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!)

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“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”

 

Toronto International Film Festival. Chess Club. Memorizing paradigms. Carmen. Rapier Wit. Auditions. Physics Colloquium. Robarts. Gerstein. Teaching Fundamentals Certification. HH Chamber Strings. Copyediting. Translation assignments. Archery Club. The Mythgard Institute. Astronomy and Space Exploration Society. SSHRC and PhD applications. Quizbowl.

Free time???

I’m borrowing the title of this post from a Richard Feynman book because it really is a good phrase to describe my first two weeks in Toronto! I’ll get back to books, language, and science shortly, but since I haven’t written anything about Toronto yet and I’ve been doing a lot of exploring, I’m going to hit a few of the highlights:

Free Food

What can I say? Every student organization at this university has concluded that it is impossible to hold an orientation or a welcome without giving out free food. Grad House had a barbeque the night I arrived, the Graduate Student Union hosted a barbeque the next night, and the Graduate English Association has hosted more receptions than I can count. The Graduate English Association also seems to operate on the principle that no meeting is complete without visiting a pub afterwards and distributing free beer. (I say “free” … I am sure it’s included in my student fees somehow.) Grad House also hosts weekly coffee nights, and though 9 pm is much too late for coffee as far as I’m concerned, the cupcakes are delicious.

Grad House

The graduate student residence is lovely – I seem to have won a room on the Floor of Sepulchral Silence. This has a number of distinct advantages, the foremost being that I can study quite contentedly in my room if I don’t feel like walking to one of the libraries or to my individual study carrel in the English building. My suitemates are possibly quieter than me, if such a thing is possible! For violin, piano, vocal, and monologue practices, there is a music room in the basement, which has a well-tuned piano, sound-proof walls, and has been free every time I’ve stopped by. The subway is a very short walk; the bank is across the street; the library is next door; and there’s a grocery store within a block. Also, a ten-minute walk will put me in Chinatown, where there are a couple of fabulous inexpensive bakeries.

And for someone who’s used to getting up at 6:30 am to commute to 8:30 am classes, the five-minute walk to the Jackman Humanities Building is definitely a luxury!

On Stage: Carmen and Rapier Wit

About a month and a half ago, an audition notice went out for dancers and extra performers in a production of Carmen that just finished playing in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre (Opera Lyra). I had to talk myself out of auditioning, and I’m sorry to have missed it, because quite a few of my friends ended up performing! Last Friday, however, I did make it out to the ‘Buddies in Bad Times’ theatre here in Toronto, to see their production of Carmen. There were some stellar performances from the leads, and the most interesting thing about the production, for me, was the director’s choice to set the production in post-WWI New York City, explaining Don José’s erratic and violent behaviour as a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

My own theatrical endeavours have also begun – I’m doing my next level of stage combat certification with Fight Directors Canada, so Tuesday nights I do two hours of unarmed martial arts followed by two hours of broadsword, and Wednesday nights are two hours of smallsword followed by two hours of rapier and dagger. Rapier and dagger is one of my personal favourites (two blades equals twice as much mental gymnastics equals twice as much fun), but I’m also a big fan of smallsword, because it requires so much precision. Smallsword is also the one weapon where I can keep switching hands – I’ve made a point of learning to be ambidextrous when it comes to stage combat, but whether you’re right- or left-handed doesn’t really matter for broadsword or rapier and dagger, since you automatically use both hands anyways.

About a third of Tuesday’s class was dedicated to obstacle rolls, which was a great refresher – it’s a lovely technique to be able to pull out of your back pocket on set, or on stage, mostly because sporadically dive-rolling over a hospital bed dodging bullets, or picking up a rapier mid-roll, or rolling over a table with a quarterstaff in hand … well, just simply looks awesome. It’s also a technique that I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time practicing over the last few years, because when I was first introduced to unarmed stage combat techniques in Montreal back in 2010, I’d never done an aikido roll in my life – I didn’t even know what one was.

I’ve also had a few auditions , and though I won’t hear anything definite for a few days yet, it was good to dust off some of my monologues from the spring and play with them again.

The Physics Colloquium

The University of Toronto’s physics department has a weekly colloquium on Thursday afternoons, where invited speakers from all over North America give a one-hour talk on some aspect of their current research, followed by a time for questions and discussion. Last week’s presentation was by Jim Sethna, of Cornell University, and concerned the mathematical methods that scientists use to model reactions in systems biology. It was a cool presentation for a number of reasons – one, his research draws on fields that normally don’t talk to each other much (using differential geometry and geodesics and hyper-ribbons to work out problems in cell biology); and two, the mathematical results are beautiful.

