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.

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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!

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:

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(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.

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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!)

Theatre in Oxford

(or: Juggling Many Hats)

Assassins

 

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!)

Academics Read Things They Wrote as Kids

 

This evening, I participated in a fundraiser entitled “Academics Read Things They Wrote as Kids.”* It was organized by the Graduate English Association, and the rules were simple: fifteen or so professors and graduate students have about 5 minutes each to read something (a card, diary entry, poem, story, play, etc.) that they wrote before age thirteen.

When I signed up to participate, back in December, this all sounded quite straightforward. I knew I’d written quite a bit as a kid; all I had to do was find something moderately amusing (and hopefully not too terribly embarrassing!) and show up with it.

What I failed to take into account was just how much I apparently wrote before age thirteen – with the result that I have spent a fair amount of time in the last week sorting through Appleworks document after Appleworks document and trying to figure out just what on earth I should read. (If you have absolutely no interest in the literary creations of a mildly precocious child Jennifer, the remainder of this may be of no interest. Otherwise, prepared to be entertained?)

There were, for example, the “books” that my younger sister (J) and I wrote when we lived in New Brunswick – “My Violin Story” and “My Ballet Story” and “My Figure Skating Story” and so forth. There were the “essays” that my father tried to teach us how to write when I was six (and J was three – essentially all I remember from that lesson is that I thought hers was silly because she wrote about Barbie dolls.) There were all the assignments I wrote for the writing course I did through Stanford online when I was eleven; there was the account I wrote of the spelling bee after the first year I participated; and there were all sorts of of short tales, like the one about the Shoshoni girl who got caught in a blizzard and ended up saving her village from being attacked.

There were also the “newspapers” that my sister and I periodically created under the name of the Bearville Weekly Register, that generally centred on the imagined activities of the exceptionally large collection of stuffed animals that my mother and sister have amassed over the years. These are at times very lengthy documents, always featuring editorials, opinion pieces, fake advertisements, recipes, and tales of adventure and derring-do on the high seas by my sister’s favourite stuffed dolphin, the pirate Captain Flipper, and his band of ne’er-do-wells:

“So, it’s young master Spots,” said Flipper, peering over his glasses as Spots entered the Captain’s cabin. “With my good mate Midnight. How can I help ye?”

“Well sir,” said Spots slowly – he was somewhat intimidated by the dolphin, who looked about as much at home in the ship cabin as a live lobster looks in a dresser drawer – “I… was wondering if… well, if it’s not too much trouble… I was sort of hoping for… well you see…” he broke off, and turned to Midnight, unsure of how to continue.

“Spots here is hoping that he could get a job on shipboard,” explained Midnight. “He’s itching for a bit of adventure, and thought this might be a good place to find it.”

“Aye, that it is, that it is. As it happens, I’m in need of a few more hands on deck at the moment. My next voyage is planned for down around the Great Coral Reef, and I’ll be needing a few more animals than most of my previous voyages have required. I’ve planned to stop at Donkey Island along the way, and pick up a few extra, but still… I’ll be needing three or four. Can you work hard, Master Spots?”

“Yes, sir!”

“And you’re not scared of the water? I certainly don’t need any more crew members who are terrified out of their wits the first time they have to dive overboard after a storm.” Flipper shot a sideways glance at Buddy, the Sea Pearl’s cabin boy, who had entered as Flipper was speaking.

“No sir, I’m not scared!” Spots sounded braver than he looked, but Flipper nodded his head.

“Can you cook? I’ve a good spot for a young part-time assistant cook…”

Occasionally they even featured sappy love poetry – there was the time when we decided that one of the “editors” of the paper, a stuffed black panther named Midnight, should fall in love with another stuffed cat named Amber, and proceeded to attempt to woo her by publishing excessively elaborate, over-the-top sonnets.

Diary entries? Well, it was pretty sporadic, but I did in fact keep a diary when I was younger – but I ruled this out for a few reasons. One, the entires are written in multiple languages, and two, even if they are ostensibly written in English, they’re written in code. (Yes, I spent a very long time obsessed with classical cryptography and codebreaking. The result of which is that I can write fluently in quite a few different systems, several of which I made up.) But three, they’re mostly fairly boring accounts about what I did on any given day, or extended rants about how I didn’t like living in Ottawa and wanted to move back to New Brunswick!

By far, however, the largest group of writings that I have from my pre-teen years falls into two categories: the productions of the JR Theatre Group, and the many, many early manuscript versions of The Golden Crown. These were the two sources that I was primarily looking at, but they also proved to be the most difficult to sort through – somehow I had managed to forget just how much material was involved.

