En Guarde

Andrew Alexander Photography.

Andrew Alexander Photography.

Kayla and I ready ourselves to spar, confidently taking stances opposite each other. A few words suffice to quietly introduce the scene, then I resolutely attack, swinging my makeshift sword towards her right shoulder with all the power I can muster. She promptly parries, yet is effectively forced backwards as I bitterly shoot a mock glare at her. For we are no longer Jennifer and Kayla, friends of old, but powerful archenemies, firmly locked into a duel which could ultimately decide the fate of an entire continent.

Gracefully deflecting her returning blow, I spin to the side, lithely swinging down to the right in a move I know Kayla can rarely block. But she quickly sidesteps, narrowly averting the blow with the tip of her sword. I let out a sigh of frustration even as I briefly acknowledge with a nod her skill, and fluidly swing to the side to effortlessly strike once more.

Yet as the battle steadily wears on, I slowly tire, and Kayla gradually begins to seem ubiquitous as her endurance solidly proves its worth. Though I can still neatly sidestep, deflect, or dodge most of her blows, I am now on the defensive, my strikes becoming progressively more timorous as she smoothly attacks with audacious accuracy. My blocks are evanescent now, only momentary barriers.

I back away frantically, in an attempt to gain strength through a pause, but obtain only a fleeting second to rest. Swiftly gathering all of my power, I lunge without warning, aiming to precisely duplicate the force and alacrity of my initial attack. Our swords meet brusquely with a loud crash.

The tension is abruptly severed, and we suddenly burst into friendly laughter, watching the washcloth insulation on the tip of my sword go flying sharply off, gently sailing through the air, and landing lightly in the boughs of a tree a few yards away.

[From a “vivid language assignment” – which I obviously interpreted as “use lots and lots and lots of long adjectives/adverbs!” – for an online English class with Stanford, written in Sept. 2005, age 12.]



Who first conceived of the idea I do not remember, though I think the tent poles were probably my fault. At any rate, my first memories of anything resembling swordfighting date to my good friend R’s [or “Kayla’s”] backyard, and various surrounding parks, where two fantasy-novel-enthralled pre-teens battered away at each other with heavy, rusty, metal tent poles that had been salvaged from my garage, with a couple of segments slotted together to form “swords” about four feet long. They were topped with our mothers’ obligatory safety precaution – padding, in the form of washcloths attached with duct tape to the tips. (This was supposed to prevent us from stabbing each other in the eye. Practically speaking, the washcloths usually flew off in the first few minutes of a fight.)

Now, R and I were both possessed of a certain amount of common sense – and, even at that age, first-aid training: I don’t recall a conversation in which we explicitly said “head/neck strikes are not allowed” – but I also don’t recall either of us ever trying to land a strike above the shoulders. We weren’t trying to hurt seriously each other – we knew quite well that our parents would ban swordfighting practice if that happened! – and we were both quite good at “tapping” or “tagging” each other, rather than swinging a “sword” full force into anyone. And as we both quickly became competent at parrying, successful attacks usually only happened towards the end of a fight.

Nonetheless, we were swinging around heavy metal poles, trying to actually hit each other, so some bruises did inevitably result. After all, we had no training, no protective equipment, no vocabulary to describe different types of attacks or parries, and no knowledge of how parries were even supposed to be done – aside from the obvious fact that if you’d stopped your opponent’s blade from hitting you, something was clearly working.

Anyone with any background in stage combat or risk management is probably cringing in dismay.

I did learn a little bit of stage combat in high school, in drama club over lunch breaks. This was with foam swords, and basically consisted of learning five main attacks and the corresponding parries – conveniently numbered 1 through 5 (idiosyncratic numbering system, though: I’m not sure where the teacher had trained, but her numbering system was consistent neither with FDC, modern fencing, nor any organization I’ve trained with since). And I did, for one memorable assignment in Grade 11 Drama, write, choreograph, and perform a script that included the Macbeth/Macduff duel. (The script was a conversation between Shakespeare and Burbage, set in the middle of a rehearsal of Macbeth. A few liberties with historical casting were taken: Shakespeare, aka me, played Macduff.)

This total lack of serious fight training did not stop the JR Theatre Group from creating a film version of the prologue of The Golden Crown when I was about fifteen: we knew a little bit about film editing, less about cameras, and nothing about lighting, but we nevertheless betook ourselves – armed with storyboards, homemade costumes, swords, pages of written choreography, and handheld digital cameras – to a convenient nearby forest, to film a chapter that revolved almost entirely around a duel between the novel’s primary antagonist, Morcel (played by R – the inevitable result of a theatrical group composed of four girls was that every male character was always cross-gender cast), and his archenemy, the elven swordswoman and sorceress Kerowin (me).

Kerowin - Film still

Screenshot from The Golden Crown: Prologue.

For a couple of kids with no training, it was moderately ambitious – among other things, the filmed choreography includes a contest of strength that ends with R doing a back roll with sword in hand, the two of us duelling while standing a couple metres in the air on a slanted tree trunk, and then me jumping out of said tree and rolling. (Not with sword in hand – I didn’t have a clue how to do that at the time, so I simply threw the sword down, jumped, rolled, and then picked it up afterwards!) I also didn’t know aikido or shoulder rolls at the time, so it’s much closer to a gymnastics dive roll than anything that would pass FDC safety standards. I think our parents were simply glad that no one was injured. But the choreography also lacked sophistication, or any real sense of how a fight would actually go: in retrospect, I set up whole sequences of attack #1-2-5-4-2-3-1-etc. without any consideration for whether that would make sense in a real-life scenario. (Where are the openings? Why is the character making that move?)

It was not until I was seventeen that I first made my first foray into the world of stage combat training for professional actors – via a decidedly backwards route.


Want me to write about archery? I can write about archery …


Full disclosure: despite being an enthusiastic amateur actor, I wasn’t originally looking to use stage combat in the theatre at all. I’d recently finished the first draft of a prequel – Southern Stars – to The Golden Crown, and in the process of writing said draft, had come face to face with the fact that I didn’t really have the first clue how to write a fight scene. (A bit of a problem for a fantasy novellist!) Archery, yes – the scenes where (a much younger) Kerowin and Morcel run around trying to teach themselves how to make and shoot bows and arrows are probably some of the better scenes in that draft, because I was drawing directly on – at the time – some fourteen years of archery background, a lot of relevant memories of childhood escapades, and enough experience teaching beginners to know exactly what mistakes were inevitable. But the moment my characters had to pick up a sword – or, much worse, throw a punch? I was thoroughly out of my depth, relying on vague clichés from other books, and I knew it.

Solution? Well, the logical solution seemed to be straightforward: if I wanted to be able to write a fight scene, then I needed to learn how to fight. Internet research ensued, and the result was an email to the coordinator of the Fight Directors’ Canada National Workshop, asking whether I would be allowed to take the Basic Actor-Combatant course in August – a two-week intensive workshop that covered unarmed, quarterstaff, and single sword. (The website said you were supposed to be eighteen. I was going to be several months shy of that.)

A few emails later – and with the requisite parental permission/signatures acquired – I was officially signed up. A few months later, my mother dropped me off at Concordia University in Montreal, for two weeks dedicated to nothing but fight training, where I quickly discovered how much I didn’t know about stage combat:

a) My fellow participants were, for the most part, professional actors, or professional-actors-in-training at reputable conservatories, and all of them were substantially older than I.

b) Any experience I had pre-FDC involved a sword in my hand. And I had never been in a “real fight”. No playful wrestling, no schoolyard scuffles (homeschooled!), no martial arts classes – nothing. Not surprisingly, unarmed required a much greater learning curve than single sword.

c) Dance background was almost as much of a hindrance as a help: on the one hand, I was used to learning choreography, I was reasonably flexible and not terribly out of shape, and lots of pilés do make holding a fighting stance for long periods of time much easier. On the other hand, in any fighting style (unarmed!) that required ‘getting down and dirty’, I stuck out like a sore thumb: the quality or style of movement required to actually-make-the-audience-believe-that-you’re-in-a-fight-and-getting-hit-and-trying-to-hurt-someone is obviously very different from the graceful, elegant, balletic movement that had prompted so many new acquaintances in my teens to ask  “Do you do ballet, by any chance?” or “By the way, are you a dancer?”

d) When they described it as an “intensive”, they meant it. The basic and intermediate classes were in the studios from 9 until 6 (8:30 until 6 if you wanted time for an individual warm-up before the main group one; practically speaking, due to aforementioned ballet training, I always did want to do my own warmup – one of the reasons I got into the habit of showing up absurdly early for theatre-related things was the necessity of doing my own twenty-minute warmup before any rehearsal, since acting warm-ups never seem to involve anywhere near enough stretching). The advanced students had class in the evenings as well, until 9pm. Our evenings were dedicated to either private practice (I probably did more than five hundred lunges in my bedroom), to homework, to masterclasses, or – later on – to practicing the choreography for the test fights with our fight partners.

e) It was also, of course, incredibly exciting, and way, way too much fun.

When I arrived back in Ottawa (and promptly started first-year university), I was eager to continue training, but quickly ran up against the minor detail that FDC did not offer regular classes in Ottawa – where the theatre scene is much smaller than in Toronto or Montreal. So I managed to get down to Rapier Wit – Canada’s oldest stage combat school – in Toronto for a couple of weekends in the fall, and then signed myself up for fencing lessons through the university.

Starting fencing after stage combat was yet another amusing transition – while I already knew the names of all the parries, attacks, disengagements, and so forth, and while some things (parries) stayed exactly the same, stage combat attacks are generally designed to not actually touch/hit one’s opponent. The adage usually cited is “cut for stage, parry for real” – for example, if the choreography calls for me to do a cut with a rapier to a fight partner’s right shoulder, and for them to parry it, I do the cut in such a way that even if my partner completely forgets to parry, or parries ineffectively, or freezes, forgets the choreography completely,  and stands there blinking, I will not hit them: my blade should always stop 6-12 inches (basic) or perhaps 4-6 inches (intermediate) away from their shoulder.

Needless to say, this does not work in fencing, where if one expects to touch one’s opponent (and thereby score any points!), one must thrust and cut on-line, i.e. actually aiming at the other person.

The other minor detail that I discovered, particularly after switching into the theatre program at the University of Ottawa: I was suddenly one of a reasonably short list of people in the city with any professional training in stage combat. This generally meant that if I was in a show that had fight scenes, the fight director(s) would appoint me as the fight captain – regardless of whether my character actually had to fight or not. (Cordelia, in King Lear, for instance, never picks up a sword onstage. That did not stop me from helping the fight director demonstrate techniques, running broadsword warm-ups and fight calls in a floor-length white gown, or orchestrating a series of handoffs so that the twenty-odd combatants in the final battle could share twelve swords between them.)

As I became more involved in the theatre scene in Ottawa, I discovered that the city did have fight directors around, and very good ones too, which led to the opportunity to tag along and assist with a series of shows, and to keep up my own training with private lessons in new weapon systems, like rapier & dagger, knives, and broadsword. I had every intention of finding a way to get my intermediate & advanced certifications, but it seemed as though I’d need to be in Toronto in order to do that: while going to the FDC Nationals intensive again was a possibility, the next few incarnations were held quite far away from Ottawa – Newfoundland and Alberta, to be precise – and that would have been expensive, especially when there was no guarantee that I would manage to learn everything quickly enough in a two-week intensive to pass. (As you move up the levels with FDC, the number of fights & weapons required for tests also increases – and two weeks is not a long time to acquire all the necessary habits and muscle memory.)

