Lighting Doctor Faustus: Part I (Pre-Production)

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http://www.doctorfaustusoxford.com

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:

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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).

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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

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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): 

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

France

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.

Pyrotechnics

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.

Iceland

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.

Oxford

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

I Am An Oxford Student

 

A month after touching down in London’s Heathrow airport, I suppose it’s time for a belated update: I am an officially matriculated doctoral student at the University of Oxford. My assignment from my supervisor for the first term is basically to read everything in sight, and follow up on anything interesting by (guess what!) doing further reading, so I’ve had to spend a great deal of time running around and finding all the libraries and figuring out how they work. It has been a great deal of fun but has not left a great deal of time for writing.

Aside from reading, I’ve joined the Oxford Union (debating society) and the Tolkien society; I’ll be the assistant stage manager for a production of Sondheim’s Assassins coming up later this month; and I’ve become a copyeditor for The Oxford Student and a news writer for Bang! Science – the local student-run science magazine. I’ve also managed to find the sports centre, where the archery club and pistol club both hold practices. I’ve also, of course, spent a great deal of time figuring out the myriad idiosyncrasies of Oxford, some of which are attributable to UK/Canada differences in general, and most of which are just Oxford being Oxford: the unofficial motto, after all, probably goes something along the lines of “Well, we’ve been doing it that way since the 12th century …”!

So without further ado, here’s a quick run down of the awesome and the irritating (there aren’t many) aspects of adjusting to life at Oxford!

 

On the plus side:

– The libraries are absolutely gorgeous, and ancient, and possibly indescribable to anyone who hasn’t visited them. (I think “sublime” is possibly the right word here, and I use it with a full awareness of its usual application in Romantic writing and criticism.)

– Warmer weather means that I’m able to do a large amount of reading and studying outside (Addison’s Walk, the Botanical Gardens, the Christ Church Meadow, the Exeter College Fellows’ Garden, etc.)

– The ease of ordering, and consulting, rare books

– The Turville-Petre room in the English Faculty is dedicated solely to Old Norse-Icelandic books, and is simply an amazing place

– Blackwell’s (the major bookstore across the street from Exeter and the Bodleian) is as large as any library, stocks everything, has a café on the first floor, two floor-to-ceiling bookcases dedicated exclusively to Tolkien, multiple editions of every classic book you can name, a rare books section, a second-hand books section, the largest room of books I’ve ever seen (the Norrington Room), a fabulously large language section, with novels in French and German (and Russian and Welsh and Spanish and all sorts of others), a superb collection of mathematics, physics, and astronomy textbooks, and comfy chairs to sit and read.

– Oxford has a critical mass of medievalists which is simply a joy. The Old Norse literature and language classes I am auditing draw about twenty-five people a week; the Beowulf class closer to sixty. The Tolkien & Beowulf departmental seminar last week had to move to the main lecture theatre because too many people showed up to fit in the seminar room. We’ve got a core group of medievalists within Exeter College, as well – perhaps surprising giving how small Exeter actually is.

– There are at least two main medieval literature seminars per week, and seminars do not apparently happen at this university without an abundance of free tea, coffee, and biscuits (aka cookies). Wine and/or champagne is also fairly common.

– Not only is there a student-run Old Norse reading group, and an Old English reading group, there is apparently also an Old Frisian reading group. The modus operandi of all of the above is to meet up in a pub, read a text aloud, and translate it on the spot – the default assumption is that one’s language ability is sufficiently good to do this without having done any preparation in advance.

– My new part-time job with the Disability Advisory Service: I’m paid to attend engaging lectures, by world-famous academics, that are teaching relevant skills for my research – and to take notes, which I would have done anyways.

– Lots and lots of great cafés and bakeries

– The Oxford Union: where my love of rhetoric and Cicero can run riot. The weekly debates expect speakers – and students – not only to be good at constructing and defending an argument, but also to be good at delivery, style, and rhetoric. Also, scheduled guests for this term alone include the producers of Game of Thrones, Buzz Aldrin, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Jo Brand, Viviane Reding (EU Commission), Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize, 2006), Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg (Google), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Imelda Marcos … and more British MPs than I can possibly count or name. They also run competitive debating workshops, which I have started to attend. (After my first (practice) attempt at opening a debate, I was promptly told I should be either a lawyer or a politician – I am still not sure whether to take this as a compliment!)

– Free dinners & speaker events at Exeter College: this past Sunday, Lord Butler of Brockwell (UK parliamentary committee on intelligence) came to give a talk, and in a couple of weeks, Peter Jackson (yes, the Peter Jackson) will be coming to Exeter for one of their 700th anniversary lectures. Also, Exeter’s catering staff are generally very good at coming up with excellent food. And wine. There is always wine.

– The Language Centre: offers well-taught, fast-paced courses for the fee of £35 per year, unless of course you can prove that studying said language is relevant to your research (in my case: German), in which case there is no fee at all.

 

On the less positive side:

– Smoking seems to be much more common and more socially acceptable in public places; given that the smell of cigarette smoke gives me a headache almost instantly, this is not a good thing.

– All the tourists! I realize that Oxford is a magnet for tourism, but even during the week – during the school term – there are simply hordes of them. And my normal walking speed is about twice or three times as fast as the average tourist’s, which makes them a decided inconvenience when I’m trying to get from one class to another in five minutes.

– My dear suitemates have not quite mastered the idea of silence after 11pm; fortunately for my continued sanity, Exeter House does have people who enforce the rules.

– Clothing. Sorting out when to wear (“formal” clothing + gown) vs. (sub fusc + gown) vs. (formal clothing + no gown) vs. (sub fusc + no gown) is quite the interesting – albeit also amusing – challenge. (For the uninitiated: sub fusc involves black shoes, black stockings and skirt or black trousers and black socks, white shirt, black suit jacket (men), and either a black tie, a white bow tie, or a black ribbon tie. Yes, the rules are enforced; showing up wearing white socks to an exam is apparently a really bad idea.) Also, the knee-length pencil skirt seems to be an everyday and fairly universal women’s wardrobe item in this town: people bike in them. I’ve definitely made a few improvements to my wardrobe since arriving in Oxford, but as someone who values being able to walk properly, all I can say is I won’t be adopting that trend any time soon.

 

But frankly, I have nothing to complain about, because somehow – I’m still not sure how, and I do keep needing to pinch myself – I’m in Oxford. And I get to ignore all the “private” signs telling tourists to keep out, because I’m also a student here. And somehow I have the audacity to walk the paths that Tolkien and Lewis and so very many other famous people walked, and sit and study and write and learn there.

I have no idea where I’ll end up, but hopefully it’s an auspicious beginning!