17th May 2021
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Wardrobe Adventures In China, Part 3

Wardrobe Adventures in China
By Jonelle DeBlanc

Working Girls (And Boy) on The Han Show Creation – Wuhan, China

The Artistic Director and I interviewed the already hired team members for the wardrobe department. We found the majority of the team were from fashion schools, new to the workforce and quite green to theatre, and all had great ambition to own their own fashion design shops within the next 5 years.

Bless these sweet young ladies who’ve been chosen to be part of this groundbreaking wardrobe team for they do not know what they’ve gotten themselves into.

This is great. A great opportunity to train and enlighten new minds to this fantastical world of live and ever evolving theatre. Those who love it will thrive and those in shock may leave and that’s completely okay. I’m not delusional, it’s not for everyone and some say it’s a tough life. My hope for those who would stay through the show opening at the minimum was personal growth and empowerment.

During the first few days, one of the many topics “discussed” (without excellent translation) was the dress code. Gone are the days of office attire, definitely gone are the high heels in what was still virtually a construction zone.

Since this is a department building from the ground up we will need to dress the part starting now. I found this much easier said than done. Maybe it was the lack of proper translation but it took a solid week to successfully have them shed a look reminiscent of a Robert Palmer video and dress more like it was move-in day at university.

One of the best things about everyone dressing more casual during our build period was seeing their individual personalities expressed through clothing. Since language is and always was the biggest barrier to my truly knowing them, this was really eye opening. Quirky, serious, playful, sporty, fashionista, and rock n roller. They were all there and it was fantastic!

When I would request a task involving a movement of anything namely small office furniture at the moment, I would witness them seek out and wait for a male staff member to move it for them. Doing my best to explain that as a strong healthy group of individuals we are very capable of safely moving small items short distances ourselves, I promise. It finally took them witnessing me move every single thing myself to realize what I believed and expected this group to take on. This was the day a small team of tigers emerged ready to experience a work life far out of their comfort zone.

Within the first couple weeks, I had to find a translator to become part of our wardrobe team if I were to be an effective leader.

HR put the call out and I selected three seemingly good candidates for face to face interviews. The first was very scholarly and had all the credentials, but seemed painfully shy to speak to me at the interview. The second was a cookie cutter of the first. The third had a great personality. He strolled up in shorts and a t-shirt with a backpack in tow. Very bubbly, a far cry from the first two. He explained he just got back from Spain where he did a Masters language program.

At total ease with our free-flowing conversation I had him do a quickly written sample translation of one of the many documents I carried around not knowing exactly was written. Asked if he knew anything about theatre, wardrobe, costume care, laundry??? Nothing but was keen to learn and could start end of the week. Wouldn’t you know he became one of the best wardrobe attendants and is now an assistant stage manager in another city? Ahhhh translation is priceless although I have to say my charades game is on point.

Finally armed with the power of language I could do some in-depth training and push to get necessary equipment and supplies flowing in.

About the training, as we had completely empty rooms I chose to concentrate on teaching the process of show creation and operations aspect to the team. Armed with my laptop, an occasionally working VPN to get us on YouTube, loads of personal photographs and my notes from previous show builds we dug in. We would watch the making of this or that, pause for translation, pause for question and answer, repeat. We would study examples of proper documentation then create our own bi-lingual versions. We brought in clothing items and practised quick changes, then quick changes in the dark over and over.

I sent a couple team members out with some money to purchase a little inexpensive fabric then using my personal kit I showed the proper way to stitch all things quick rig, snaps – hooks – bars – eyes – swing tacks. They practiced and perfected any skill that was possible with minimal supplies in a room void of equipment.

Meanwhile, things progressed slowly with equipment delivery. I worked to obtain the correct, keyword here is correct, equipment and supplies.

Did you know just because it’s made in China does not mean it’s available in China?

Those items are manufactured in Export Only factories and it’s against the law to sell within the mainland, or so I was told. Well, that puts a kink in the works for sure. Our needs are simple. Safety pins that are sharp and don’t bend when pushed into fabric, sharp non-rusty needles for hand sewing, spools of thread that don’t break, snaps that snap and hold together without sharp edges, velcro that doesn’t fray, Z-racks that nest together and fit through doorways and into elevators, hangers that don’t break or bend when used once.

You get the idea of vendor challenges we faced and worked through. These sort of supply requests were new and different to this area as was this type of show. Day after day the translator and I would explain the requirements and day after day we were told 差不多 or Chabuduo literally meaning the difference is not much or close enough. This would become one of the most commonly heard phrases the rest of my China life.

Return to Wardrobe Adventures in China, Part 1

Also on TheatreArtLife:

How Do I Get Your Job?

Let’s Talk: What’s Harder, Stage Or Screen?

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