So while I had many good reasons to accept the University of Toronto’s offer of admission to their MA program, this was one that I don’t think anyone in the English department imagined! Pretty much as soon as I arrived in Toronto, I started intermediate classes at Rapier Wit, and since I’d been looking at their weekend firearms courses for a couple of years  without managing to find a date that would let me get down to Toronto, I quickly signed up for those as well.

Intermediate Smallsword

Chauvelin vs. the Scarlet Pimpernel. Intermediate Smallsword.

Oddly enough, I didn’t do a lot of theatre at the University of Toronto – but on the other hand, I’d chosen to put the emphasis for the fall semester firmly on stage combat training, which meant four hours a night for two-to-four nights per week, and effectively precluded performing in (or teching!) evening shows until January. I was also suddenly back to being one of the least experienced/knowledgeable fish in a much larger pond – a position which is a) good for me, b) means I learn more, and c) inspiring.
In January, with Intermediate completed, the five of us from the class then set our sights on doing Advanced the very next year – which led to, among other things, regular group gym sessions in preparation for a certain instructor’s infamously difficult warm-ups. (This is notable only because it’s the only time I’ve ever spent in a gym – between ballet, tap, jazz, archery, swimming, canoeing, figure skating, and backpacking, “exercise” has never been something I’ve bothered making separate time for!)

But while everyone else did indeed take Advanced the next fall, I moved to Oxford. And back into a student theatre scene with even less awareness of stage combat training than Ottawa’s – there aren’t many professional fight directors in Ottawa, but they do exist (and unsurprisingly, end up working on a lot of shows as a result!) and directors – as a general rule – were used to working with a fight director, knew when they needed to employ one, knew to listen to said fight director, knew that fight calls needed to happen, and didn’t do silly things like telling the actors to ‘just slap each other – it’ll be fine’.

Oxford has no resident stage combat instructors or directors that I’ve been able to find in two years of diligent searching. If a student show wants to employ one, they’re paying travel expenses (and perhaps accommodation) for someone to come from London. Which is not easy for regular rehearsals, or for student budgets.

On my first show in Oxford, however, for which I was assistant stage manager, an actor went to A&E (emergency room). The character needed to walk onstage and pretend to slip and fall. No one thought about trying to choreograph this, or teaching the actor how to do a stage fall, or anything … until we got to the scene in tech, about 36 hours before the show opened. That is the wrong time to try to teach a (physically uncoordinated, unfortunately) actor with no background in stage combat how to do a front fall. It is equally the wrong time for the director to be insisting that the actor can just hurl themselves at the floor face-first and they’ll be fine. (Or for the director to be insisting that yes, it absolutely has to be a front fall – not a side fall, or a back fall, or anything normally teachable to uncoordinated beginners.)

Long story short, hurling yourself at a hard floor repeatedly is in fact a bad idea, and led to this particular actor thinking he’d managed to dislocate his elbow – hence the trip to emergency. (It wasn’t dislocated – merely badly bruised – but the point stands.)

Thus began what became a bit of a one-woman crusade to fix or at least drastically alter the Oxford student approach to stage combat – and instill a few principles that had seemed obvious to me but were mostly unheard of when I arrived: If you’re doing a fight scene, you need a trained fight choreographer. You need to teach your actors choreography, use proper techniques, tailor it to their physical abilities (i.e. don’t give them things they can’t do safely!), and rehearse your fight slowly in advance, gradually building up speed, so that when it comes time to perform the show, your actors have been doing the movements for weeks, know them inside out and backwards, and can convincingly act and sell the scene while remaining in complete control.

Somewhat as a result, I’ve ended up doing a lot of fight choreography while in Oxford. At the two largest student venues, I’ve been the fight choreographer for almost every student show that’s needed one for the last year and a half. It’s an imperfect solution – I’m very much aware that (with my Intermediate) I’m not a certified Fight Director or Instructor, and in the interests of not misrepresenting myself have thus had to start many, many conversations with this information: ‘So, I’m not a certified fight director – I only have my Intermediate Actor-Combatant – but … [insert advice here]’. In most cases, though, it’s been quite clear that if I don’t try to teach the actors, the director (with no background in stage combat) will do it themselves. Which has, quite literally, led to things like people getting punched in the face hard enough to knock them out mid-performance. (I was not working on that show.) In a few cases, where what the director or production team wants is clearly beyond what I’m comfortable teaching, I have said ‘You need to hire a professional – I can’t be responsible for teaching or supervising that’ , but in the main, it’s been simple stuff – straight out of the basic unarmed or basic single sword playbook: The Effect (unarmed), King Lear (unarmed & knives), Living Together (unarmed), His Dark Materials: Part II (unarmed & knives), Hamlet (smallsword), Pentecost (unarmed & blank firing gun), The Three Musketeers (smallsword), RENT (unarmed & found weapons), The Arbor (knives), Richard II (unarmed & broadsword), Twelfth Night (smallsword)

And I’d like to think that as a result of insisting on them, over and over and over again, some of the underlying principles have become more widely known: when a show needs a fight choreographer, how to work productively with one, straightforward things that productions can do to help keep their actors safe.

Regan takes out Gloucester's eye - King Lear.

Regan removes Gloucester’s eye with a fork – King Lear.

I’d also like to think that shows have been able to realize more interesting and complex and dramatic fight scenes as a result. Certainly I’ve done work that I’ve been proud to see onstage. For The Three Musketeers (and Hamlet), we brought an instructor from London for a week before term started, and ran a intensive smallsword certification course under the BASSC for most of the cast. They – and the stage manager – passed their fight performance test, and thus had professional, industry-recognized certification before we even started choreography or rehearsals proper. Philip Pullman specifically complemented the fight scenes in His Dark Materials: Part II. The actors in King Lear and RENT and Richard II rose magnificently to the challenges they were given.

Photograph by Dan Grimwood.

Photographs by Dan Grimwood.

The Three Musketeers. Photography by Dan Grimwood.

Most recently, working on The Ruby in the Smoke (a world premiere theatrical adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel of the same name) has been a joy. Perhaps partly because the director, one of the actors, and the lighting designer all have existing basic certification, I’ve not had to expend any energy at all explaining (or having to continually argue for) how the process should work, but have simply been able to get on with creating the fights with the actors. And at least in my biased opinion, they’ve done a very good job.

Ruby in the Smoke - rehearsals

Fight rehearsal for The Ruby in the Smoke

So while I still need to work out how to get my Advanced certification while in the wrong country, that hasn’t stopped the fun, the challenges, or the fight scenes!

Lighting Doctor Faustus: Part I (Pre-Production)



Job: Lighting Designer & Dancer (& Pyrotechnics)

Step 1: Creative Meetings & Bid

The bid deadline for Doctor Faustus fell precisely in the middle of the show week for The Phantom of the Opera (in fact, the day of opening night was also the day of the bid deadline, and we didn’t finish tech until shortly before the house opened for the first show) – so I didn’t actually get a statement written, because I was slightly too busy trying to make sure the eyelets on these didn’t fall off:


The Phantom of the Opera, Keble O’Reilly, 2016. Photograph by Russell Johnson; set design by Abby Clarke; lighting design by Katrin Padel; costume design by Jennifer Hurd.

I’d been on the production team as lighting designer, however, since the previous term: Cai first mentioned the idea to me back in early Michaelmas 2015, while we were working together on The Three Musketeers. With a great concept, and a great team – I didn’t take much convincing.

By bid stage, we’d considered some of the basics of what we wanted to achieve with the lighting (the colour scheme – dominated by greens, blues, and purples – was clearly defined; the plan to use a cyclorama backdrop was in place; the plan to use gobos to create various floor patterns existed, and though we hadn’t finalized which ones, we’d talked quite a bit about fractals and pentagrams in both lighting and marketing; though we didn’t yet have a choreographer, Cai and I had talked about some fun ways to light the demons/devils; and the overall aesthetic of show was certainly something the production team had settled on fairly early).

0723e7d30543f77c52ba455c18e7f704    images-9




Some of my initial inspiration for the floor patterns and interaction between dancers and various conjuring symbols came from a show I’d seen at Assembly at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer  – 4×4 Ephemeral Architectures, which featured a  cast of four ballet dancers and four jugglers, with lighting design by Guy Hoars:


4 x 4 Ephemeral Architectures Gandini Juggling; London International Mime Festival; Choreographer : Ludovic Ondiviela; Dancers: Kieran Stoneley, Kate Byrne, Erin O'Toole, Joe Bishop; Jugglers: Kim Huynh, Sakari Mannisto, Owen Reynolds, Kati Ylahokkala; Linbury Studio Theatre, ROH; Royal Opera House; 13th January 2015; Credit: Pete Jones/Arenapal; www.arenapal.com


There was still quite a bit, I freely confess, that was rather nebulous and undefined at bid stage.  I hadn’t had a chance to sit down properly to chat with the set designer – she mentioned some hanging green bulbs in her statement that I (and the director) had never heard of until I read it, shortly before the bid interview; we hadn’t worked out any sort of CAD plan of the space; and I definitely hadn’t much more than a very hazy sense of exactly what I was going to spend my £400 budget on. (I mean, I’d been asked to specify a number for the budget – and had given some thought to it, trying to overestimate to give myself breathing room – but in terms of a precise breakdown, I was a little bit behind. The precise list that eventually appeared on the Google Drive was first created on March 1st, a week and a half after the bid deadline but in time for most funding interviews.)

Initial lighting budget & breakdown (March 1, 2016):

£25 TAFF Hazer

£25 TAFF Cyclorama

£72 TAFF Coda4 Battens (cyc lights)

£120 Gobos

£24 Extra tank traps for booms

£30 Gel & tape

Total: £296 of £400 budget

Final lighting budget & breakdown (May 21, 2016):  

Lighting Budget_Breakdown - Final

Total: £398.14 of £400 budget

Step 2: Final Set Design & CAD

We lost our set designer shortly after the bid, but that actually didn’t derail the process nearly as much as it could have – since Alison and Alex (producer and production manager) stepped in to fill the gap. I uploaded a blank CAD plan of the O’Reilly to the Google Drive; over the vacation, Alex promptly produced a ground plan, elevations, and various renderings of the set.

Set design as of April 3, 2016 (drawings by Alex Beddall): 






This was lovely, because it meant I could start, very early on, thinking about positions and angles and precise placements – nothing would be finalized without knowledge of the blocking, but as early as April 9th I had the beginnings of a draft CAD, with the lighting grid superimposed over the ground plan, and some options for boom positions inserted.

Step 3: More Creative Meetings

In early Trinity, in addition to our normal production meetings, I met twice with Cai (director) and once with Alice (choreographer) to chat through the show and talk mood, atmosphere, angles, colours, and gobos. Very helpfully, Cai had a clear plan for the blocking from early on, and Alice had finished most of the choreography (and taught it to the dancers, including me) by the end of 0th week.

In the interests of a coherent and cohesive design across all departments, I also tried to share as much as I could (on both the group Facebook and our Google Drive) about what ideas I had for the lighting, and what sort of colours and effects I was thinking about. This, for instance, went up on April 24th, after I’d spent some hours with a Lee swatchbook (borrowed from TAFF) and a Rosco swatchbook (which I’d ordered for myself), thinking about gel colours:

Faustus Colour List V1

We’d got the graphics for marketing up and running over the vac, and as soon as I saw the logo, it occured to me that we could use that as our ‘conjuring pentagram’, by ordering a custom gobo and projecting it onto the floor. I’d done some math (to work out the right size, based on the CAD plan and the beam angle of the Source 4 Zooms), emailed Goboland.UK to spec and price the custom one, and as soon as I could finalize the rest of the gobo order, I placed it – and thanks to some spectacularly fast production and delivery, it arrived on the same day I paid for it. (I’d even chosen the ‘slow’, seven-day production time because of the 40% discount on the price!)

