International touring can be a wonderful experience. It creates friendships that last many years and memories that last a lifetime. One downside, apart from the obvious of being away from home and family, is the language barriers you will encounter as you travel the world with a show.
I was recently touring around Australia and China with an English crew but an entirely Russian cast. Some of the performers spoke very good, if not fluent, English, but some of the younger cast members spoke no English at all.
This was not my first time working with the company so I was familiar with the compromises we have to make, on both sides, to produce the show. For example, I do all my backstage calls in both Russian and English. In return, they are more disciplined about performers turning up on time for their cues to negate the need for courtesy calls.
Being familiar with the operating systems of this company meant that when we arrived in Australia, it was not too difficult a transition. Many of the cast have been touring with this company for many years. They know what is expected of them and what they should expect from us. As a result, the organisation aspect was never too complicated.
However, we hit some slight bumps in the road when we arrived in China. We had a wonderful, dedicated team of local translators, who accompanied us throughout our time there, to every city we worked in. They worked tirelessly with us throughout the long load-in and bump-out days and for the daily running of the shows, translating the specifics of what we needed to achieve from English to Mandarin and back again.
As a deputy stage manager, the language barrier had a significant impact on the way I did my job. In Australia, I could call cues to the in-house crew – such as the fly crew and the follow spot operators – with no difficulty.
However, in China, I had to call the cue to the translator, who would then tell it to the operator who could then run the sequence. The time delay needed to get the cue right meant I had to recalibrate the way I was calling a show, which I had already spent a month working on.
When the cast needed something from the in-house crew, this added an extra layer of difficulty. If one of the cast members with little English needed something, they would have to find an English-speaking cast member who would come to me, I would go to one of the translators, and they would then go to the relevant theatre staff member. Then, the response would have to return through the same chain of communication. It was, at times, like a literal game of Chinese whispers.
It can be frustrating, but I believe the benefits outweigh the difficulties. International touring might not be for everyone, but it is for me.