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:
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 …