Paid for the morning of May 6, 2016; arrived in my pidge by 1pm the same day:

DSC00218  DSC00210DSC00215

The moon and galaxy exist because Cai wanted astronomy-related gobos: originally, planets, but coloured gobos are expensive (£30-40 rather than £7.20), so I found these instead.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 9.59.49 PM

Step 4: Rig Plan and Cue List

By early third week, I’d been able to talk through the entire show with Cai, and from those notes, I created the first draft of my cue list. At the same time, I’d been working out draft rig plans, and I worked out what was intended to be a major if not final draft. I also ordered gel at the end of 3rd – which might seem a bit early, without a final final rig plan, but I wanted some very specific colours to supplement the existing TAFF collection (I’d gone into the props store in 2nd week and made myself a quick list of the contents at that time!). I had decided to order from White Light in London, and shipping said gel to Oxford would have cost me £6 – but since I was going to London anyways on the Monday of 4th (May 16th), I figured I would just pick it up in person.

Throughout the process of drafting the rig plan, I’d also been working with a program called Lightwright, which is a very clever (if somewhat expensive) way of eliminating a lot of annoying work in Excel. Basically it serves as a database for every fixture in the show – including information like channel, dimmer, gel colour, accessories, wattage, and purpose:

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 8.14.39 PM

So it perhaps sounds like a glorified version of Excel, so far. But it’ll also let you record in detail  the intended (and actual) focus of each fixture. It’ll generate almost any piece of lighting design paperwork you need (channel hookup, colour schedule, instrument schedule, load report for how much power you’re drawing from the dimmers…) Want to know how many fixtures of a given type you’ve used, to make sure you’re still within the theatre’s inventory? Hit a button. Want to double-check that you haven’t accidentally assigned two fixtures to the same dimmer? Hit another button. Generate an exact list of what gel to cut? Another button. And it syncs with your CAD program (most easily with Vectorworks, but it can also share with others): enter information on your rig plan (change a gel colour, repatch a fixture) and it automatically updates in Lightwright. Update something in Lightwright and it automatically updates on your CAD plan.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 8.15.43 PMScreen Shot 2016-05-20 at 8.14.55 PM

In short, it’s clever. Very clever. And it’s designed to produce exactly the sort of paperwork that lighting designers need – which is possibly why it’s used on every single Broadway show currently running. It’s possibly more than a little overkill for an O’Reilly show with only 72 fixtures.

On the other hand, it’s efficient and organized… and I like efficient and organized. Possibly because I am secretly very lazy!

Step 5: Technical Paperwork and Sanity Check

We have a design – lovely. We have hire orders, and gel orders, and gobo orders – also lovely. None of this is any use if it isn’t a design that is actually something that can be implemented given the physical constraints of the theatre.

So, also in 3rd week, I did some more paperwork. One of the challenges of this particular design is the sheer number of floor channels required to implement it – or to put it another way, most of the O’Reilly’s sockets, to plug things into, are on the grid. Aka on the ceiling, six metres up. Not on the floor. There are precisely eight floor channels accessible in the O’Reilly, and precisely twenty-two channels required on the floor according to my rig plan.The design also calls for four fixtures, on booms, on the balcony. There are no sockets, or channels, on the balcony.

Right. Idea number one: run TRS cable from each socket on the grid down to the floor. Problems: Requires far too much TRS, and also would take forever. Idea number two (thanks to the O’Reilly theatre technician, whom I’d consulted over the vac): run socapex cables from the grid to the floor, which would drop six channels per soca cable off of the grid and down to the floor. In other words, let’s run two cables, instead of twelve. (We only have two usable soca cables with breakouts, which means that in order to get to twenty-two channels, I’m still dropping a couple directly with TRS, but it’ll still be much quicker to do 12 channels on soca, 8 from the existing floor channels, and 2 via TRS, than it would be to drop 14 lengths of TRS!)

This means that certain sockets on the grid (the ones that have been dropped to the floor) then won’t work on the grid – aka trying to plug anything into them would be A Bad Idea.

Hence why I spent a fair amount of time during Richard II climbing on a step ladder to stare at the O’Reilly’s grid and write down what sockets on the grid were connected to which soca break-ins: this information is conveniently written on the ceiling of the O’Reilly, but not on the O’Reilly’s grid plan in the theatre manual.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.06.54 PM

The other key pieces of paperwork I drafted in 3rd week were a bar assignments/weights spreadsheet (not because we were putting anything close to the safe working load on any of the flybars, but more because I anticipated having to demonstrate to the O’Reilly theatre technician that we definitely weren’t putting anything close to the safe working load on any of the flybars), and a patch plan, for the O’Reilly hard patch – since the theatre is a curious combination of sockets directly connected to dimmers, and sockets that have to be hard patched.

With my paperwork all (theoretically) assembled, it was definitely time for someone other than me to take a look at it. Ideally, someone other than me who also knew enough about lighting to spot any glaring mistakes.


Otherwise known as a sanity check, which in this case happened in Starbucks, because Sam Littley and I were supposed to be inspecting the TEDx Oxford sign, to finalize a list of parts to order for it, and the meeting to inspect it was – at the very last minute – pushed an hour later. Hence coffee and lighting chat. (Thanks, Sam!)

Step 6: One Week to Load-In

Monday: Pick-up and start cutting gel; count last few things in the O’Reilly to verify that they still exist while helping with Arcadia get-in. Ask Sam to explain the DMX patch in the O’Reilly. Edit rig plan to include more toplight because Sam pointed out that I didn’t have any. Order scroller tape, because Sam also pointed out that there aren’t enough gel frames for all of the codas.


Tuesday: Cut more gel. Label it obsessively. Continue pre-programming show using ETC offline editor. Go to dance rehearsal and film one of the new dances I’m not in so I can work out the precise timing of the lighting changes.  Send in final updates to hire order to Startech.


Wednesday: Meeting with O’Reilly theatre technician to go over plans. (Theatre technician: “This is going to take a while to rig.”) Three-hour dance rehearsal. Film another dance I’m not in. More pre-programming. Try to figure out how to set up and program timecoding in ETC offline software. Keep trying. First four and a half scenes of the show programmed. Yay.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.40.04 PM

Thursday: Make get-in plan. Do some actual academic work. Argue (“debate”?) with the sound designer about OSC. Ask John Evans exactly how to tension the cyclorama properly.

Friday: Do actual academic work. Dance rehearsal for an hour in the evening.

Saturday: Do actual academic work. Check over cue list in preparation for paper tech. Write draft of this blog post. Notice at 10pm, while doing so, that one of my lanterns is plugged into a dimmer that doesn’t exist. Fix this.

Sunday morning: Paper tech. Drink coffee. Help finish the set in the producer’s backyard.


Sunday evening: Show up at Arcadia get-out to help and to cross-rig the flybars.

… and it’s show week. Here’s where I am at the moment – a (hopefully final) copy of all my paperwork is below, and we load the show in tomorrow morning!

Final paperwork:

On Learning Languages (2)


On Learning Languages (2) – Norwegian, Vietnamese, and Arabic?

About a week ago, the technical theatre society in Oxford held a training day at a college theatre with a couple of lighting and sound workshops. The preferred pub happened to be full at lunchtime, so we ended up at a nearby pizza place – all of which would have absolutely no relevance at all to (another) post about languages, except for a very minor if amusing query that came up at the table: what exactly was one of the languages on the bottle of San Pellegrino? I posited Vietnamese; some discussion ensued; it was Googled; it was Vietnamese.

Uncomplicated, and perhaps also uninteresting. Except for the bit where I was asked to explain the train of thought that led to “Vietnamese” … because, first, I don’t speak Vietnamese, have never studied it, have never studied anything closely related to it, and had absolutely no clue what the text on the bottle said. Secondly, explaining how my brain works when it comes to languages is one of those things that could take … a rather long time. I did, very briefly, touch on ‘deciphering languages I don’t actually know’ in my last post on the topic, but didn’t go into any particular detail.

So let’s start with a different, somewhat easier example: Norwegian. I’ve never visited Norway, don’t have any friends who speak the language, and have never formally studied it. It is distantly related to Old Norse – in about the same way that Old English is related to Modern English but they’re not the same language (see this post if that’s confusing).

However, one of my supervisor’s colleagues recently invited me to visit Bergen for a (funded!) conference and study trip in April. Cue the decision that I should probably acquire some Norwegian in the near future. But this is not nearly as hard as it might seem – for illustration purposes, let’s look at the lyrics of (what I think is) a fairly well-known Norwegian song, by Sissel Kyrkjebø. (I don’t know her music, but a Google search for “best Norwegian singers” turned up her name, so here goes)

Å Vestland, Vestland når eg ser deg slik

Med fagre fjell og fjord og tronge vik.

Det stig i all sin venleik stort og vilt

Og atter møter meg so mjukt og mildt.

Og gleda strøymer i meg still og stor

med glans av bjørkeli og blåe fjord

Og i meg sjølv eg kjenner dypter av

den stille skogen og det store hav.

Min lette båt ein solblank kveld eg ror,

sjå fjell og himmel sym på stille fjord

og djupe dalen med sitt grøne fang,

som skin av lauv og blom frå li og vang.

Sjå skuggane som kliv dei kvasse fjell

lik dagsens timar tøyer seg mot kveld

Det sveiper seg om tind og tronge dal

eit draumeslør av sommarnatti sval.

It might seem a startling claim, but I don’t need to have studied any Norwegian to be able to read this. Why? Well, look at the cognates: (obligatory disclaimer: any errors are mine; I have not double-checked the following with a dictionary; that would a) take forever and b) entirely defeat the point of the exercise, which is writing down what immediately comes to mind)

Vestland = West-land (straightforward Old English/modern English; w <=> v are well-known to be interchangeable in related languages; Swedish and Danish only recently introduced “w” into their alphabets; “vestur” = west in modern Icelandic; “vest” in Danish; vestr in Old Norse.)

når = Well, what it immediately reminds me of the Quenya verb for to be (infinitive na / plural nar; there’s also Sindarin naur, which is fire …), but this is not likely to be terribly helpful! So let’s leave it and come back.

eg = I (ek = I in Old Norse; ic in Old English; ik in Gothic; ih in Old High German; ich in Modern German; ég in modern Icelandic; jeg in modern Danish; jag in Swedish)

ser = presumably first person singular form of the verb to see; in Old Norse, the infinitive form of the verb is “sja” (which also appears later in the song), which when conjugated is also “sér”. Danish: “ser”; modern Icelandic: “sé”.

med = with; again, every Germanic/Nordic language ever has a cognate. Earlier ones are with final eth or thorn instead of d – because Verner’s law. The voiced dental fricative then became plosive in most if not quite all Germanic languages. Closest form is actually Old Norse and modern Icelandic með, with. Compare Gothic miþ. The Proto-Germanic form is likely *midi, if I remember correctly, and is distantly related to Ancient Greek μετά (meta), meaning ‘between’ or ‘with’ (metamorphosis, metaphor, metastasis, etc.). English “mid” (midterm, midway, etc.) is our version; German mit (because d => t in a later stage of the Old High German consonant shift). For a word with a similar history of final sound changes, compare Old Norse góðr/modern Icelandic góður, which is English good (final d), and German gut (final t).

deg = you (singular, accusative?). The only trick to this one is to entertain the possibility that Norwegian still has inflected pronouns. “du” / accusative form “dig” is the equivalent in Danish. Also du / dig in Swedish. German du / dich. þu / þec in Old English; þú / þik in Old Norse. (The thorn/eth/d shifts are quite normal – see med, above. The precise form of said letters (and whether certain words are spelled with an eth, a thorn, or a d) is often helpful when trying to date medieval Icelandic manuscripts.)

slik = such, so (slíkr in Old Norse)

fagre = fair, beautiful (Old Norse: fagr; Icelandic fagur – this changing around of the “r” ending is quite normal: “-r” was the masculine singular nominative ending in Old Norse, which has universally become “-ur” in modern Icelandic, since roughly the 14th century, so “-ur” is actually the commonest spelling in many of the riddarasögur for instance)

fjell = mountain(s) – English fell; Danish fjeld; Icelandic fjall; Swedish fjäll (as in the lyrics of the national anthem – “Du fjällhöga nord”). Also part of the name of that Icelandic volcano that none of the reporters could pronounce.

og = and: ok in Old Norse; og in modern Icelandic; Proto-Germanic *auk; thus Old English eac; Old Saxon ok. Old Gutnish oc. Og in Faroese. Modern Swedish och; German auch.

fjord = fjord(s). We’ve got the same word in English; enough said.

og = see above.

tronge = Closest thing I can think of is Old Norse þrǫngr, meaning narrow, which in context of the next word makes sense.

vík = inlet(s), small bay. Old Norse vík (as in Reykjavík and vikingur aka vikings – etymology of the term ‘vikings’ is a matter some debate but the most prevalent explanation is from this word.) vík in modern Icelandic; vík in Faroese (where it can also mean creek, I think); the related Old English word is wīc, meaning camp or dwelling place.