The JR Theatre Group productions were created by four people: myself, my sister, and our two friends (R & R). I was eleven, J was eight, and R & R were ten and twelve. The name came from our initials (J&J, R&R), and we went by a number of names: the JR Band (complete with a logo and T-shirts), the JR Ensemble (when performing at special events), or the JR Theatre Group. All four of us were homeschooled, so we’d get together in the afternoons, after our schoolwork was done, and one of our favourite things to do was create plays and musicals. Between the four of us, we played a very wide variety of instruments and had varying levels of vocal background, so it was not atypical for an ordinary character to suddenly burst into song.

We developed a fairly standard practice: first, we needed a rough plot. We would brainstorm ideas, and if ideas were lacking, each person would go around in a circle and say a random word or name, and with the three or four resulting words, we would construct a plot. (The Golden Crown, though not a theatre production, originated in the same way – from “knife,” “a girl named Janet,” and “a northern land”.) Once the plot took off, we didn’t feel obliged to stick to these words in any way: try to find a notable “knife” or a “northern land” in The Golden Crown, and you may be disappointed!

The next step was to take on roles and improvise the entire play through once. Given that we had four performers and perhaps dozens of roles, these were exceptionally fluid: I might play a character in one scene, and Janet might play the same charater in the next scene, if that character (A) had to talk to another character (B) whom I had also played in a previous scene.

After the script was created, we would rehearse it all the way through, usually only once, with whatever costumes, lights, sounds, music, or other special effects we could concoct. Finally, we would find our very tolerant mothers, who were usually socializing in an entirely different area of the house, and insist that they sit down and watch our performance. From start to finish it was about a three-to-four-hour process, perfect for an afternoon of fun.

The plays were often site-specific, and were created in a fairly wide range of environments: Animals vs. Flowers was done in R’s bedroom; Movie Mix-Up was primarily enacted in the backyard of a church after a guitar group event. Nonetheless, we did have one primary space in which the majority of the plays were performed: the basement of my home.

Our [J’s and mine] basement is usually most notable for the some 4,000 books that line the walls. The room with the books, however, is also quite large, and features a couch at one end, against a half wall separating the space from the rest of the basement. This couch was perfectly positioned to hold our captive audience; the ceiling allowed for the hanging of not one but two curtain rods, so that we had a fine red curtain a couple feet from the audience, and a white curtain about four feet from the back to provide us with a backstage and changing area. If we were feeling particularly diligent, we could cover all the bookshelves and walls with black fabric, to give us in effect a tiny black-box theatre. The half-wall allowed us to set up “spotlights” (anything we could find that would give us a small circular beam counted – including, on occasion, flashlights) on top of it, and operate them from the other side of the wall – behind our audience. The main basement lights were the “house” lights, which were usually turned off during performance. Lighting on stage was then from the lights on the half wall, and the one main light that conveniently had a separate switch and was located in the very centre of the stage.

The result? Well, the result was a great deal of fun and silliness – we weren’t terribly concerned about either historical accuracy or internal logic.

The following opening to The Cinnamon Story is perhaps representative:

Narrator: Once upon a time there was a king and queen who were good and kind and wise, almost the best rulers that you could have. There was only one problem: They were both allergic to cinnamon. Whenever the king smelled cinnamon, his eyes got all red and puffy and he started sneezing.

King: Achooo! Achoo! Achooo! Achoooo! Achooo!

Narrator: And all the babies started crying, and all the mothers started moaning, and all the little sisters started screaming, and all the little brothers started laughing, and the fathers would just shake their heads and groan.

Whenever the queen smelled cinnamon, her eyes got all red, and she started screaming.

Queen: Ahhhhhhh! Ahhhhhh! Cinnamon! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!

Narrator: And all the dogs started barking and the cats started yowling, and the horses neighing, and the lambs bleating, and there was no peace in the kingdom.

Narrator: Finally the king had had enough.

King: I outlaw cinnamon! There shall be no cinnamon for anyone in the kingdom!

Narrator: Now the king and queen had a daughter, Mary. Mary’s favorite food was cinnamon. Whenever she saw cinnamon, she would run to it and eat it all up.

(Mary runs to cinnamon container when Narrator says, “Whenever she saw cinnamon….”)

Narrator: When Mary heard that her father had outlawed cinnamon, she was so sad. She cried all day and all night. She moaned in the morning and wailed in the afternoon. And all the dogs started barking, and the cats started yowling, and the babies started crying, and the little brothers started laughing, and the little sisters started screaming. And there was no peace in the kingdom.

(Mary is screaming and crying on stage in her chair.)

Narrator: As you can guess, the king was not pleased.

King: Mary, what is the matter with you? The whole kingdom’s in an uproar.

Mary: You outlawed cinnamon and it’s my favorite food in the entire world!

Narrator: The king was flabbergasted! How could his daughter like cinnamon when he was so allergic to it?

King: Mary, I had to do it! The kingdom was in an uproar! Will you please stop crying?

Narrator: But the king’s reasonings were to no avail. Mary only screamed the louder.

