Show People: Tiffini Chow

Company manager Tiffini Chow has spent more than fifteen years as the glue holding intricate and costly theatrical shows together. How is it that touring and resident productions as diverse as Miss Saigon and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas run like well-oiled machines night after night? Just ask Ms. Chow.

 

In the world of performing arts, the term juggler may conjure of up images of a smiling and dexterous showman, happily navigating multiple air-bound bowling pins for a living, often as part of a traveling circus caravan. That metaphor almost perfectly describes Tiffani Chow’s role as company manager.

For more than fifteen years, Chow has worked for numerous touring and local productions including big-name Broadway shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and The Vagina Monologues. As the producer’s representative for the company, whether it’s with the theater that the show is playing in or with the presenters who are taking it out on the road, Chow takes care of practically all the business aspects of a production. Her responsibilities include handling the payroll, paying bills, making all travel arrangements for the company, settling moneys with the theater and the box office on a weekly and nightly basis, handling contract requirements and paying all benefits. As Chow likes to say, “basically just making sure everything goes smoothly and the curtain goes up and down.”

Graduating with a bachelors of science in business management from Santa Clara University in 1991 and a MBA with a concentration in arts administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco in 1993, Chow cast a very narrow net in deciding she wanted to work with noted Broadway producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins). Armed with her degrees and a previous internship with San Francisco-based theater operators Shorenstein Hays Nederlander, Chow was able to get her resume in front of Alan Wasser and Associates, the general managing company for all of Mackintosh’s shows at the time.

“I can’t believe it didn’t end up in the trash,” says Chow. After turning down several internship opportunities, Chow got a call of out the blue from Alan Wasser’s office asking if she wanted to go on the road with Phantom as an assistant. “Miracle of miracles I got the job,” she says. “That was my first gig and that was in 1995.”

Currently in between gigs after finishing up a multi-year stint with White Christmas, the Oakland-based Chow took time to share stories from a life spent on the road.

Get In Media: Talk about working on The Phantom of the Opera, your first gig.

Tiffini Chow: That was the second national touring company. I joined it five years into their run so they had already been on the road for quite some time. It was a tour that had a wonderful schedule. We were in town for three to four months at a time so it was definitely the more luxurious side of living on the road. Phantom was the hot show at the time so everywhere we went shows were sold out, there was lots of fanfare, there were lots of parties and press and all of that.

I didn’t know anything at all. I didn’t know stage left or stage right, but I knew enough to kind of be quiet and just jump in and ask questions. I’m good at blending in. I’d had a lot of temp experience before that so I knew a lot about how to blend in with whatever the culture was. I got absolutely the best training I could’ve asked for and I had the best time.

GIM: How long were you with that production?

TC: I ended up with them for three years. It’s a long time and I had something very unique happened to me while I was there: After a year, the company manager was leaving, the production stage manager was leaving, and the music director was leaving, so there was going to be a huge amount of turnover in very key positions. I’d only been on the job a year and with the company manager’s union, which is ATPAM. You have to serve an apprenticeship before you’re allowed to take a very difficult test to be allowed into the union and become a certified company manager. I hadn’t even been offered an internship yet; I was probably next on the list to be offered it so they were really in a dilemma as to whom they were going to hire to take over that position. After a lot of wrangling with the union, Alan Wasser gave me the job, which is just ridiculous. To this day I get people asking me if I’m that Tiffini Chow that the union got all up in arms about. It’s a two-year apprenticeship and I served my apprenticeship as a manager.

GIM: Your profession sounds like a tremendous juggling act. Is that the case?

TC: It really is like that. There’s an incredible amount of multitasking and it’s a lot of communication with lots of varied people.

GIM: It also sounds like a high-pressure job.

TC: It certainly can be. I think part of it is just working in a performing arts environment; people have a little less of a guard up and they’re a little freer to be who they are. It’s a little bit of that. There are a lot of time pressures and there are a lot of pressures coming from a lot of different angles.

GIM: This sounds like the kind of job where anything could go wrong at any time. Describe a high-pressure situation and how you handled it.