So we have:

O Westland, Westland, (when? given the context) I see you so,

With beautiful mountains and fjords and narrow inlets …

Writing all of that out (and I’m going to stop now, because the idea is hopefully clear) is an excessively, excessively long way of describing what my brain does in fractions of a second, instinctively and automatically, upon reading a text in a language I don’t know, or don’t know very well: try to match words with their counterparts in related languages, using known sound changes and various principles of historical linguistics to help with the process. It doesn’t, in fact, particularly matter what the language in question is – trying to decipher a Portuguese newspaper, for instance, is a similar process, except that instead of constantly referencing English/German/Old English/Old Norse/Icelandic, I’m referencing French/Spanish/Latin/Italian. And when I visited Denmark this past March, I did so never having studied any Danish whatsoever (this situation has clearly improved somewhat – but at the time, I hadn’t even looked up “Thank you” or “Do you speak English” or “Can you give me directions to the Canadian consulate” before getting on the plane.) This was not a problem: like Norwegian, much of Danish is cognate with Icelandic/Old Norse/Old English/German. Cue a virtually identical process of deciphering instructions for getting bus tickets, reading maps and street signs, and making sense of displays at museums.

This, of course, is not an infallible method – “false friends” (as they’re known – words that look similar but have different meanings/etymologies) can easily result in misreadings or misinterpretations. But these tend to be fairly few and far between, and often identifiable by context.

This does make learning vocabulary in a new language much easier. And it can help with the really annoying problem of having to memorize all the genders of various nouns in languages that have grammatical gender – while this doesn’t really work for French and German, say, it does work for more closely related languages, like Swedish/Icelandic – if a word is declined as feminine in Icelandic, it’s more likely to be feminine in Swedish as well. Particularly if it was also feminine in Old Norse.

This process of making connections – tracing how words (and their definitions) and languages have changed and diverged over time – was the single most enjoyable part of the spelling competitions, and the keystone of my studying strategy: I didn’t need to have ever heard of the words weltschmerz or scherenschnitte in order to spell them correctly. Or foliiform, or skeuomorph, or dephlogisticate, or mahimahi. I just needed to know enough about the phonology and morphology of the relevant languages that English has borrowed from, and/or enough word roots.

That attraction hasn’t ever managed to disappear – though, ten years later, it has taken ever-more-amusing twists and turns along the way. The summer before I came to Oxford, to go on a slight tangent for a moment, I worked a slightly silly number of jobs (lifeguard, LX crew with IATSE, standardized test (SAT) course instructor, background in a series of films, filming a show for CBC …), frequently clocking 60-70 hours a week in a quest to earn money for Oxford. The first job on that list, lifeguard, was for an outdoor apartment pool in Ottawa’s south end. We had patrons who spoke a variety of languages other than English (French, Spanish, and Arabic were the most common), and once they learned that I studied languages, this led to much enthusiasm (on their part) and many opportunities to practice (on my part).

The most fascinating linguistic acquaintance I made that summer, however, was not in fact a patron, but the guy in charge of maintenance, who came in for about twenty minutes every morning to clean. He was originally from Algeria; his first language was Arabic, second French, and English a distant third. French thus became the natural lingua franca, as the language that we could both converse in comfortably.

And then he decided to start teaching me basic Arabic. Still with French as the language of communication.

This was both ridiculously fun and required much mental gymnastics on my part – Arabic was and is still the only language that I’ve tried to learn with reference to a language other than English. I would get words and phrases in Arabic … translated into French. Arabic grammar and writing were explained … in French. And while my French is not too shabby (re: pretending to be a francophone student for calculus/theatre history/etc. courses at the University of Ottawa), it was the first time I’d tried to use it in that way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Arabic is still not much better than nonexistent – limited to the sort of phrases you’d probably find on the first two pages of a ‘basics for tourists’ book. But the process of trying to learn a language without any reference to English – and building connections in my brain between languages without using English as an intermediary – that I would like to keep working on.


Back to Vietnamese and San Pellegrino bottles, with that background.

The list of languages I have dabbled in – not necessarily speak; dabbled is the operative word here; enough to at least say hello and goodbye, sing a national anthem, know some basic grammar, or count to twenty, say – is long and perpetually growing. English. French. Old French. Spanish. Italian. German. Old High German. Gothic. Old Irish. Old West Norse. Old East Norse. Old Saxon. Modern Icelandic. Welsh. Finnish. Quenya. Sindarin. Esperanto. Swedish. Danish. Russian. Arabic. Mandarin. Japanese. Korean. Latin. Classical Greek. Modern Greek. Akkadian. Maori. Old Frisian. Armenian.

There’s clearly an even longer list, though, of languages that I have not studied in and of themselves, but that I have encountered in passing, either as part of preparations for the spelling bee, or because they happen to be related to something else that I do study in a linguistically interesting way: Norwegian. Hawaiian. Cree. Wyandot. Afrikaans. Faroese. Portuguese. Maltese. Polish. Hebrew. Romanian. Swahili. Old Gutnish. Dutch. Sanskrit. Mi’kmaq.

… and at this point, it becomes obvious that – with a few notable exceptions – we’ve also managed to cover almost every major language family and almost every major region of the world.

So when I encounter a language that I don’t immediately recognize, there are a limited number of possibilities. If it’s definitely a modern language currently spoken somewhere in the world by a reasonably large number of speakers, there are also then a pretty limited number of possible locations. If it’s also not obviously related to any language I recognize, i.e. doesn’t appear to have cognates in or any of a long list of possible parallels with any of the languages I’m familiar with, that eliminates most of the world.

… and then all that is required is for me to remember reading passages in an AP World History textbook with similar (phonologically speaking) words and names (or similar words/names in a Neal Stephenson novel …), and Vietnamese – or something closely related to it – seems like the most likely option.

Simple as that.

(But not also something I could explain in sixty seconds in a pizza parlour!)

Summer Escapades


If this summer has had a theme, it must be something along the lines of “Do Epic Things.” I may not have gotten a lot of work done in the last month and a half (and will be making up for it by spending all of September in the library), but had you described my recent adventures to my undergraduate self, I would probably have dismissed them as utterly impossible, or a work of complete fiction. So living in the library for the bulk of September seems like a more than fair trade-off. Here’s what I’ve been up to for the last couple of months:


This happened even before summer officially started – one of the decided perks of being a doctoral student is that it’s still possible to travel during term time. An old friend was travelling around Europe, so before she returned to Canada we arranged to meet up in Paris, get a train to Figeac, and then spend several days walking part of the French Camino. We’ve done quite a few backpacking and/or whitewater trips together before, though on this occasion we could have done with carrying much less stuff: we’d both packed for “Canadian-backcountry-style” trip, and promptly discovered that a) it was really hot all the time and b) there were picturesque villages every few kilometres, so we certainly didn’t need to be carrying tons of dehydrated food when stopping at a bakery or village store was always an option! Nonetheless, a very good time was had – and I can now attest that French cuisine is excellent. (There may have been much cheese, baked goods, sausage, and wine involved.)

80 Days, Part 1

Sourcing props and fixing up the last few set pieces for the Oxford performances of Around the World in 80 Days in the St. John’s College gardens in mid-July: thanks to Bear and Company/Company of Fools/Salamander Shakespeare/etc., I’ve come to love theatre in parks, and this was the first set of outdoor performances I’d worked on in Oxford. My official job title was “Production Manager” for what was one of two Oxford University Drama Society National Tours: in practice, this meant finding, buying, and organizing props, writing risk assessments, supervising a few fight calls, keeping track of what was happening with the set construction, occasionally liasing with venue crew, drawing up a lighting cue sheet, and operating the lighting (in those venues that required it – not in the gardens).

Buxton (80 Days, Part 2)

Heading up to Buxton (helpfully surrounded by the Peak District National Park) for our three-day run at the Buxton Fringe Festival: we were lodged in an absolutely gorgeous holiday house (“The Old Stables”), and amidst organizing and operating the lights, I also managed to a) find a topographical map and do some hiking and b) see a few other shows. This was the company’s first crack at the Fringe style of tech and get-ins: we had only two hours in the space to sort lights, fight calls, blocking, and rigging before the first show, and then only five minutes to get the set in and out each day. Turns out that if you’re organized, this is actually not that hard – we managed to plot all of the lighting cues in about fifteen minutes flat, did a cue-to-cue, and still had time left over. (By “we”, I mean the venue technician – I may have prepared the cue sheet, but I certainly didn’t program the JesterML…) We managed to snag both the “Best Theatre Production” award and the “Best Actor (Female)” award for the show, and all things considered, it was a great test run for Edinburgh.

Back to Oxford

…for two weeks to do some work, but also to pack up everything and move it into storage: between July 25th and Sept. 2nd, I lived out of a backpack.


The first stop on the epic travelling circuit was Coventry and the University of Warwick, where the Association of British Theatre Technicians ran a workshop on pyro. After much instruction on safety, procedures, technical details, and so forth, the grand finale involved creating a version of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCFNHThno8A  (not my video – from someone else who did the same course with JustFX a few years ago) Perhaps needless to say, this was a ridiculous amount of fun, and also very thorough training.


I didn’t technically need to be in Iceland until the 31st, but there was little point in going back to Oxford, so I simply took a train to Manchester and flew directly to Reykjavík. My flight was delayed by about four hours, but given that a) they handed out refreshment vouchers and b) I had a notebook with me, this was not much of a hardship. (I spent most of the time sketching costume designs for another upcoming production!) Upon finally arriving in Reykjavík, I quickly settled into the local campground. My supervisor had strongly recommended the Summer School for Manuscript Studies at the Árni Magnússon Institute, and when I had looked at budgeting for it, I had determined that the college and English Faculty were unlikely to cover the full cost: while the course itself has no tuition fee, flying to Iceland was expensive, and staying in a hotel or even a hostel for 8-10 days was even more so. (An entirely accurate assessment, as it turned out – I was able to get the airfare covered, though not accommodation costs). But Reykjavík has a lovely campsite, and I do own a tent … In short, I managed to pay about a fourth of the cost of staying in a hostel, and had a grand time. The weather was comparable to camping in the Canadian Rockies at altitude or in the Yukon/Alaska at the same time of year, which meant that my gear was entirely appropriate.

