And we're back!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ok that was a long break, punctuated on my end by what was easily the most difficult, demanding, insane, wonderful job I've ever had. My contract ended on Sept. 16, but I haven't been rushing to my computer to blog because there's a certain amount of time that needs to be spent simply staring at a blank wall trying to process what I've just done.

(Actually, I'm not doing that at all. I've just spent a week lazing about on a rather nice yacht cruising up and down the Croatian coastline, followed by a week in Venice. So all of you people who are busy getting kids off to school or doing your spouse's laundry or scraping the frost off windshields can eat your heart out. I may eventually die alone surrounded by cats who will eat my partially decomposed body, but right now things are pretty sweet.)

That's the life!

And what was I doing for the last six months instead of blogging? I was working on the opening and closing ceremonies for a few sporting events we had in London this summer.  To be slightly more specific, I was part of a small but feisty team tasked with delivering the props for those four ceremonies, which I suppose sounds terribly exciting and glamorous, which I suppose it was.

I've tried several times to get this blog post going, partly because I suppose that a few of you out there are probably interested to hear about what it was like, and partly because it feels like a thing that needs to be blogged about before I can, in good conscience, get back to the usual blather about sticky toffee pudding, or the Offside Rule, or the Cornish independence movement.  But every time I've tried to get some words down I've been bogged down because there is so much I could say that it would be easy to just disgorge it all for days on end, which wouldn't be healthy for either of us.  (Not to mention the fact that there's a chance the powers-that-be have spider-bot internet monitors that may crawl over to my little corner of the web and take exception to me telling you about these things. At which point they'll probably send their shock troops to rappel down from a black helicopter hovering over Starbucks and snatch away my iPad and send me to some kind of concentration camp where I'll have to sort out 18.6 miles of floating lane markers from the Aquatics Centre or something like that.  Which is why I am deliberately, and sometimes awkwardly, NOT using the "O" word.)

So after wrestling with it for a while I had a sudden realisation that I've actually "written" a lot already.  Since emerging from the maelstrom and re-entering society, I've had countless conversations with people about the whole thing, and the same questions tend to come up over and over again, and I tend spit out the same answers.  And I realized that what I really need to do is just put that all in a blog post and most everybody would be sort of satisfied.  So here goes:

What parts did YOU actually do?

Good question.  It feels like I did a lot.  For instance, do you recall seeing the big fluffy clouds that circled the Green & Pleasant Land at the start of the first ceremony?


I did the clouds. And when I say "I did" I don't mean I designed them and I don't mean I built them.  What I mean is this: I wrote the "Invitation to Tender" documents that outlined exactly what we wanted the clouds to be. ("The clouds shall be sealed helium filled inflatable structures measuring approximately 8 meters long x 4.5 meters wide by not more than 4 meters high and shall be covered in a material to simulate a fluffy effect and shall be supplied with bespoke storage bags and shall be built to withstand prolonged exposure to an outdoor environment and shall be finished to a level appropriate for HD broadcast and blah blah blah...").  And I sought out appropriate suppliers who might want to quote on the job. And I assessed their responses and submitted my recommendations to the Procurement people. And I spent endless hours in consultation with the designer and the successful bidder about exactly how the clouds should look. And I monitored the progress of the build and visited the supplier's workshop. And I helped the supplier get all the right accreditation so that their staff and vehicles could get into the stadium. And I arranged for the delivery of the clouds and the staff and volunteers to manage them.  And I procured the helium to fill them and arrange the delivery and storage of that. And I wrote and revised risk assessments and method statements for the use of the clouds and the helium. And I made sure they were filled and ready to go for each rehearsal. And I liaised with stage management about how the clouds should be cued. And I carved out and fought for precious real estate in the stadium so we'd have a place to fill the clouds before each rehearsal.  And, finally, I watched them enter the field of play on the night of the ceremony with the same pride a parent must feel at the Christmas pageant when their 6-year old appears as a shepherd wearing a cotton wool beard and an old bathrobe.  And then I packed them up and sent them back to the supplier to be recycled.  Basically, I production managed the clouds.

