An Intercultural Play On Tour: Lessons Learnt

As a novice tour leader experienced in most things, but certainly not leading a tour to Malaysia, I, in a moment of blissed-out love for all humanity, I, Moni Lai Storz, got carried away in a cloud of suicidal euphoria; crazily, impetuously and enthusiastically agreed to take a group of Australians to go on a tour with Our Man In Bei-Jing, an intercultural play. Our Man In Bei-Jing premiered in the Australasian Chinese Theatre in 2011, at LaMama in 2012 and was off to Malaysia in 2013!

After much sweat in more places than one, especially in the purse, all of us flew off from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur on the eve of my 70th birthday! Admist laughter, both from happiness and trepidation, me, Moni Lai Storz, an old lady leading a tour with cast and crew of varying ethnicities, genders and ages. There was the director, Wolf Heidecker and his wife Gisela, both German in ethnicity and culture, born and made in Germany but living in Australia. Ashley Macklin, dinkum die Aussie lad, born and made in Australia, his girlfriend, Tegan Jones, self proclaimed member of the “half luck club”, born of an Australian father and Chinese mother who was born in Malaysia and sort of grew up in Australia. Phil, our musician and composer, born in the UK of a Romanian Gypsy father, and white anglo mother; David Lih born in East Timor of Chinese (Hakka) parents but brought up in Australia, and Aparna Bhattacharjee, born in India and now an Australian by domicile but still more Indian than most Indians I know. Finally Richard, our light and sound wizard, born in Uraguay, definitely and unequivocally Latino in ethnicity and personality, culture and affiliations, with his body in Australia but his spirit in outer Latino space. Amongst this motley crew of delightful, delicious and divine beings, I found myself, a Malaysian Chinese (with a Hakka father and Peranakan mother), superficially a “banana” who has lived in Australia for over 40 years, suddenly and unambiguously a tour leader.

Whose idea was it in the first place to take OMIB on tour? With much humility, I must confess it was mine! For me, the primary motivation with taking Our Man In Bei-Jing on tour to Malaysia was financially insane but psychologically exhilarating. As a bonus, I also learnt a few things about myself and a lot about the cast and crew members. Call it a life changing event and an even bigger hands-on lesson about human beings!

In the Mount Everest of interesting challenges, the most frustrating was finding a suitable leading lady. The reason for this was because I could not find a Chinese/Australian actress/singer in Melbourne who could both speak Mandarin and travel with us to Malaysia for three weeks. A leading lady with those talents was almost a spine chilling impossibility in Melbourne! Having failed to find one in Melbourne, we threw our nets in Malaysian waters and up came Siew Yong! Siew Yong, both talented and willing, came to our rescue. Imagine rehearsals with our female lead in Malaysia and the rest of us in Melbourne. For once I was glad for technology, imagine again the rest of the Aussie cast in Melbourne rehearsing with our leading lady on Skype!

What I learnt was this: when you are navigating a group of people with diverse wants and needs, communicating styles, moods and temperaments, and all of them have different jobs to do, under extreme stressors such as deadlines, heat, lack of sleep, fatigue, jetlag, adventure, excitement, new and foreign foods and people, you are either heading straight for a disaster of tsunami proportion or an out-of-body experience of cosmic magnitude. Both were novel experiences for me.

As a success driven individual, of course I was going for a successful outcome but then what defines and measures success in the theatre? Certainly not money. Fame perhaps? This tour was going to be one of those ‘fame and no fortune’ ventures perhaps. The word ‘perhaps’ was linked with hope when the idea was first conceived. Nevertheless, I was realistic enough to know that fame was not going to happen either. To be truthful, none of us, especially not me, the author/producer and self appointed tour leader, ever consciously sat down and discussed what would be a successful outcome for us in view of our tour. Instead quite implicitly, success was based on the philosophy which proclaims that it is not the destination but the journey that counts. The decision to board the plane for Malaysia was in itself a success given all the hurdles that had to be overcome before take off. Let me apprise the reader with some of these challenges.

It began with the communications with me and our Malaysian partners, Sugar Restaurant in Langkawi, Penang Performing Arts Centre (better known as PenangPac) and the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLpac). Working with people through emails in two different countries is a challenge for anyone but with someone like me, it is worst. Psst…I am a very impatient person and hate waiting for emails that take more than one day to come. To circumvent the slow flow of email communication, I took two trips to Malaysia before the tour to get things moving. That was nice. Really nice. It took the stress out of waiting to hear from our Malaysian partners but the budget blew up by a thousand dollars plus more. Upon arrival in Langkawi, Penang and Kuala Lumpur, and meeting the theatre managers, all the angst of our email communication disappeared literally in seconds and the contract was signed and delivered with the speed of a young superman.

