Project Description

Shaanxi Qinhuang Grand Theatre

Shaanxi Qinhuang Grand Theatre

Memories

From August 2013 until July 2014, based in Lintong village (about an hour’s drive north-east from downtown Xi’an) through Nederlander, I was engaged as as General Manager (equivalent in China to CEO) & Executive Director by an investor group, led by a reasonable and nice guy to get a semi-constructed Shaanxi Qinhuang Grand Theatre completed at the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses site, and open with a new resident show, China’s First Emperor.

Primary objective was to get the theatre opened against a backdrop of 8 years of ‘highly questionable conduct’ in order for the tourist show to open.  Laden with historical issues, the primary Chinese developer was great and visionary, most of the local staff were highly motivated and supportive, however, the local financial controllers representing a 2nd group of investors were inept and by western standards would have been put in jail.

Xi'an QinHuang Grand Theatre companyQuickly, I found out that there were actually 2 investor groups involved, with the second group detesting the primary investor group’s leaders decision to utilize Nederlander and have an experienced foreigner with lots of Chinese real-world experience, in charge of the business.

I pretty quickly worked out why, this 2nd group had put in place 2 senior managers locally who over the course of many years, prior to my arrival, were actively stalling progress on the construction of the Grand Theatre so they could continue to amass personal fortunes and control.

One manager was responsible for contracts, budgets, asset purchasing, legal affairs and risk control and the other manager was responsible for finance and asset purchasing.  These 2 colluded together, possibly with others, having construction vendors over-inflate bids. The difference between actual cost and what the investors were paying, went into their pockets.  The construction vendors knowing what was happening (common in China) decided they also wanted under the table cash, so they intentionally slowed and did a poor job so they would be paid to return and return and return again constantly fixing and making more money.  They wasted many years of super-slow and poor-quality construction.

By the time I arrived, the Grand Theatre was a dirt pit of a mess with extremely poor physical construction. The over-bloated China’s First Emperor production show designed to open it, was years behind and the 1st class Chinese creative team, was pissed off with delays and the chaos.

We had been contractually mandated to get everything back on track, in order, and open the theatre and show on a specific schedule.

It was a truly horrific time to endure, where I was hampered at every hour of every day on everything by the local 2nd investor group management who chose to collectively and systemically derail me.

For example, pre-approved budgets that were agreed on one day, were denied the next day, eliminating my ability to spend anything, staff salaries were delayed, questioned and in many instances completely unpaid – apparently this had been a normal course of business for the years prior to my arrival, and the local Chinese staff, without ability to fight it or complain just resigned themselves to the fact that may only get a portion of their contracted salaries each year.  I witnessed first-hand Chinese staff being chastised and publicly humiliated, often followed by laughing from the senior management. Morale was the worst I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

Because the work site was in Lintong, about an hour’s drive by bus from Xi’an where everyone lives, the company supplied staff busses, however these busses were often held in Lintong, with staff on them, for hours and hours late at night, without any regard for individual family dinners or private time.  No overtime was ever paid.

When heads of departments, working hard at trying to navigate this quagmire would have an agreed plan to fix something, in the days that followed local 2nd investor group management would derail / deny the plan, and then the very next day call a meeting to chastise the head of department for not fulfilling on the plan. Honestly, it was like this incredible 180º insanity at every turn.

Further, the inaugural show, had similarly been languishing for many years with way too many chief cooks and bottle washers all with the own ridiculous opinions, derailing the director’s vision, using money to dictate and control all creative.  When I arrived, the show had been ripped to shreds and was a bunch of loose knit LED heavy scenes which had not considered, in any regard, flow of story, integration of music score, cast, costumes, lighting, sound or other elements.

So while trying to work out how to get the theatre built, with push back at every step by local 2nd investor group management, I also had to work out how to assemble a commercially viable show, in Chinese, to attract group sales and Terra Cotta Warriors visitors, with a creative team who were scattered around China, and whom had never been all together in the same room.

Much to chagrin of local 2nd investor group management, but with the support of local 1st investor group leadership, I insisted on getting the creative team assembled into a room and build out the show structure and plan accordingly.  What started as a typical, formal Chinese style meeting in Lintong, led by the local 2nd investor group management “artistic director” (an incompetent old backstabbing woman), I quickly broke with all manner of Chinese formal meeting structure, and moved to sit next to the Director, and lay out the script/scene breakdown in front of him, which we together sorted into a general order, then added music, then with the scenic designer added the settings (from a series of illustrations I had prepared), then added costumes etc…. Over the course of 3 hours with the assistance of a pair of scissors, sticky tape and creative energy, we structured the show together.  The creative team was very happy, and openly said this was the best and most constructive and most positive meeting they had in years. The director felt empowered for the 1st time.   To this day, that creative team remain friends, with the director an especially close friend.

Local 2nd investor group management used their position of influence to enjoy a power play over the staff, masking the reality of what was actually going on. They layered bureaucracy on bureaucracy, coupled with red tape over new company regulations that would magically appear overnight, along with 4 or 5-hour meetings to achieve nothing other than keep everyone in the room from actually getting something done.

But word spread quickly amongst local Chinese staff, that I was the 1st manager to actually stand up to the local 2nd investor group management insanity and get things done. After all, the local staff just wanted the theatre to be built and to open a show, any show. They were tired and completely demoralized.

I instituted staff recognition programs, monthly awards (which I paid for from my own pocket, and never reimbursed), celebrated peoples birthdays, eliminated 12 hours of weekly sit own meetings in favor of 10 minute standing meetings, improved their office working space, derailing a lot of stupid processes, and tried to re-educate my management team in encouraging people.

The 1st investor group leader was receiving back channel feedback about what I was doing and met with me monthly to thank and encourage me to continue to stand up to the local 2nd investor group management, who he told me was trying hard to get rid of me. At one of these meetings he offered me a new car, thinking that I should have a nicer car than the local 2nd investor group management pool car my driver was currently using and give me more independence away from them.

Xi'an QinHuang Grand Theatre Operating PlanAlas, local 2nd investor group management ultimately won the battle, when they kept finding reasons to withhold contractual payments to Nederlander in New York and I, based on ridiculous excuses such as “Bilingual operating plan submitted was not in Chinese format and therefore does not meet contract standards”.

After 11 months of struggle, I quit, and fled back to the sanity of Shanghai. Sadly a great opportunity lost.

SQGT Exterior Model SQGT Maps TheatreToby Simkin Business Card - China's First Emperor at the Shaanxi Qinhuang Grand Theatre