Before the course started, I acquired a topo map and took a bus out to Landmannalaugur, in the interior, to do some proper hiking (I confess, I hadn’t done my research on which trails were really good, so it did become a matter of “Look for the direction with the most snow. Pick a likely-looking mountain. Climb it.”) I completed a few trails in the area, visited the hot springs, and also did a fair amount of off-trail scrambling. Without waxing too poetic about it, I shall simply say that the whole time was glorious: while still having its own distinctive character, the landscape strongly reminded me of the Rockies, and it was so refreshing to be back in a country where snow is a thing and climbing mountains results in magnificent glacier-filled vistas (and climbing said mountains does in fact require climbing!) England is lovely, but I did miss winter entirely this year, and “backcountry” hiking doesn’t exist as far as I can tell – you’re never so remote that a cell phone or sat phone won’t work, or that it would take a few days to walk out of the bush.

Iceland, on the other hand, provided you’ve got the experience and gear for it, is a backpacker’s dream. And I absolutely love solo hiking trips in the mountains – you do, inevitably, have to field the question “You went alone?” from random strangers who think it is their business (twice, on this particular occasion), and it does require a bit more planning – since there’s no one to rescue you if something goes wrong – but it’s immensely rewarding and refreshing.

This was followed by a full seven days of studying palaeography and codicology and editing practices (and yes, transcribing and then translating actual manuscripts from the Arnamagnæan collection!) Workshops on dating manuscripts through analysis of orthographical and phonological changes were a favourite, as were the classes on parchment-making, scribal errors and emendations, and expanding the omnipresent abbreviations. Or, to put it simply, turning this into something more accessible to the average reader:fornjotr

There were also a number of organized excursions – free trips to various museums and exhibitions, and a bus trip around the Reykjanes peninsula that included visiting an archaeological dig, several hot springs and geysers, an Icelandic outdoor swimming pool, and numerous other scenic locations (usually with some literary significance!) along the coastline.

I may have also spent a great deal of time in the University of Iceland’s bookstore (and a few other bookstores around the city …)

Edinburgh (80 Days, Part 3)

For the remainder of August, I was officially ‘on holiday’ (inasmuch as my supervisor was not expecting me to do work on the dissertation – unlike in July, September, and the beginning of August in Iceland), and by ‘holiday’ I mean I spent three and a half weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, working on Around the World in 80 Days and The Tour, a new musical by a currently London-based but originally Canadian company that hired me to operate sound and lights for them. Because these were at two separate venues, run by two separate companies (the former at C South, operated by C Venues, and the latter at theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall), I also acquired two venue passes – which meant that I could see any shows at any of TheSpace’s or C’s many locations for free.

Translation: with only two shows a day to op sound/lights, I saw a lot of productions in the rest of my time. A quick sampling of (some of!) the theatre, dance, and music performances that I’ve had the chance to see in the last few weeks:

The Improv Musical. A different show every night, based on suggestions from the audience; ours involved a football team, a campsite, and a very lost pizza guy …

Zorro the Musical. This is probably one of my favourites overall: the ensemble work was so slick, and the costumes and set and projection and dance and fight choreography were all fantastic. Mixing admittedly needed serious work.

Transitions of (I)dentity. A lovely contemporary ballet set to Vivaldi’s music. Gorgeous and highly accomplished dancers.

It’s a Woman’s War. I was looking for something to fill an hour before another show, and ended up at this one – it’s the story of five wives left at home during WWII. At times highly compelling and poignant; at times marred by clumsy acting or less-than-subtle writing.

Terry Pratchett’s Eric. When I heard that this was a thing, I had to go and see it. So funny. So well acted. So much running away (and not looking back, of course! That’s the first rule of running away …). Also: THE LUGGAGE IS REAL!!!

The Emperor of America. Fabulous fiddle player with proper band! (Yes, they all kept switching instruments.) Fabulous dancers! Fabulous Lecoq-trained actors! Mark Twain as a main character! You get the idea – this was a good show.

Sweeney Todd. Oxford technicians talk about this show so much that it was becoming a bit silly that I’d never seen a production of it live.

Sushi Tap Show 2. Pure silliness, but pure silliness by a team of talented dancers with excellent comic timing.

Thrones! The Musical. If I hadn’t read or watched Game of Thrones, the majority of the jokes would have made no sense at all. But for someone thoroughly up on fantasy tv (and literature), this is hilarious. An outstanding parody of a series that had it coming.

Little Red Cap. Little Red Riding Hood meets the insane asylum, and the fairy tale gets an even darker twist. Whoever created the wolf costume deserves a prize.

The Accidental Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. For a longtime Sherlock Holmes fan, this was a sheer delight. Holmes accidentally and unwittingly kills a client? And then attempts to solve the mystery of their death? Madcap adventures and many, many plot twists ensue, and the denouement is as fitting as it is funny.

Blood Red Moon (The Frontier Trilogy: Part I). In which a blank firing gun was fired about three feet from me. (No, they didn’t flout any safety regulations – I may have been startled, but it had clearly been thoroughly thought out.) Brilliant use of the venue, as a small team of highly talented actors tell this story of two brothers looking to strike it rich on their claim in California at the height of the gold rush.

Picasso Stole the Mona Lisa. With Apollinaire and Picasso as the main characters, and cameos from Joyce, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, this was impossible not to like. Showed many signs of being a student production, but still very funny. Very very silly French accents.

The Canterbury Tales. I am normally very skeptical of modern-day versions of medieval tales. This was not bad – creative set and costumes, well-structured, and some highly commendable performances.

The Mabinogion (Part 1). They were saddled with perhaps the most basic lighting rig I have yet seen at a Fringe venue (which is saying something!), a tiny stage, and a student budget, but this was nonetheless a good adaptation. I would have tweaked more than a few things about the broadsword fights, but they beat any of Oxford’s attempts hands down. Bilingual adaptation (so, yes, Welsh!) that did a great job of highlighting Branwen’s tragedy in particular.

Citizen Puppet. In which the puppets who lived in the town around the beanstalk that Jack cut down attempt to deal with their loss – by producing a piece of verbatim theatre about the event. Possibly the strangest premise ever, but very well executed.

The Bastard Queen. Dark, sometimes funny, but mostly just dark.

Showstopper: The Improvised Musical. The masters of improvisation. Live band? Check. Improvised dance routines? Check. Coherent plot and character development while dealing with the wildest of suggestions from the audience? Check. Spoof of Christine’s incredibly high notes in Phantom? Check. (In fact, they’re sufficiently outstanding that they’re transferring to the West End for a ten-week run at the Apollo.)

One Fine Day. A two-part dance show by a Korean group: I felt the first section (a duet) was the stronger of the two, but overall thoroughly enjoyable.

La Meute (The Wolf Pack). I’m going to quote a friend who also saw it: “Well, it’s rare that I’m worried about the performers hitting the lights …” (And for clarification’s sake, this was in a circus tent with a high ceiling – if I had to guess, I’d say height to the truss was >10m). Bold, cheeky, adventurous, and highly skilled acrobats.

4×4 Ephemeral Architectures. Ballet + juggling? Surprising premise, brilliant execution. Also, while they could have done a very straightforward “four jugglers, four ballet dancers” cast; I was quite happy to see that they didn’t. Yes, the jugglers can dance. And the ballet dancers can juggle. Lovely work on the lighting design as well.

Rent. Great cast, and great reworking of the set to fit into a Fringe-sized space. The actress playing Maureen was stellar: in most versions I’ve seen, it’s been impossible to take Maureen at all seriously as an artist or entertainer, but not in this case. A strong dancer as well as a singer, she provided a unique take on “Over the Moon” that was impressive indeed. My only critique would be of the levels; mixing was not great, especially in the large group numbers.

Blam! So when I talk about skilled stunt and stage combat performers, this is a good example of what I mean. Four office workers alleviate boredom by pretending to be superheroes (and villains), and killing each other repeatedly. Puppetry, brilliant use of found weapons, and such close integration of set pieces and movement … this was fun.

– Also Jekyll, The Maids, Pippin, In the Pink, The Mercenary Fiddler, Hansel and Gretel, The Mechanisms, Balletronic, Tubular Bells for Two, The Society of Strange, Waking Beauty, Dogfight, Showstopper: The Improvised Musical (again)etc. And of course Around the World in 80 Days and The Tour more times than I care to count.


After all of that excitement, it was back to Oxford on September 1st, where I’ve moved into my new room in The Mansion (yup, that’s actually part of the official address), run by the university’s graduate accommodation office. The last three days have been spent moving in, shopping for a few essentials (a bike!), and filling out the annual reams of paperwork required for various funding bodies and government organizations to deposit money into my bank account. I’ve officially taken up my new position as the Communications Officer for graduate students at the English Faculty, and also have a fair amount of writing to do, as my supervisor is expecting another 10,000 words or so by the beginning of term.

And on that note, I am going to head back to working on that dissertation, since that is definitely more productive than writing overly-long blog posts …

England’s Eccentricities

Well, I’ve been here for just over six months – two full terms – so I thought it might be time for a firmly tongue-in-cheek list of some of the local eccentricities: though Canada and the UK are, by and large, very similar indeed (and far more similar than, say, the US and the UK), there are lots of little differences.

I am aware that this list should, perhaps, be entitled “Oxford’s Eccentricities” – since I have arguably not seen enough of the rest of the UK to be able to generalize – but then I’d lose the assonance from the title, so … without further ado:

  1. It is impossible to buy a box of Kraft Dinner (or at least, I have not found a store that sells it yet).
  2. “Rocket” is a green leafy vegetable, not a spacecraft
  3. “Prawns” are related to shrimp, but you can get them in sandwiches
  4. We stopped, not once but twice, during the strike of Assassins, for tea and cookies (er, pardon me, biscuits)
  5. It’s not called a strike, but a get-out
  6. Food is not ordered “to go”, but “for take away”
  7. Walking into a coffee shop does not mean that you can purchase a coffee: the options tend to be espresso, espresso diluted with water (“Americano”), lattes, tea, and hot chocolate
  8. “So you’re American?” is the default response upon hearing my accent
  9. “Iced tea” and “cider” are both alcoholic here: so much for my go-to non-alcoholic choices whenever I am somehow dragged to a pub
  10. Speaking of pubs, every single academic / social event seems to involve going to one: yes, “Beer and Beowulf” is an academic reading group, led by several highly respected professors. I suspect I have been to a pub more times in the last two terms than in the entirety of my undergraduate degree.
  11. “The pigeon post” = Oxford’s internal mail system. So official communications from college do indeed arrive via pigeon post.
  12. Dorset Flapjacks have nothing to do with flapjacks, but make for a fabulous camping snack
  13. A flashlight is a “torch”, and I’m not yet sure what the word for a torch is …
  14. Sweet popcorn is apparently a thing?? A fairly large number of stores only stock “sweet” or “sweet and salty” – and not ordinary (salted) popcorn.
  15. 5 degrees Celsius is “so cold”
  16. There is not nearly as much rain as I was expecting
  17. “The hols” is a legitimate phrase that my fellow students use, not just a quaint archaism in novels about upper class boarding schools
  18. Apparently pharmacies are only allowed to sell you two (small) packs of ibuprofen tablets at a time
  19. November to March feels like September. April feels like July.
  20. Apparently there are no thunderstorms in spring
  21. Finding an ordinary pair of plain, black, women’s running shoes (not called “running shoes” here) required two weeks of searching and a trip to London, despite every store in downtown Oxford stocking no shortage of black heels, pumps, ballet flats, and other shoes totally inappropriate for actually walking. (Of course they also stock plain black men’s running shoes … )
  22. Signing off text message conversations with “x” or “xx” is not restricted to overexcited teenage girls
  23. The stage manager doesn’t get to call the show
  24. The DSM, who calls the show, doesn’t apparently get to do much else
  25. I am apparently eligible – and now registered – to vote, despite a) not being a UK citizen, and b) knowing only ever so slightly more than nothing about both UK and EU politics. Serious research required. (Speaking of politics: apparently “immigration” is a major and controversial political issue, and “immigrants” are a serious problem to be dealt with. Whatever happened to multiculturalism?)
  26. I am also allowed to drive. And eligible to transfer my Canadian license to a full UK one. Given that driving on the right side of the road is obviously not a thing, this is mildly terrifying.
  27. By dint of much effort, I have thus far managed not to say “pants” in reference to “trousers”, though I am sure I will mess it up eventually
  28. I can use a “spanner”, “snips”, and a “driver”, but would never have referred to them by those words
  29. In a country that still teaches Greek and Latin in a substantial number of schools, how did the “tallescope” ever get that name?
  30. The theatre industry in Canada operates in imperial, despite the rest of the country officially using metric. The theatre industry in the UK appears to operate half in imperial and half in metric, despite the rest of the country officially using metric. This is both more work and potentially more confusing.
  31. Biking in pencil skirts and heels (or ballet flats, or flip flops) has become no less impractical than it was in November, despite the increasing number of people doing it

