Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Cultural Expansion, A Fashion Show Nightmare

Last night I learned a valuable (and expensive) lesson about heeding red flags attached to poor public relations. And knowing where you're going and what to expect before you get there.

After exchanging several e-mails with the coordinator of the Richard Harris men's runway show taking place at a "gala" in Queens, I was a little wary because I still didn't fully understand the program. The event wasn't standalone, it was actually paired with such acts as Daniel Merriweather, Magic Mask Change and The Hunan Opera. Why was it being billed as a gala (which seemed a strange word choice to me, with connotations of banquet halls and cocktail hours)? Why was it being paired with presentations from opera performers and ballet dancers and musicians and vaudevillian acts? For what purpose was this hodgepodge of talent coming together on a stage for 2.5 hours? And why did I even want to go?

Well, I wanted to go because I was comped as press so that I could write about the evening, which actually turned out to be the First Annual Cultural Expansion - A Celebration. The show was intended to celebrate the Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, which this year falls on Feb. 3, but I wouldn't learn that until much later. In fact, when I was trying to understand what was going on, the press materials were confusing at best, and I wasn't given much better information for asking questions, so I decided to stop doing that and just show up on Saturday. Bad choice.

When I arrived, it was mayhem. Given a general address, the actual auditorium was difficult to find due to poor lighting, huge snow piles and lack of signage. But I wasn't the only one running late; the show wasn't near starting when I arrived, and people were still mingling outside. All of the auditorium doors were closed except one, which we were all ushered through. The ushers themselves didn't seem to typically work for the theater, because they were looking for the seats as much as the patrons were, they just happened to have flashlights. And when I asked if there was some kind of program, I was told that "someone is walking around with some, I think." Great way to welcome press; continuing to put zero information into their hands. Well, I requested that if my usher saw this mysterious program harbinger, could she please send him or her to E106. And then I settled in for the show, which seemed to be finally starting.

Instead of going over all of the 20+ acts independently, which would further waste my time, I'm just going to share with you five key points:

1) A fog machine was used egregiously, but only on one side of the stage.
Singing? FOG. Acrobatics? FOG. Fiddling? FOG. Dancing (for some reason to The Nutcracker)? FOG. Well, you know, half-FOG. I think one of the only components of the "gala" spared from such excess was the Richard Harris fashion show, which is truly a blessing, because if I were a designer whose work was detracted from like that, I would have a solid reason to never shown my face in Queens again; wait, is that a blessing or a curse? Actually, it took me back to one of my low-budget community theater productions where we added fog to nearly every scene of a play because we'd shelled out the dough to rent the machine for the run of the show, and damnit, we wanted our money's worth. Here, it hardly helped to dress a barren and poorly designed set that someone probably optimistically called "flexible" before they went back to enjoying the dinner they'd decided to buy for the maligned tech crew rather than fork out cash for a much-needed Stage Right fogger.

2) Small children jumped around as ballerina bunnies for awhile.
I know it's the Year of the Rabbit, but in a 2.5-hour show (or so they claimed), mustn't we begin to edit at some point? Actually, most of the dancing seemed like a waste of space to my untrained eye. I'm admittedly uninformed about Chinese dance, but I hope it's more than the bobbing, spinning and swaying that happened over and over again onstage tonight with a variety of seemingly random costumes and props. Zero narrative, zero stunts, zero enthusiasm and 100% moves I can replicate in my own home--but you'll just have to take my word.

3) Highlights included soloists Daniel Merriweather, He Yi and Han Jianwei.
I also enjoyed the Zhao Naiyi--an energetic, agreeable man who changed masks so fast you didn't know how he did it, creating new expressions and overall merriment while interacting with the crowd. His act was called "Suddenly Turn Hostile" so I'm sure you can see why I found it so endearing and close to my heart at this point in the night.

4) Technical glitches started out with scruffy mic feedback.
It was understandable at the start of the show but unforgivable in the middle of Merriweather's performance. They continued with things like cameras panning offstage to show the wings or crew members, the giant screen in the center of the stage going to "Battery Low" or a person's computer desktop--on top of random edits and angles that were otherwise projected by mistake. And that really brings up the question of why there was a giant screen onstage at all. This wasn't the Golden Globes or Yankee Stadium. The theater (which was advertised as seating 2,200) probably sat 1,000 tops. We could all see the stage, truly. And where did you want us to look, the act or the screen? Or did placing one in front of the other spare us the trouble of choosing? The mirror-redundancy of showing what was happening on center stage via a Jumbotron stationed on center stage was really emblematic of the show's central flaw--a focus on putting on a huge, extroverted extravaganza without stopping to self-analyze about intent, content, pacing, delivery or even the ultimate quality of the gestalt.

5) Oh, and did I mention that the entire show was in Chinese?
Yes, practically the entire thing; and no one thought this might be important to tell me when I RSVPed. I had no idea what was going on, there wasn't one English announcer or English subtitles--despite the presence of, as I was told, American press and other influential NYC attendees. I'm not entirely sure how you can have a "cultural expansion" that's only accessible to one culture, but maybe that's just supposed to be open to interpretation. Anyway, about an hour in, I decided to turn off my mind and enjoy the spectacle before me with the simplicity and joy of a child, who needs not understand the world to take pleasure in it. At two hours in, I began to play WordFeud on my Droid.

At 10:15, a quarter-hour past when the show was supposed to end, I saw the woman next to me searching her program--so I decided to peer over like the polite young lady my parents raised. I noticed that a huge chunk of the performances didn't seem like they'd been onstage yet. In fact, the fashion show, which I'd come to see and had thoroughly enjoyed (with themes of monochrome and looser tailoring, as I'm sure Fashion Week F/W 2011 will see more of in the coming weeks), was about the halfway mark. Which meant there was almost another hour of these indecipherable song-and-dance routines to go--way past the amount of time I was willing to invest in a show that barely seemed invested in itself. So I headed out.

Not the gala's fault by any stretch of the imagination, except for being hosted in the middle of absolutely nowhere, but when I called my car service that had dropped me off, they actually refused to pick me up. By then I'd walked across the street to a gas station, thinking it would be easier to find than the performing arts center had been when I first arrived. And then I called three more services, who similarly refused to pick me up. I would later hear from the cabbie who finally came that other drivers refused to cross boroughs, making my trip from Queens to Brooklyn a large stretch of the imagination on a busy Saturday night. That's an important lesson learned, I suppose, at the very fair sum of $57. Now that's a far cry from a free fashion show, to be sure. A very, very long and expensive night out--and I was still sober!

But today is a new day and a new week, so I'm going to stop crying over spilled milk and put the whole thing behind me. I can't say that last night was a total waste, and have instead decided to focus on what I've learned. Like not to go to every fashion event to which I'm invited. And to know that when a designated PR team can't even clearly explain the event they're trying to push, it's my cue to just stay home with a good book.

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