He and his team have been looking at a long sequence of protein reactions (it’s not just a single sequence – there are two secondary pathways and a feedback loop thrown in as well, but for simplicity’s sake, it’s a series of reactions that results in the production of a certain amount of a new protein). Theoretically, in order to create a model that would accurately describe the results, they would have to account for forty-eight different independent parametres; when you actually look at the equations, this works out to a system of twenty-nine (non-linear, of course, everything interesting has to be modelled by a non-linear equation!) differential equations. It’s impossible to find these individual parametres with any degree of accuracy – the most accurate ones vary by a factor of fifty, and the least accurate can vary by factors of almost a million.

However, it turns out that certain combinations of parametres affect possible predictions more than other combinations of parametres. One of Professor Sethna’s recent students, Mark Transtrum, worked out a way (which makes perfect mathematical sense, but does require a decent knowledge of differential geometry to understand, so I won’t go into depth here – for details, the department posts recordings of all of their colloquia online*) to figure out which combinations of parametres were “stiff”, and which ones were “sloppy” – in other words, which parametres could be effectively discarded while maintaining a model that fit the experimental data as well as the original model. A conceptually parallel approach, known as renormalization, has been actually used in quantum field theory since the 1940s.

Bottom line is that instead of a system of twenty-nine non-linear differential equations with forty-eight parametres, it becomes a system of six differential equations with twelve parametres (AKA it is, in fact, possible to solve!) and the new model still makes highly accurate predictions about the amounts of the different proteins that are produced.

This week’s colloquium – and yes, it’s definitely in my calendar – is entitled “The Lunar Surface: A Dusty Plasma Laboratory”, and will include an update on the status of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission, which was just launched on September 9th.

The Varsity

I used to copyedit and (very occasionally) write for the University of Ottawa’s student newspaper, The Fulcrum, so over the summer I did a little research on U of T’s journalism scene, and sent off an email to the senior copyeditor of The Varsity, which has been published since 1880 and therefore is apparently the second-oldest student newspaper in Canada. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, therefore, have been spent with pen and highlighter in hand – correcting spelling errors, changing awkward wording, and adding the missing Oxford commas.

I’ll also be writing for the science section in a few upcoming papers – I had already purchased tickets to the inaugural Toronto Science Festival, coming up at the end of the month and featuring a keynote talk by astronaut Julie Payette, so I’ll be covering that, and apparently I’ve also been volun(told) to write a couple of other articles.

Quizbowl

I play academic trivia because it’s a great deal of fun, it’s a good way to meet awesome people, and it’s a guaranteed way to learn quirky, interesting, or simply bizarre random facts – not because I’ve ever been exceptionally good at it. However, I thoroughly approve of question packs that allow me to power questions on Tolkien’s obscure works and minor characters in Carmen, and then have bonus questions on both a) founder of structural linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure and b) black holes, event horizons, and the work of Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking on the “no hair” theorem. (Packs that include both Tolkien and black holes are pretty rare!)

Oh, Yes, Classes …

Lest everyone now think that Jen is spending all her time in Toronto taking in the sights and running around to various extracurriculars without doing any work, I should probably mention that everything I’ve talked about thus far is what I’ve been doing in my, er, free time, and that the majority of the hours of any given day have actually been spent buried in books, translations, and linguistic paradigms.

I have three classes this semester, and the highlight of the entire week was a guest lecture in my Old English course, given by Professor Andy Orchard. Prof. Orchard has taught at the University of Toronto for years, but is leaving to take up the Bosworth and Rawlinson Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford – the post that Tolkien once held, and arguably the single most prestigious position in the field. He’s an excellent lecturer, and it was really quite exciting to meet him in person after having read far more of his books than I should probably admit to.

My other classes are Old Norse (we’re currently translating selections from the Prose Edda), and Critical Topographies, which is common to all English MA students at the University of Toronto and charts developments in literary theory. It’s quite similar to the critical theory course I took as an undergrad, but with about twice as much reading. I have already read about half of the reading on the course syllabus, thanks to previous work, so for those who have accused me of starting to write final essays on the day the assignment is given out … in the case of Critical Topographies, I must confess the accusation to be justified. And in the case of Old English, I have no final essay, but over the last couple of days I’ve finished the weekly translation assignments through until almost the end of October; I can claim no such diligence in Old Norse, though, mostly because I don’t know it nearly as well!

The other major project I have underway is my research proposal for PhD applications – but that’s going to have to be a separate post, because it’s almost midnight.

… and because I’m both a Tolkien nerd and an Old English nerd, I have to close, at least once, with the following:

Wes þú hál!

*http://www.physics.utoronto.ca/~colloq/