Still Alive and Organized

Things that happened this past term:

– Designed set for a show

– Designed costumes for a show

– Assistant lighting designer for a show

– Fight directed two shows

– Stage managed two shows (overlap with shows already mentioned)

– Participated in the bidding process for four shows (all successful)

– Launched website for the Oxford Research in English graduate journal

– Attended more (free) workshops on website design & coding, courtesy of IT services and the Humanities Division

– Researched & wrote 10,000-word paper for Transfer of Status

– Researched & wrote 1,000-word thesis proposal / outline / chapter breakdown for Transfer of Status

– Revised 5,000-word MA paper

– Presented aforementioned paper at conference in Denmark

– “Vacation”: an extra day and a half to tour museums and attractions in Aarhus after the conference

– Submitted (successfully) two applications for conference funding

– Wrote & submitted two more abstracts

– Part-time job #1 (notetaker)

– Part-time job #2 (research assistant)

For anyone who is worried about my sanity, or my academics, I submit that both my final year of high school and my middle year of undergrad were significantly busier than this, and I did survive both of the above. And however unlikely this may sound, I did also sleep, eat, and socialize in the last ten weeks!

(I did not, alas, have time to write blog posts … sorry. Something did have to go.)

As is perhaps clear, “busy” seems to be my natural state: I really don’t like being bored, and my response to having time on my hands is to promptly find a way to fill it doing as many interesting (read: challenging) things as possible.

I am also, apparently, completely unable to pick just one field on which to focus my time, energy, and attention. The “about me” section of my Facebook page for the past several years has read “Medieval Literature. Theoretical physics. Theatre.” – five words that fairly succinctly sum up the problem I faced in high school, and through undergrad, and through my MA, and of course now while working on the DPhil: finding a single career that combines all of my main interests seems to be utterly impossible.

I had no particularly good career- or degree- related reason, for instance, for showing up at seminars in Toronto on semi-simple Lie algebras. Or for attending the physics department’s research colloquium pretty much every week. (Yes, said talks did provide the material for several articles later published by the student newspaper, for which I was a writer & copyeditor, but that was not preplanned! And to be fair, the math seminars did also feed into the writing of my term paper for the literary theory class for my MA in English. Literary theory is not usually my cup of tea, but in this case I had the slightly wild idea of analyzing Saussure’s and Derrida’s use of mathematical terms and metaphors in relation to the actual math. I have to say that dragging topology and complex analysis into an English essay resulted in a much more entertaining writing process!)

Nor can I particularly justify the purchase of the particle physics textbook that I picked up from Blackwell’s as a Christmas present, nor the amount of time that I spend reading the Journal of Mathematical Physics, nor the time spent (figuratively) banging my head against the computer while trying to make sense of p-adic Hodge theory.

The amount of time I’ve spent working on theatre this term, meanwhile, can only be justified if you consider that while the post-DPhil Plan A might currently be to get a tenure-track job in academia, Plan B does involve a combination of theatre and part-time teaching, and thus taking advantage of the opportunities in Oxford to get more experience in all things tech-theatre-related is indeed relevant. But five shows in eight weeks? Surely this is a little bit excessive …

Well, yes. And no.

The problem, ultimately, is that I have spent years reenacting variations on the following pattern: a) I decide to do X, Y, and/or Z. b) My friends, parents, teachers, mentors, etc. think I’m crazy and/or that it’s impossible. c) I ignore them and do X, Y, and Z successfully anyways.

It took, in fact, my graduation from undergrad with the highest average in any year in my department, for my mother to finally concede that maybe I was in fact capable of balancing academics and theatre successfully. (The previous three years had been a fairly steady stream of “you’re taking on too much; it’ll affect your marks; you’re sacrificing future academic opportunities”, despite all evidence to the contrary.)

So, while it could undoubtedly be criticized as at least somewhat arrogant, my default, and usually accurate, assumption is that what I can get done – or learn – in a given amount of time is almost always far more than anyone else is willing to believe that I can.

This is largely due to a sometimes obsessive tendency towards organization and micro-managing my schedule weeks or months in advance. Combine this with a serious anti-procrastination streak, and this explains why my Grade 12 Biology summative assignment was done by the end of March Break when it was due in June, or why my calendar for the last months of my MA literally had a specific number of hours assigned to each essay, with how many words should be written by what time, or why three shows and three exams in forty-eight hours resulted in the highest semester average of my entire degree – because I’d planned and studied so thoroughly in advance.

It’s also due to the problem noted at the beginning of this post: I’m at my best when challenged, and that leads to pushing my own limits as far as they will reasonably go – which, when the level of hyper-organization and pre-planning I’ll bring to bear just increases and increases with an increased workload – can be quite far.

But from previous experience hitting those limits, I’d like to think that I’ve got a decent sense of just how far I can push before the increased organization can’t compensate anymore. And while this term came pretty close – and getting sick for three weeks in the middle of it certainly didn’t help – I will be doing it again. Because, well, would I get more done if I just focused on one thing? Maybe. Probably. Would I be any happier? Definitely not – in fact, I suspect I’d be pretty miserable. (Besides, I’m already signed up to design lighting for a show this coming term. Possibly the most exciting challenge in quite a while!)

Bottom line: when I say that the semester was “busy” – that’s a good thing. And I’m still not insane, still not swamped, still not altering space-time or otherwise subverting the laws of physics … just doing lots of things that I love, all at the same time.

Where’s My Basement When I Need It?


Down in my parents’ basement, beside the ever-growing selection of camping and canoeing gear, there is a large series of wooden shelves that line one wall of the den. From floor to ceiling, these shelves are the location of the assorted fabric, notions, craft supplies, and woodworking supplies that my mother (with some help from my sister and I!) has accumulated over the last twenty-odd years. It’s somewhat of a combination of a costume shop and a hardware store: if you need a screwdriver, bit, nail, screw, hammer, length of wire, pliers, wrench, or tape measure, it’s in a (messy) box on these shelves; if you need a needle, button, zipper, length of lace, crochet hook, knitting needle, or pattern, it’s also in a (similarly messy) box on these shelves. And where there are no boxes, there are piles and piles of fabric: white chiffon, cream fleece, grey and red suede, navy blue (and white and green and red and black) broadcloth, deep purple satin, bright blue lycra … We’ve never made an inventory of everything on those shelves, and – since it’s basically the remnants of the last couple decades’ sewing projects – it changes regularly, but the first step in any sewing or costuming project I’ve done in the last eight years has inevitably started with “Let’s look in the basement.”

(And if you need a circuit board, motors, LEDs, diodes, resistors, capacitors, amplifiers, piezo transducers, light bulbs, switches, battery holders, buzzers, or microphones, those are also in the basement. Admittedly in a different room and on a different – but still messy – shelf. If you want the router, the table saw, or enough space to construct anything, you do have to move to the garage, where the workbench lives.)

Antony and Cleopatra is a good example: when the costume designer dropped out about ten days before the show, leaving absolutely nothing done, the stage manager and I got to pick up the slack, for the simple reason tbat the two of us both knew how to sew.

Toronto being much closer to Ottawa than Oxford is, the first thing I did was hop on a bus and make a quick trip home, with a lengthy list in hand: we needed navy blue, green, gold, and red fabric (check), appropriate colours of thread (check), black and grey cloaks (check), corsets (check), shawls (check), skirts (check), dresses (check), and gold costume jewelry (check). (This was when not having very many lines/scenes became a really good thing: during run-throughs and tech, I spent most of the time in a corner with the sewing machine, popped onstage long enough to say “Hail, Caesar, and my lord! Hail, most dear Caesar …” – and then promptly returned to producing colour-coded army tunics.) The round-trip bus fare – which the production subsidized – was a tiny fraction of the value of the stuff that promptly arrived in Toronto.

Another example: several years ago (age fourteen, I think), I was supposed to play the violin at a funeral, and managed to realize the morning of that I didn’t have any black clothes that still fit. Neither of my parents were at home, which effectively – at the time – ruled out “driving to a store and buying a dress”.

But why panic? There was black fabric and thread in the basement – there’s fabric and thread of pretty much any colour in the basement – and a sewing machine. (To be precise, three sewing machines …) There was even a black zipper of the right length in the notions box. So, four hours later, le voila! Black, stretch velvet, princess-seamed, ankle-length performance dress:


(I still have it and it still fits; one of the advantages of not having changed size since the beginning of high school.)

In short: I’ve been thoroughly spoiled, because whenever things hit the fan, and I or a production desperately needed item X (usually with a budget of $0), I could usually walk down to the basement and – with some creativity, and some improvisation – find either something that would do, or something that would let me create item X within a few hours.

And there’s a part of my brain that still problem-solves as though I have access to that. Need radio for a show? Well, the components to build a functioning one (very useful for getting the news when the power goes out for a week after a snow- or ice-storm) are all in the basement … on the other side of the Atlantic … Need brains for a show? Well, there’s appropriately coloured plasticine and modelling clay (and even a potter’s wheel) in the basement … on the other side of the Atlantic …

This is of course not an insoluble problem; it is possible to go out and buy said materials without too much difficulty. It just takes longer than walking down to the basement and pulling things out of a box, and it actually costs money.

… of course, it’s also more time-consuming to buy things, since in the last few years, one of the largest mall complexes in Ottawa was built on the fields formerly across the street from my house. This conveniently included Home Depot, Future Shop, The Source (Radioshack successor), Canadian Tire, Walmart, Staples, Bulk Barn, Mark’s Work Warehouse, and several gaming & sports stores. So need 6’ long wooden dowel to make a spear in Ottawa? Walk across the street. Need 6’ long wooden dowel to make a spear in Oxford? Embark on epic search to find a store that actually sells lumber, then walk thirty minutes to get there.


Costuming for my first-ever Oxford production has thus been rather enlightening. In true Oxford fashion, the costume budget was nowhere near zero, though also in true Oxford fashion, the prices for fabric are quite a bit higher here. (Fabric that I would pay $2.50 a yard for in the US does cost £2.50 a metre in the UK, even after running through all of my usual tricks for getting inexpensive fabric. Not how exchange rates are supposed to work! If shipping costs were not so exorbitant, I would absolutely start ordering from the US…)

And while I certainly have created my own patterns from scratch before, it’s rarely been necessary: between my own pattern collection, my mother’s pattern collection, my grandmothers’ pattern collections, and the existing costume collection, there’s usually something in the basement that can be used as a basic template (and then adapted – sometimes radically – to get the desired look). So the task of recreating patterns for period dresses, a corset, nightgowns, shirts, collars, trousers, vests, and so forth was certainly an entertaining one.