First lesson when working with Malaysians: they prefer face-to-face meetings. Then what you will encounter is the famed Malaysian hospitality, generosity, co-operative spirit and their offers of food to die for. In excess of two kilos (not in my luggage but my body) I flew back to Melbourne thinking some things do not change: the Malaysian love of food and Manglish…ok lah, let’s go makan char koay teoy, and won ton mee at KLIA, near the junction there lah. (For those of you who do not know Manglish, in this one sentence there are two languages i.e. English and Malay or Bahasa as the locals call the Malay language, and two Chinese dialeccts which then really equal three languages and two dialects!)

The universe works in mysterious ways especially when it comes to Father Time. As I was booking flights for our aussie crew and cast, from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi, to Penang, Kuala Lumpur and back to Melbourne, certain cast members could not go all at the same time. Different people wanted different times of departure. The computations and permutations of times, budget, individual preferences for seats and meals during flight times – well suffice to say it was a great lesson for me about the intricacies of how to be a tour agent. I was no longer just a tour leader.

The director, Ashley the male lead, the musician Phil and light and sound man, Richard and I were the first to go. This was to be followed by Gisela, Aparna, David and Tegan. For a whole lot of reasons, none of which was to do with the show in Malaysia, these four would come later. This made for a separate plan in terms of accommodation. More to fill my already full headspace.

Now let me divulge the culinary preferences of our little gang of gourmands from Melbourne. Wolf could not eat anything with legs except pigs and cows! He could not eat anything that swims or flies. Phil could not eat anything Chinese which is gooey and slippery. That cut out oodles of noodles and he definitely hated the noise so beloved of Chinese coffee shop owners and patrons in Malaysia. Richard preferred hot spicy food and was allergic to prawns. Siew Yong had no appetite being so excited and thrilled to be meeting us! Ashley was about the only person who would and could eat anything. He had to pay a price for this later on in the tour. I would not eat anything which was badly cooked. Or so I thought.

On opening night in Penang, at PenangPac, Ashley started to have a tummy bug that reduced his buoyancy by 50 percent. Spotting a tinge of dull green on his handsome face, his usual optimistic cheeriness gone from his bright green eyes, he came to me, hiding his discomfort and asked to see a doctor. It happened that there was a doctor in the house and Dr Ragu, our sponsor and host promptly prescribed some medication. Being the worry wart that I am, I immediately appealed to all the gods and goddesses and prayed that Ashley did not have amoebic dysentery or something more serious. For the rest of the tour Ashley was on medication and his culinary delights consisted of self made blend vegetable soups and no spices! This, I would like to remind the reader, was happening in Malaysia, where every corner was found a food vendor who concocted magical aromas made of spices imported from ancient India. In Ashley’s case, I was sure he was paying the cost of his capacity to eat anything and everything when he landed in Malaysia tummy first during his first week in that spice ridden country.

There were also lessons learnt about money. Apart from our return airfares from and to Kuala Lumpur, there were expenditures during the tour. People ahev to eat and sleep comfortably if not luxuriously, even if they are merely actors. No problem. I had a budget that would cover no-star accommodation but still bearable. Then came the crunch. The Malaysian government required working visas for all foreign performers. Each visa varied in cost depending on the passport a person held. And a security bond for each actor. Our budget did not take into account such miscellaneous expenditures which turned out to be probably one of the largest in the overall pre-tour budget. Yikes! Narry a worry. Money was found. Less said the better here. Suffice to say, all of us pitched in and raised the extra money thanks to an anonymous sponsor. What I learnt from this is that lack of money could sometimes bring out the best in people with a common purpose. I also learnt that when you budget for any journey in life, you budget with 100 percent given to unthinkables, and/or have-not-thought-of miscellaneous expenditures. Always.

Navigating round the shortest route in keeping the tour expenses within the budget constraints was an interesting exercise in examining my own skills and attitude towards money. In every situation when it came to money, I used commonsense and common decency as two criteria in my decision. I gave to the cast and crew what I gave myself. As a result, I received no complaint from them. It was nice to know that the challenges we faced was not to do with money. I learnt that when it comes to the crunch and when push comes to shove, and when I have to choose between money or love in coming to a decision, I chose love! In return the cast and crew were reciprocating, generous and loving in their own way to me and to each other. That is not to say we did not growl and snarl, shout and make faces at each other. However, in the end, love did conquer all and on the 31st of August, Malaysia Independence Day, Aparna cooked us a scrumptious meal back in her home in Melbourne and Richard made and showed us a movie of the first part of our tour. It had taken him eight hours to make. Phil, in a fit of inspired madness, together with Richard, created a new song with a tude that can seduce even the flatfooted platypus to dance! The O-M-G song is a song of gratitude to all!

What can I say, but thanks for the memories and thanks to our tour, I can now lead another. Next time around I am going to be much wiser to the antics of taking a motley cast and crew on tour. I have learnt.