I also production managed a lot of other inflatabes, and all the fences and gates in the Green & Pleasant Land, and the balloons with numbers on them that exploded on cue during the countdown (do NOT ask me about the stupid number sixes):

Countdown balloons

... and rain cloud that rained on the little house, and those ratchet sort of things that people cranked back and forth on during the industrial revolution:


... and the two inflatable yellow submarines, and Mike Oldfield's tubular bells, and the Windrush boat:


... and the cartoon-like speech bubbles that you probably don't remember, and the giant soap bubbles that didn't make it into the broadcast, and the flags and country placards in the Athlete's Parade (you know, the signs that say "Great Britain" and "Canada" and "Papua New Guineau").

London Olympics Opening Ceremony

And that was just the first ceremony.  I also had a few things on the Closing and a bunch on Paras Opening and, well, you get the picture.  I had my hands full, and I was no busier than anyone else on the team.

Was it a let-down or were you completely wired on the night of the show?  

Yes... and no.  One the day of the first Opening Ceremony, which is the show most people focus on and the one that captured most of my attention, the day was busy enough to be distracting.  And we'd also already done three dress rehearsals, one with a full audience, so mostly it just felt like another rehearsal.  And there was soooooo much to do. Even with a staff of 20, a paid crew of 32, and about a hundred volunteers, it still took eight hours to preset the show.  And that's just the props.  Eight hours for 150 people to make sure that every bed, fence, cloud, umbrella, flag, balloon, drum, bike and every other thing, was present and accounted for, in the right place, in the right orientation, and double-checked to the satisfaction of us and of stage management who were, let's just say, exacting.

During the show I seem to recall things ticked over pretty well.  The jarring thing was how quickly it was all over.  I know it seemed to you like the Athlete's Parade lasted approximately 11 weeks but in the stadium the end kind of snuck up on me.  And because the event in question includes a tedious amount of sport that takes place in the stadium in between the Opening and Closing ceremonies, there was a LOT of work to do immediately after the ceremony.  And I do mean immediately.  There were trucks waiting in the parking lot to start loading the props out that night, and a crew that stayed overnight to do that.  I was in the gang that ended up staying until about 2 or 3am and then coming back at 10:00 the next morning to carry on in a sort of zombie-like state for another 8 hours or so.  It was disconcerting how quickly things that I'd been obsessing about for a year went from being the most important thing in the world to being, essentially, rubbish.  It was hard to grasp.

Me and a colleague taking a coma-break the morning after.  Don't recognise that blue cloth we're laying on? That's because it was a treat only for those in the stadium - an effect that happened before the start of the broadcast. With help of the audience we covered every seat in the stadium in that blue stuff, which looked quite cool if you were in the field, which I was.  And I turns out that when you pile up a few hundred enormous bits of blue cloth they make a rather impressive and comfortable pile in the parking lot.

But I digress. Getting back to the question - was there a big rush?  On the night, no.  There was too much to do and to much stress and exhaustion to have much chance to take it in.  I do remember the moment when my clouds made their first entrance though.  I hadn't really clocked it until it happened, but those clouds were the very first thing to enter the field of play that night.  And the volunteers who were wrangling them were so excited and keen and grateful to be there that I did get a bit choked up.

When it really hit me was the next morning.  Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember that one of my housemates works the night shift at a press clipping service.  This means two things: First, she is terrifyingly well read and therefore also a formidable Scrabble opponent. And second, she often brings home the daily papers.  Normally she confines herself to the ones that those of us in the house read, usually the Guardian, the Independant and the Telegraph.  But on the morning after the ceremony I came downstairs to find every one of London's dailies in a big pile on the kitchen table, and there are a LOT of those.  Even the Sun and the Star and The Daily Mail, which would normally never darken our door.  And every one of then had a huge front page photo, and every one of them was overflowing with giddy praise and excitement about the show. THAT was cool.  Partly because it was a huge relief that it had all worked, and partly because I think everyone had been a bit nervous about what the reaction would be because it was, after all, kind of unconventional. It was immensely gratifying.

