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Wardrobe Adventures In China, Part 1

By Jonelle DeBlanc

Three years ago, while touring Australia with a rather sparkle-filled show, I got a call. This call could not have had better timing as we were just informed the very morning the next leg of the tour had to be cancelled for whatever reasons. ‘Tis life on the road.

Answering the Call

The call from a headhunter in Beijing China was completely out of the blue. She found my profile via LinkedIn and was making cold calls seeking interested and qualified candidates to present to her client. They were seeking a seasoned Head of Wardrobe for a rather large show that was opening that December. It was a role I thought for sure had long been filled and perhaps with someone within mainland China or from within the production company. Very grateful to receive this call at this moment. She didn’t have very much information to give but keeping up on the latest industry news I knew very well what show and who the client was. What I didn’t know was just how enormous, challenging, and rewarding this particular show would be.

After a few months of rather confusing and trying negotiations, I was nearly on my way. Information update was the show would have 65 performers, wardrobe would have 30 team members, I would have 4 translators, and my assistant who was already hired spoke great English and had a lot of experience. Sounds like a dream.

I packed my bags with all the patience, tools, and pollution battling natural medicinals I could find and took off on a 27 hour travel day from the US.

Upon arrival, I was met by our lovely English speaking HR representative who was tasked with all expats on-boarding. On the drive to the hotel she gave me my Chinese name, 金妮儿 or Jin Nier, roughly meaning golden girl due to my golden blonde hair. Checked into the hotel, she says goodbye and see you in the morning. Basically two weeks hotel and a good luck pat on the back. As you can imagine I’m quite exhausted and not entirely sure where the theatre is from here but as always, I’ll figure this out.
Ding, an email from my boss comes through, so great to hear from her! She’s out of town at the training and formation facility and the company needs my proposed operational budget for the following year like right now if possible. Here we go. Based solely on my previous experiences along with limited knowledge of the show yet to be in creation and without even a glance of proposed costumes I gave my best estimate of the required information. Done, now sleep.

The Han Show Creation – Wuhan, China

The first day in the theatre is always a memorable one no matter what the show, this one will perhaps always be more special than others before it. You see, I’m secretly a lover of architecture and perhaps would have chosen it as a career over theatre had I not been swept away by the excitement of new show builds all those early years ago. Walking up to the theatre I finally get a sense of its enormity, and foreshadowing the magnitude of this show both in tangible terms and in my life.

At the crew entrance of the theatre a countdown sign reads 120 days till opening. I spent the morning with on-boarding paperwork formalities, getting a sim card with local number to share, and now to meet my already half-hired team. I’m led to what is actually the GSM and Artistic Director’s office to meet my team. I quickly ascertain the assistant speaks very few words of English and there is no translator available for me. The room is filled with at least 11 beautiful ladies all dressed identical in white button down blouses, black above the knee length skirts, black stockings, black leather heels, hair pulled cleanly back and perfect makeup with a red lip. They’re all sitting at neatly arranged little desks with exactly the same office supplies in identical placement on their desks.

This does not look like any wardrobe crew I’ve ever encountered, anywhere.

What could they possibly be doing wardrobe related with this type of set up? The girl with the best English skills stepped forward to make the introductions for the assistant and the entire team. A day and scene I will never forget.
As everyone from the Artistic department was away at training and formation and technical had their hands full there was no one from my own team to help me get acquainted right away so a self-guided mini tour seemed in order. I signed for what would equate to enough keys for a state run prison, grabbed a hard hat, headed down to the wardrobe spaces and started opening doors. So much space, dressing rooms, work rooms upon work rooms, massive laundry and drying room, the largest office I’ve ever had or likely will ever have again. They’re all bare or at least bare of anything one would need to run a wardrobe department yet they’re filled with loads of various important theatre gear and plenty of workers sleeping, eating, and working in these makeshift workspaces.
Tomorrow is 119 days till opening. We have plenty of time to sort this all out, right?

Continue reading Wardrobe Adventures in China, Part 2

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