.
The translator was to remain with me for the show to communicate changes, but how to run it smoothly? For lighting we decided to just use single word phrases; Sting, Video, Stage.
Not too dissimilar to how I would call this type of show normally, but we did away with standbys as these proved confusing. A small hand movement and the word ‘ok’ would indicate a cue was about to happen replacing a standby. For sound we used a number system for stings and I would simply show on my fingers the number of the sting required (fortunately we only had around 10 stings we repeated).
For background music and VOGs, simply pointing at the Qlab screen to which cue I wanted worked well. The word ‘GO’ does tend to work very well internationally and my show calling friends who call shows in mainland China tell me that they use the word ‘GO’ even with everything else being said in Mandarin. But the other simple thing was a small hand signal. To cue both LX and sound together, a simple hand drop together with a ‘GO’ worked a treat. Fortunately my graphics op spoke enough English so by speaking clearly and with the least amount of words being used, we could communicate effectively and I think that really is key when faced with language barriers.
Conversation in tech where possible seems most successful face to face rather than on comms, particularly when able to sit with the operator and look at their screens and files and come up with a suitable naming convention that works for us both. We sit together and make sure we have the right assets in the right order and then jump back on comms. I have found that often standbys do confuse the situation and so by keeping the cues with as less words as possible really can help greatly.
What is amazing is that by the end of the week in Rome, we developed our own language with gestures and words that meant the show was able to run smoothly and as intended.
It is incredible that even when you do not speak the same language, you can share jokes and learn ways to communicate in ways you may not have thought possible.
I have encountered this situation a few times over my career, but as long as the show is at no risk from a safety perspective, finding commonality in some key words and gestures can work a wonder. It can be slightly frustrating at times and can initially be a slow start to the tech, but once you find a rhythm and you have patience, it works well. What is also key in these situations is to find out what the operator needs from you. If it is not working, I will ask how I can make it better and what I can do to make it clearer.
In my opinion, it is up to you to adapt as the caller in what you are doing so your communication works. This then takes the pressure off the operator who may be making mistakes due to the language barrier.
Working in different countries also offers up other cultural differences and sensitivities that are vital to consider throughout the production. For example, when working in the middle east, prayer times must be taken into consideration within the rehearsal schedule and must be adhered to. Rehearsals do not have to stop completely during prayer time, but allow time for those wishing to pray to do so and step away from rehearsals.
Of vital importance is that no music, either live or pre-recorded can be played during the call to prayer. As prayer times change with the sun on a daily basis, the prayer times can move by up to a few minutes over the course of a rehearsal week. Therefore, in our productions we write the prayer times clearly on the bottom of the daily rehearsal schedules so everyone is informed and can respect the times and importantly to stop any music that may be playing at the time.
I consider myself very lucky to be able to work in so many different countries, not only to be able to do incredible shows but to get to meet so many people from different cultures and backgrounds. We took a stage management team photo during the ceremonies for the Special Olympic World Games in Abu Dhabi this year and it proved to be a very global photo! A team made up of Italians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians, Poles, Mexicans and a couple of Brits thrown in as well – it really was a wonderful moment to realise how incredible our profession is and how lucky we are to be part of it.
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