APTOPIX London Olympics Opening Ceremony
This was a very popular shot on the front pages.  The burning rings.  Not my department, thank God.

That's also about the time when the emails and texts started.  Friends and family and a few friends of friends even, all sending little notes about how much they'd loved the show and how amazing it was.  It made me want to stand at the news agent in the Brixton tube station and gesture at the papers displayed there and say to everyone who passed "Hey everybody, I did that!  That was ME!"

So to answer the question (finally): No, on the actual night there wasn't a huge sense of awesomeness and achievement. But eventually it did sink in.

How did they do the chimneys?

They were huge solid brick structures on custom-made 30 metre long telescoping hydraulic rams that were built into the ground several stories down.  The chimneys were installed in late 2010, before they started building the stadium.

Ha! Just kidding! They were inflatable.  No, really.  They were big, scenically painted fabric tubes with some hard bits on them that came up on elevators and were picked up from the top at the same time as huge fans filled them from the bottom.  Good, eh?  Luckily, they were some of the few inflatables that didn't end up on my plate and were managed by a lucky guy in the Staging Department.

Inflatable.  I promise.

So are you going to Rio?

Probably not. I think this was very much a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  To be able to do the biggest show(s) on the planet in a city that I love in my own language is not something that's likely to happen again in my lifetime.  Rio might be cool, but when I think about what was involved in this experience, and I think about trying to do that in a foreign country, in another language, far far away from either Canada or the UK... it just doesn't have the same appeal.

But the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014? Now THAT is something I would be very interested in.  Spending 6 months to a year in Scotland with a chance to work on a smaller pair of shows, armed with what I've learned on these ones... that is very appealing.

You must have an amazing CV after all that!

Well I'd like to think that I'm pretty attractive to a potential employer, but so are quite a few other people who worked on ceremonies and are now busily blanketing the UK with their CVs, most of whom had a professional network in place here before the Ceremonies.  So let's just say no one is beating down my door yet.  I'm optimistic that something will come up, and am trying hard not to get so nervous that I take the first thing offered even if it's managing, truck driving and guest-starring as one of the ugly step-sisters in a pantomime tour of rural Wales for £150/week, plus tea and laundry.

Are you going/coming back to Canada now?

No offense Canada (love ya!) but I hope not.  I've actually had a few gentle inquiries from companies in Canada since I left, and I've politely declined them all.  I just can't envision a life in Canada that would be as interesting and exciting and just plain cool as what I have here in London.  London is... special.  Or maybe it's just special to me.  Either way, I honestly don't think I'm finished here. Not yet.

The morning after
Me and the Canadian Flag from the Athlete's Parade, taken during a pause while carefully packing up all the flags the morning after the ceremony.

Was it hard?

Oh my God yes.  It was, and I'm going to use strong language here, FUCKING HARD.  It was certainly the hardest thing I've ever done.  Hardest, most demanding, most frustrating, most exhausting, most exhilarating, most rewarding thing ever.  I'm no stranger to long hours - that comes with the territory in theatre.  Doing a couple of 80-hour weeks in a row while getting a show up is routine.  But doing 3 months of 80-hour weeks?

And the scale of it all was just ridiculous.  Not one but five giant clouds.  800 feet of fences. 320 beds. 1,000 drums.  And even once you manage to procure 50 or 200 or 1000 of something you probably still have to get it unpacked, and maybe painted, or assembled, or modified in some way.  And then you have to pack it all again in some way that allows you store it safely and move it around the rehearsal area, and keep track of it through rehearsals, and then pack it into a truck, and fix it when (not if) it breaks, and replace it when (not if) it goes missing and blah blah blah.  It wasn't just hard mentally, it was a lot of physical work (outdoors, in the rain) and a lot of lifting and carrying and a lot of time on your feet in steel toed boots.

So yes, it was hard.

Do you miss it?