TC: On Phantom I had traveled with two sound people in Chicago. One was coming back from vacation and one was leaving on vacation. They did not coordinate their travel plans to make sure that one person touched down before the other had left. We were stuck without a sound person. It was too late to fly anybody else in that knew the show. Luckily, the local sound person - this was at an opera house in Chicago - had sat around and watched a few rehearsals and so the production stage manager and I sat with him with the script, talked him through as much as we could and then during the show we sat with the script, told him which mics were about to come up. At one point we told the actors, “When you’re off stage, please be quiet because we’re just going to turn everyone’s mic up.”

RELATED: Touring technician Jeronimo Carbi explains life on the road with Cirque du Soleil. 

GIM: What does it feel like to constantly have a new set of coworkers?

TC: I enjoy that a lot. The nice thing about being around for so many years is that the theater community is pretty small and so after a while you start meeting up with the same directors or lighting designers or some of the same actors. I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people, working with new people and getting to know them, so you live a life of change.

GIM: Do you spend a lot of your time making actors happy?

TC: I should say that part of what I think has made me successful in my job is I work very, very hard to treat everybody the same. Whether it’s an usher or a crew person or the star of the show, I really work hard to create a level playing field in my office. In theory it’s going to sound cheesy, but I try and make everybody happy.

GIM: But what happens when a performer or technician or coworker is uncooperative? Are you the person who has to do the reprimanding?

TC: It depends. It would usually escalate to somebody else first. If it were an actor, it would usually go to the production stage manager. If it were a crew person it would go to the crew head. And if they weren’t able to resolve it then it would escalate to me.

GIM: Your physical workspace is constantly changing each time you change theaters. Is that a big adjustment every time?

TC: It’s an adjustment every time. At some theaters the situation is much better than others. I have been in a 4x10 closet in the basement of a theater where two people had to try and squeeze in and then I’ve had brand new offices with a seating area and bathroom all to myself. It’s a little bit of a crapshoot depending on the theater you’re at and depending on what the site limitations are. A lot of us are used to traveling with something called a road box. It’s basically a rolling office that is built for us so that when you open your doors a computer is already set up and essential files are in there. So with some things you are ready to go and there’s less to set up that way.

GIM: Are the pay and benefits good?

TC: Yes, especially on the road, but I have to say that’s changed a lot in the last couple of years. It used to be that practically all tours were on something called a production contract with Actors Equity Association. Over the course of the years—I think it actually began with equity signing a special contract with Walt Disney five years ago—they have now started negotiating tiered contracts with producers, meaning that the actors get a much, much, much lower base salary and they might get a small percentage on the back end. Now first national companies even are going out on these tiered contracts and it’s affected all the other unions.

Not only that, but it used to be on a production contract you would get full equity per diem which, in theory, was supposed to cover your housing and food, and that now has decreased so that they will cover your housing and you will get $50 a day or something much, much smaller [for meals]. On the other end I found out recently that it used to be that some states and very few cities across the country would tax you, and now most states and a lot of cities have caught on and so they’re withholding taxes for the amount of money you make in their city.

GIM: How has the job changed over the last 15 years?

TC: It depends on the individual company manager. I’ve had a lot of experience and people know me well so they let me be. It really just depends on the general management office how much autonomy and independence they want to give to that person. I’m lucky, I’ve been able to make a tremendous amount of decisions on my own, but there are a lot of people out there, now especially, who have to call and ask the general manager for everything.

GIM: What does it feel like to be in between gigs like you are now?

TC: The first few times were very difficult. You constantly have to save money while you have a job, to try and squirrel it away for the “just in case.” To me it ended up being a huge psychological game. You always have to network and to do your research to find out what shows are coming up, what offices are there that are doing them, do you know anybody there that can help you out. When I came back from San Francisco, I got lucky in that there’s not that much work in San Francisco, but I was really the only person in town and was well connected enough that I could wait for a phone call. If I was looking for a road gig or if I wanted to do a show in Las Vegas, it would require a little bit more networking.

GIM: What do you love about having made this your career path?

TC: What I most love about the job is that it is the absolute perfect fit for me. I’m great at multi-tasking and I’m good with people. I really enjoy theater people a lot and I love the traveling and checking out new cities. I love bringing theater to people and going out into the audience and seeing people’s reaction to shows. There’s so much about it to love.

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