I was, ultimately, fairly happy with the results – though I would have been even happier if I’d managed to spend less of the production’s money (my version of what constitutes a lot of money is still calibrated for Ottawa, rather than Oxford!), and if I’d gotten measurements from the cast much earlier – last-minute feats of speed-sewing are, while doable, hardly ideal.

I certainly do begin to understand why costumes are, in so many recent Oxford productions I’ve seen, stripped to the bare minimum, or consist almost entirely of items the cast already own: the time required to either source or make period-appropriate costumes, or specialized costumes consistent with an overall design, is somewhat inconsistent with a system that has not entirely learned how to plan (or to make firm creative decisions) months or weeks in advance.


Oh, well. At least I now have a new collection of leftover thread (and buttons, and a few other things) … it did come in handy for sewing, of all things, velcro onto curtains for another production this term. And I suspect that – while it will clearly be capped by the amount of space available in my room! – the more extra notions and random sewing stuff I accumulate on this side of the pond, the easier I will find any future costuming projects.

(Though it will also, inevitably, make moving an … interesting … challenge … the number of books in my room has already provided some incentive for moving as infrequently as possible during my time in Oxford; the sewing machine and assorted accessories are going to add significantly to that!)

What is Old English?


When I tell people that I study Old English, the single most common reply is the following: “So, like, Shakespeare?” (Or, occasionally: “So, Chaucer?”) This is perhaps understandable to a certain degree: for anyone from Canada who didn’t study English after high school, the oldest English text they’ve read was probably one of a short list of Shakespeare’s plays prescribed by the public school curriculum.

It’s also totally erroneous: Shakespeare is Modern English, and the simplest way to explain this is with an example or two.

Here is a short excerpt of Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV, part 1: the scene is the prelude to a duel between Prince Henry (the future Henry V) and Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, who is leading a rebellion against the crown.

This is the text in Old English prose (my translation – leaving personal names intact):



Gif ic ne bēo bedroren, þū eart Harry Monmouth.


þū sprecst, swelċe ic wille mīn naman ætsacan.


Mīn nama bið Harry Percy.


Hwæt! þa ic sceāwige

wiþfeohtend ārhwætne mid þām naman.

iċ eom ætheling Brytenlandes; ond ne tale, Percy,

nu in mīn æsctīras efngedǣlan.

swā twēġen steorran in anum hwyrft ne magon belīfan,

swā Albion ne mæġ habban cyningas twēġen:

ǣġðer Harry Percy, ġe ætheling Brytenlandes.


I’m pretty sure that Ontario high school students would be less than thrilled if that was assigned as required reading! Now, Shakespeare’s version, c. 1597:



If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.


Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.


My name is Harry Percy.


Why, then I see

A very valiant rebel of the name.

I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,

To share with me in glory any more:

Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;

Nor can one England brook a double reign,

Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.


One of these is intelligible to the average native English speaker; the other … not so much! While Old English is still recognizably related to the language we speak today (“gif” as the predecessor of “if”, “nama” as the predecessor of “name”, and “þū eart” as the predecessor of “thou art”, which is now admittedly archaic), the grammar, vocabulary, and spelling have shifted significantly – signficantly enough that you can’t really sit down and read Old English texts without learning a new language.

The opening lines of the only Old English poem anyone has usually heard of – Beowulf – should suffice to demonstrate this:

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,

monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,

egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð

feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad,

weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,

oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,

gomban gyldan.         þæt wæs god cyning!


Aside from “we” and “in” and “oft” – which still retain basically the same senses in modern English – and the last sentence (þæt wæs god cyning! = “that was (a) good king!”), most of this is not even close to something that would be comprehensible today.

So we’ve gone back way before Shakespeare. More than five hundred years before, in fact, and to a time when “England” as a country did not even exist – when scholars talk about “Old English” or “Anglo-Saxon”, they’re referring to the language spoken by the Germanic tribes who conquered and then settled the land that would become England, in the period from about 500 to 1066 C.E. “Middle English” refers to the period immediately after the Norman Conquest, from about 1066 to 1450. Middle English is the English of Chaucer – “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote” is a little bit more intelligible than “Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum”, but it’s still quite difficult to read. And finally, by the time we get to the Renaissance (and Shakespeare), we’re firmly in the realm of Modern English.

(To put those dates in perspective, there’s still more time between the end of the Old English period and Shakespeare than there is separating Shakespeare and the speaker of modern English today.)

It’s not surprising, then, that in the course of fifteen hundred years, the language has undergone some significant changes – including some changes that can make Old English a bit of a headache for those used to the modern version:


  1. Like Latin, and modern French, German, Spanish, and Icelandic, Old English nouns have grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter).
  1. Like Latin, Old Norse, and German, Old English is an inflected language: meaning is created not through word order, but through little suffixes attached to the end of words, which tell you whether the word in question is the subject, object, verb, indirect object, etc. of the sentence. For example, in my translation of Henry IV, above, the word “nama” (name) appears with a couple of different endings. In Hotspur’s line, “Mīn nama bið Harry Percy” [My name is Harry Percy], “nama” is in the nominative (subject) case and thus has no ending. But in Prince Henry’s line immediately before, “þū sprecst, swelċe ic wille mīn naman ætsacan” [Thou speak’st as though I would deny my name], “naman” is the object of the verb, and thus in the accusative case, with a suffixed –n. This also means that writers and poets can become very creative with word order – to go back to the opening lines of Beowulf as an example, in Old English we have:


           We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.


A word-for-word translation without changing the word order:



So! (“Listen!” or “Hey! Pay attention, I’m starting the story!”)


We Gardena                            in         geardagum

We of-the-spear-Danes        in         days-of-yore


þeodcyninga,                           þrym   gefrunon,

of-the-people’s-kings            glories have heard,


hu        ða        æþelingas         ellen              fremedon.

how     those princes           brave-deeds performed.


To get it into modern English word order, we have to do this:


Hwæt! We gefrunon þrym þeodcyninga Gardena in geardagum,

So! We have heard of the glories of the kings of the peoples of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,

hu ða æþelingas fremedon ellen.

how those princes performed brave deeds.


  1. Like Old Norse, modern Arabic, and Tolkien’s invented languages Sindarin and Quenya, Old English retains dual pronouns: “we (two)” or “you (two)” required a different pronoun than “we (group of three or more)” or “you (group of three or more)”
  1. Like Old Norse and modern Icelandic, Old English has a few extra letters: þ (“thorn” – borrowed from the runic alphabet, and pronounced “th” as in “thin”), æ (“ash” – pronounced like the “a” in “cat”), and ð (“eth” – pronounced “th” as in “then”).
  1. Like Old Norse poetry, Old English verse depends on alliteration, not end-rhyme: “Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, / monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah”


Despite the differences, though, the close relationship between the two languages – Old English and its modern descendant – is made clear when we look at the basic vocabulary. Although we’ve since borrowed all sorts of words from other languages like French and Latin, many of the most common words in English are still derived from Old English originals:

sprecan                      to speak

singan                         to sing

rinnan                         to run

hus                              house

fæder                          father

modor                         mother

blæc                            black

and/ond                     and

þæt                             that

eald                             old

god                              good

leoht                           light

nu                               now

hwa                             who

hwæt                          what

cyning                         king

sæ                               sea


(One obligatory caveat: while this is often helpful, even words that seem to look familiar may have changed their meanings significantly. Our modern English “queen”, for example, comes straight from Old English “cwen”. But in Old English, “cwen” simply meant “woman”, not “queen”. Similarly, modern English “churl” comes from Old English “ceorl”, but in Old English, “ceorl” had no negative connotations whatsoever, and was simply a word for a man. A “cniht” was a boy, not a knight in shining armour; a “wif” was any woman, not just a wife; an “eorl” was any man or warrior, not just a nobleman; and “sona” translates as “immediately” rather than “soon”.)

I have another post in the works that will cover the Old Norse side of things, but suffice it for the moment to say that while Old Norse is contemporary with Middle English, it’s much closer – linguistically – to Old English. And while neither Old English nor Old Norse would have been intelligible to Shakespeare, there’s a great deal of wonderful literature written in both languages that has survived for a millennium and more, available to be read and enjoyed – if only we take the time to learn the languages in which it’s written.

(And hopefully, Shakespeare doesn’t seem so bad, now?)

On Learning Languages (1)


So, I’ve always had a bit of a problem: there are far too many things I want to learn, and far too few hours in the day to actually do so. (See earlier post where someone felt obliged to inform my teenage self that trying to do two doctorates – in theoretical physics and medieval literature – was an exceedingly impractical idea.)

Perhaps this becomes most obvious, however, when we’re talking about foreign languages. A somewhat infamous example from my childhood may illustrate: when I was in Grade 3, my mother asked me what I wanted to study in school the next year. Because of the flexibility that homeschooling allowed, this was a fairly normal occurrence: if there was a topic that I was particularly interested in, it could usually be incorporated into the curriculum somehow. This was, for instance, how I ended up doing Grade 11 Chemistry at age ten: I told my mother I wanted to study chemistry, she found and bought an appropriate textbook, and I studied high school chemistry. (In sufficient depth that I walked straight into Grade 12 gifted chemistry in my first semester of high school, on the strength of work I’d done four years previous.)

When I was in Grade 3, however, my answer was not chemistry. Instead, it was a list of about a dozen languages, including more normal culprits like Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, and Russian, but also including a fair number of more obscure languages, like Finnish and Swahili.

(My longsuffering mother, who of course spoke none of the above, resorted to finding all the Berlitz language courses that were available from the library, and acquiring a whole series of books with titles like “First Thousand Words in French/Spanish/German/Latin/Japanese/Hebrew/etc.”)

I really don’t know where this interest came from – I can’t say Tolkien, because I hadn’t read any of The Lord of the Rings books at the time and didn’t know anything about Tolkien the linguist outside of, well, The Hobbit. (Discovering Tolkien admittedly provided much inspiration – but the interest seems to predate my exposure to him.) Certainly I was exposed to other languages from an early age: Latin and Greek show up on my homeschool report cards as early as Grade 1 or 2, and my parents always put a great emphasis on French, despite the fact that neither of them speak it particularly well – we read children’s books in French, my mother organized a French reading group at the local library, she arranged for various exchange students to come and give lessons, we had “French days”, on which no one (other than my father, who couldn’t manage this) was allowed to speak English, and we watched French films.

This latter activity, in fact, was a tried-and-true method that my sister and I used as children if we wanted to watch television – although watching Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons in English might be an unprofitable use of time, watching them in French was educational. (I still use the same reasoning to justify to myself the time I spend watching musicals like Roméo et Juliette and Notre Dame de Paris.)

Then I did discover Tolkien, shortly before competing in various spelling competitions, and my interests shifted to the elven languages Quenya and Sindarin, and the real-world languages they were inspired by – Finnish and Welsh. I really liked Finnish, but gave up on it fairly fast, mostly because … well, I have no problems with inflected languages. I’ve spend a lot of time studying them, and they allow for so many rhetorical effects that simply don’t translate into modern English, because our language no longer allows for them. But instead of the entirely reasonable four or five cases for nouns that Old English or Latin might have, Finnish has fifteen – nominative, genitive, accusative, partitive, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, essive, exessive, translative, instructive, abessive, and comitative.

(This is also why, at least in my opinion, Mandarin is a breath of fresh air: sure, the writing system involves a ton of memorization, but there are no inflections!)