[Matters go downhill from here. Two orphaned girls, Anne and Marcia, subsequently discover a cure for cinnamon allergies in the library. The king and queen are ‘cured’, the ban on cinnamon is repealed, and the girls are appointed Royal Scientists. Their teacher, the ever-so-creatively-named Mrs. Terrible, is thrown in jail for having sold cinnamon illegally and generally being a horrible person to put in charge of an orphanage. The play concludes with a version of the can-can.]

Other sample titles include Movie Mix-Up, The Girl Who Had Bad Luck Eating Purple Jelly, Lost in the Silmarillion (and Lost in the Silmarillion 2, and Lost in the Silmarillion: Return to Aman), The Crazy Camping Adventure, and The Russian Ballerina.

The copies that I have of these plays exist because, well, if you think I’m organized now, you should have met my eleven-year-old self. After we had created a play, I would go home, sit down at the family computer upstairs, and type out not only a script, but also a complete cast breakdown by scene, and usually costume notes as well. In the same folder, I also kept copies of plays written by two or three members of the group, which were later performed with everyone – R & R, for example, created musical versions of The Princess and the Pea and Cinderella, and my sister and I created scripts for the historical dramas Roman Times and Medieval Times, all of which were later staged by the whole group.

The scripts are, as a whole, pretty revealing – even if I hadn’t recorded all the cast lists, it’s very easy to tell from the lines who was speaking at any given time, and we certainly didn’t mind poking fun at ourselves. For instance, the following is an excerpt from Medieval Times. I was slightly older when this was written – thirteen, I think – and the plot involved two interwoven stories: one concerned the kidnapping of Lady Jane Grey (aka my sister) by the French, and her subsequent rescue by a squire named Galen who had a crush on her; the other involved another squire – Justin – who was actually a girl in disguise, because she’d run away from home to become a knight (me, obviously).

(And yes, I also created/played Ned):

 

(The squires’ quarters. […] A few squires are onstage.)

[…]

Will: New boy?

Dan: Says his name’s Galen. He’s taking Consett’s place. Justin’s been showing him around.

Will: Justin’s been showing him around? Since when did Justin develop social skills?

Ned: That’s not the question. The question is since when would Justin take the time. (Rolls eyes.)

Will: Where’s the boy now?

Ned: Gone to deliver a message for Sir Thorny.

Will: A message boy?

Dan: No, the pages were just all busy.

Will: Where’s he from? (Disdainfully.)

Dan: I think I heard he’s from Somerset. An earl or something. Here he comes – you can ask him yourself if you like.

(Enter Galen.)

Galen: Ned, do you know where Justin is? I can’t find him anywhere.

Ned: (Gives a significant look to the others.) Have you tried the archery range yet?

Galen: No, it’s almost evening.

Ned: Check the archery range.

Will: If he’s not there, check the training field.

Galen: The training field? (Perplexed.)

Ned: If he’s not practicing archery, he’s practicing swordplay. If he’s not practicing swordplay, he’s practicing riding. If he’s not practicing riding, then he’s practicing something else he’s dreamed up to help him “improve” his fighting.

Galen: Is that normal?

Will: Normal for Justin.

The next scene opened at the archery range, with an exceptionally long-winded – even for me! – description of Justin practicing archery, landing multiple arrows dead centre, and then becoming frustrated when the last one missed by an inch.

(Perfectionist?? Me? Whatever do you mean?)

Several years ago, I attempted to combine all of these scripts into one document – imagining that this would be a great way to preserve the collective creative endeavours of the JR Theatre Group in one place. The resulting document totalled some 300 pages in MS Word.

I had one final option: The Golden Crown. This sprawling fantasy novel, and its prequels, and assorted poems, and chronicles, and languages, and writing systems … originally opened with the ever-so-dramatic – and now notorious – line: “Janet tiptoed past her mother’s room, trying not to disturb her rest. Her mother needed rest.” Early versions also included many samples of bad poetry – I was firmly convinced, at age ten, that poetry was not poetry if it didn’t rhyme. And of course, there was this ancient and supposedly mysterious Prophecy of the North – which had to be poetry and therefore had to rhyme:

Hark to my words, o mighty ones!

     Evil’s doom cometh swift on wing

The realm shall be delivered

     Restored shall be the king

[…]

The planets halt in their dance

     A comet streaks the sky

The stars twinkle with glee

     Morcel’s servants soon shall die.

But as it turned out, I did try playing a dozen characters in five minutes – with a slightly shortened rendition of one of the JR plays. Although The Cinnamon Story was never intended to have a moral, the belief underlying it is nonetheless clear: when in doubt, go to the library. When in distress, go to the library. When the kingdom is falling apart and everything is completely chaotic, go to the library. You will find a book with a solution. Everyone will live Happily Ever After.

(No wonder I grew up and became an English major?)

*Inspired by “Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids”: http://www.grownupsreadthingstheywroteaskids.com/

*All excerpts are unedited. Errors of spelling or grammar are entirely the fault of my ten- (or eleven-, or thirteen-) year-old self.