I don't miss how hard it was: the insane deadlines, the relentless schedule, the never-ending rain, the ridiculous requests ("You want WHAT? WHEN?  Have you looked at a calendar lately? You do remember that the games are THIS YEAR, right?"), the sleep deprivation, the despair.  But I do miss being part of something so big and amazing. And I really miss the people I worked with.  It seems like such a shame that just as we were getting the hang of this ceremonies malarky it was all over.  How odd that I'm not still in the office, gathered around a table carving up the list on another four ceremonies, agreeing that yes, I will do the 50 giant inflatable typewriters and the 750 custom-made feather dusters and the 5 metre tall representation of Winston Churchill rendered in goose fat and recycled Oyster Cards.  I mean no disrespect to anyone I've worked with before, but being part of that team was a bit like I imagine it might be like to go to war with someone (with the huge bonus that no one was shooting at us, of course).  Still, it was very much "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers", and that's a tough act to follow.  I miss them.

The gang long shot cropped
The gang, taken in November back when we were still getting not just days off but whole weekends, and 8 hours of sleep a night and regular hot meals served on actual china with metal cutlery and other dizzying things like that.  And back when our hi-vis vests were still shiny and new and you had to wear 5 point PPE at the stadium (That's Personal Protective Equipment - ceremonies is all about the acronyms.  5 point PPE is steel toes, hi-vis vest, gloves, eye protection and hard hat.  Of course.) 

Naturally there's a lot more to say.  I'm afraid that the ceremonies have now officially become my Specialist Subject. (That phrase will definitely have to appear in a glossary entry some time so anyone not in the UK can appreciate it.)  Even now, months after it's all over, I find myself not-so-subtly steering conversations in a way that lets me come out with, "Actually, I just finished working on the...".  But now that I've got a lot off my chest I feel like I can get back to "normal" blogging.  I do think, though, that there are just too many tidbits to share for me to close the book on the experience entirely.  So look for some short, random collections of anecdotes about a few more of the interesting or special or downright bizarre things that happened to me in the last year interspersed with the usual blather.

Oh, and it's good to be back.


Jeanne said...

So, that's a pretty amazing update! Welcome back to life. Oh PS I'm in Oman these days.

Laura C said...

Yay! I had checked last night, just in case, and then today here you are! Thanks for checking back in. If it's going to take me a bit to digest your blog post, I can only imagine how it must be for you to digest your experience. Off to find footage now, and see some of these things in action.

Unknown said...

Pam, good to see you survived and are keen for another adventure, whatever it may be. Missed your blog in the O-gap. During Expo'86, some 16 hour a day jobs were covered by 3 people - perhaps you could suggest that for the next games? The fun would be similar and the feet would be happier. See you for dinner next June. rh

Mouse said...

Thanks for the much needed update. Loving your longer hair. Miss you, talk about chocolare covered bacon, and often think of you. Take care. All the best. Hugs.

FLF said...

Pam, what an adventure. Was in England a week prior to the games. Thought better about trying to contact you. Watched live the O opening... and wondered which part was you. Good luck with seeking the next challenge. Glad you are enjoying the UK. I was happy to be back with my sister, and still miss it. (managed to sneak in two running events in 7 days :) ). F.

Anonymous said...

So glad to see the new blog post! I just had this weird feeling you had something to do with the clouds. Loved the whole thing.
No one here runs anymore but Mitch and I will see each other this weekend at LDI.
Keep well,
Steven G.

Anonymous said...

Pam, just know that you can NEVER post too much about what you've just done. I'd be willing to read many more pages of "Oly Tales" if you were inclined to post them. What you've just done is epic in terms of ones career, and very worthy of steering many more conversations to the "......well actually, I just came off of the Oly......."

For those who've previously been involved in "special events", we all know what this past year will wind up meaning to you.

Please share it further!!

daphne said...

Your update was a very welcome and interesting surprise when I clicked on it this morning.

Thanks, and keep "answering the questions".

Anonymous said...

Pam: Wonderful to have you back! Thoroughly enjoyed your account about that big event and look forward to hearing more anecdotes, tales of the weird and wonderful, and backstage stories. Good luck with the job search and please keep sharing your adventures. Hugs, Colleen

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