The thing about learning languages, of course, is that once you’ve learned one or two, it becomes much easier to learn more. My Spanish, for instance, is really not all that great. But I can nonetheless sit down and make sense of newspaper articles or websites in Spanish, because my knowledge of French and Latin means that if I don’t actually know a vocabulary word in Spanish, the chances are really very high that I do know said vocabulary word’s cognate in French or Latin, and can therefore recognize it anyways.

Similarly, tackling German this summer – and this fall – has been a pretty quick study, if you consider that I compressed what Oxford would consider a year-long introductory course into about five weeks of somewhat sporadic poolside study, and then hopped into the intermediate reading course once I arrived. But the reasons for this are entirely straightforward:

1) if you already know how the nominative/genitive/dative/accusative/etc. work, you don’t have to learn again,

2) English and German (and Old English and Old Norse) are sufficiently closely related that if you understand the sound changes that have divided the two langugaes, figuring out the English equivalents of German words is not terribly complicated,

3) I had learned how to pronounce German as a child (thank the spelling bee!); also, many of the sounds that German has (that do not exist in English) are common to other languages that I’d studied,

4) if you know how all the verb tenses with auxiliaries (perfect, pluperfect, future perfect, the various passives, etc.) work in French and English, the German verb system is straightforward.


Now, popular wisdom would say that one should never learn more than one language at a time. This is one of those rules that I glance at every so often, and then shrug my shoulders as I proceed to flout it completely. Let’s face it: you can’t work with – or study – just one language at a time when dealing with early medieval literature. Reading knowledge of English, French, German, Latin, Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English is not optional for what I’m currently doing – in the last couple months, I’ve had to read and/or translate and/or analyze texts in all of the above. (With varying degrees of facility depending on my experience with the language: everything from “this is a pleasant afternoon’s reading” (French, Old English) to “I require a grammar, a dictionary, and the vast resources of the Internet in order to make sense of this” (scholarly articles in German …).

This is not to mention the other languages that are somewhat less mandatory, but have nonetheless cropped up in the last few weeks: Old French (I was attending a lecture series on Beroul’s Tristan, an Old French romance – and also, a number of the Old Norse riddarasögur were translations or adaptations of Old French texts), Norwegian (Old Norse scholarship, including the only extant translation into any language of an Old Norse mathematical treatise that I have been translating into English), modern Icelandic (again, Old Norse scholarship, including the earliest book I can find on female poets in Old Norse literature) – and, just to make matters more interesting, Quenya (Oxford’s Tolkien society).

Is this potentially confusing? Well, yes – but it is also a large part of why medieval literature is so much fun, and why I’ll (hopefully!) never get bored studying it: there are always going to be more languages to learn.

After all, I would still really like to acquire a more solid working knowledge of Spanish. And be able to speak German, as opposed to just reading it. And learn Italian. And Russian. And Finnish. And Welsh, Middle Welsh, Old Irish, Mandarin, Gothic, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old East Slavic, Classical Greek …


… and when actually sitting down to work, practicality must return: German. Let’s see how many more vocabulary flashcards we can make today!

(One of my personal projects over the holidays – in addition to the assigned homework for my Oxford course – is to read The Hobbit in German. So far I’ve gotten about halfway through the first chapter, mostly because I keep stopping to look up every vocabulary word that I’m even slightly unsure about. Might have to stop doing that if I intend to get through the whole thing in the next few weeks!)

Theatre in Oxford

(or: Juggling Many Hats)



Evaluating the quality of LED Parcans. Fake blood capsules. Cycloramas. Fabrics-that-look-like-silk-but-cost-less. Lighted candles on stage. Fire regulations. Stage combat workshops. Risk assessments. Hiring thirty square metres of raised staging. The mildly annoying detail that theatres in Canada still do architectural drawings in imperial, necessitating the purchase of a new scale ruler that will do metric (and switching AutoCAD settings!) How to twirl a double-bladed lightsaber 101. Making a 1960s-esque radio in sixty minutes flat, the day a show opens.

These are just a few of the things that have flown by my radar screen in the last few weeks, thanks to the ever-entertaining job that is working on – and training for – theatrical productions. So far, I’ve only finished one show – as ASM (assistant stage manager) for the Sondheim musical Assassins (tech week Nov. 23-30) – but mostly as a result of that production, I also have no shortage of plans in the pipeline for next term.

(And because I don’t believe in leaving things to the last minute … you can guess how much planning is happening/going to happen over the Christmas break!)

Now, as is perhaps evident from the variety of topics touched upon above, my role in theatre tends to be one that involves juggling a lot of hats simultaneously. (To take some non-Oxford examples, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore saw me as stage manager, fight captain, and costume crew/corset creator – in addition to performing in the show itself as a fighter and dancer. For Antony and Cleopatra, last year, I was originally cast as an ordinary actor in a minor role – Octavia – and then ended up doing both fight choreo and costumes.)

Unsurprisingly, while the staging of a production and the composition of a production team don’t differ too much from Canadian theatre, there are, as I have discovered, a few divergences on this side of the pond, and particularly in Oxford. One of which is the amount of work and responsibility foisted upon the stage manager: in Oxford, the workload is considerably lightened!

This has the potential to be a very good thing: on most shows that I’ve worked on before, if the director is absent, the stage manager is basically in charge, and certainly is tasked with being the communications nexus of the show. Making a cast-scene breakdown, making preliminary props, costumes, lighting, and sound plots, distributing scripts, scheduling rehearsals, preparing and distributing daily and weekly schedules, posting same on call boards, creating and keeping the prompt script up to date, attending all rehearsals and keeping a record of the blocking, ensuring that rehearsals run on schedule, passing on notes from the director to the production team, finding rehearsal props and costumes, taking minutes at production meetings and distributing them, running Q2Q, recording and then calling cues, taping the rehearsal floor (and then stage floor), allocating dressing rooms and make-up shifts, managing risk and ensuring that safety regulations are followed … all of these tasks (and quite a few more) appear on the University of Ottawa’s “Technical Task Guidelines” under the heading of “Stage Manager”.

And this makes sense: theoretically, the director and designers may have moved on to other shows after opening night, and it is therefore the responsibility of the stage manager to maintain “to the best of his/her ability, the artistic and technical intention of the Director, Producer, and Designer” (Canadian Theatre Agreement, p. 56).

In practice, that means my pre-show checklist would include a fairly long list of things, some of which are below:

– showing up with the keys and unlocking the building, booth, dressing rooms, etc.

– sweep stage floor; check audience seating & clean if necessary

– verifying that the lighting and sound ops have run their pre-show checks – or doing these myself if this is a student show and the lighting/sound ops don’t know how (and yes, this has absolutely included getting up on a ladder and re-focusing a light if it’s shifted)

– ensuring that all the actors show up, and tracking them down if they’re late

– checking/setting props

– checking costumes, and setting up for any quick changes

– verifying that the paging system is working, and that the program sound system is on

– coordinating watches and communicating with the house manager

– giving 15-minute, 5-minute, and “places” calls to the actors

– dealing with any crises that arise (actor took costume piece home, left it there, and realizes this five minutes before they need it onstage, prop breaks, light burns out, costume tears …)

The result, of course, is that knowing-a-little-bit-about-a-lot-of-things is fairly essential, and that the flexibility that I have tends to come in very handy.


… on the other hand, if this still sounds like an inordinate amount of work for one person, even if aided by an ASM or two, Oxford clearly agrees. The duties above are split up between multiple people – the stage manager, the deputy stage manager (who actually has very little to do with the SM, and is primarily responsible for recording blocking during rehearsals, and calling the show), the production manager, the director, and any assistant stage managers.

So at least on Assassins, that whole long list of things the SM & ASM must do before/during a show was reduced to something like this:

– sweep floor & check audience seating

– check/set props

– run fight calls (the idea of having a separate fight captain/fight director to do this is apparently not usually a thing in Oxford student theatre, ergo this is assigned to the SM)

– ensure that actors get props when needed, and help with quick changes

This has distinct advantages, inasmuch as – hey! less work! less time taken away from studying! – and distinct disadvantages, inasmuch as I didn’t get to know the actors/director very well, and I spent most of tech week feeling as though I really ought to be doing more work – and contributing more – than I was.


The other key differences between Ottawa and Oxford have mostly to do with Oxford not having a theatre/drama program: in Ottawa, there are a bevy of people far more qualified than me to do set design, and everyone in the theatre department – even students focused primarily on acting – would have had to complete a set of core technical theatre courses. This would be even more the case for something like lighting, where I was a fairly competent technician, but was never so much as a lighting crew head, never mind a designer.

Oxford, different scenario: I apparently have more technical training than the majority of Oxford students can easily get. (With some very notable exceptions, many of whom I had the privilege of meeting and working with on Assassins! And no, I am not simply saying that because some of them may read this – my parents and a few close friends could undoubtedly attest to the fact that they’ve had to put up a great deal of me gushing about the general awesomeness of the Assassins production team in the last few weeks!) But, yes, while Oxford’s student productions have more funding and much bigger budgets (and I am in absolute awe of some of the equipment that the theatres here have and take for granted), they also don’t have large numbers of trained students to draft in as lighting crew, set crew, or costume crew – the designers end up doing the work themselves. And getting to the level of competence where one could in fact design a show (if, say, one was a fresher arriving with an interest but no training) seems like it would be a serious hurdle.

The level of professionalism assumed on student productions also differs, and this is one area where Ottawa has a leg up: at least from my observations, there was, and is, a fairly close connection between university theatre productions and professional theatre productions. I could cite a long list of friends and acquaintances who – like me – started out in UOttawa’s theatre department, and then through the resulting connections, experience, and training, ended up working on professional shows in and around the city. Ottawa being Ottawa, the theatre community is sufficiently close-knit that I always assumed that any reputation, whether positive or negative, gained on student productions would inevitably affect the likelihood of getting professional work: Equity actors have performed in university shows, the Drama Guild will bring in professional designers to work alongside students for major productions, and Professor Lockhart prefaced his tech courses with the explicit statement that if you could pass his exams, you ought to be able to pass the exam to become an IATSE apprentice. I’m pretty sure it was the department’s introductory course, THE 1100, when I first heard the saying “If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; and if you’re late, you’re fired.” As a SM, I would be calling an actor and wondering if something had gone wrong if they were so much as five minutes late – because everyone else would be in the rehearsal room, ready to go, and waiting on them.

Oxford has a much more laid-back approach, which is on the one hand more relaxing, and can be on the other hand quite amusing – and though it has not been too frustrating thus far, there are definite drawbacks. A production meeting scheduled for 1:00pm, for instance, does not mean that the meeting starts at 1:00pm and that everyone will be there 5-10 minutes before that – it means that the meeting will actually get started around 1:15, and most people will arrive between 1:05 and 1:15. Rehearsal schedules, same deal: the actors will not be ready to start a tech rehearsal at 9:00am if that is the call time; most of them will show up somewhere between 9:05 and 9:30, probably not having eaten breakfast yet, and therefore not actually ready to work until something like 9:45.


All of which means that I am in the following, rather odd, position: the flexibility and technical training so useful as a stage manager in Ottawa does not actually seem needed, as much, when working as a stage manager in Oxford. The role of an SM here is quite tame, comparatively speaking! But that same technical training and flexibility means that I can take on other positions – set designer, assistant lighting designer – that I would have had much less chance of doing in Ottawa, and consequently (I hope – the next few years will test this) gain a great deal of valuable experience.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, I am back to juggling multiple hats. Set, costumes, lighting, fight work, and stage management are all on the horizon for the next several months: it should be quite the adventure!


(I swear I am also getting academic work/research done. Truly. In fact, I just received word that an abstract that I finished and submitted in the middle of tech week for Assassins was accepted – so I will be giving my first conference presentation in Denmark in March!)