Jassy’s Olympic blog, week one

Jassy Earl blogs her adventures with the National Youth Theatre in London as she prepares to perform at the Olympic Games 2012.


Day One: Monday 25th June

10am – 11pm: Welcome Chats and Getting to Know the Piece with Kane Husbands and Paul Roseby
11pm-1pm: Workshopping material and movement
2pm-4pm: Lifts and movement
4pm-5.30pm: LOCOG Representatives; Olympic Torch and Olympic Medals
6-8pm: Music Workshop with Tristan Parkes; individual voices and smaller improvisation and harmony workshop.

Maximum travel times of 12 hours from London to Glasgow, 2 years of research, 140 performances to 205 countries over 10 days, with 120 cast members rehearsing over 14 days; statistically and artistically this is going to be an epic endeavor.

I don’t think any of the 120 strong cast were aware of the scale of the Team Opening Ceremonies until all of us were crammed into the rehearsal space at Holloway Road, at NYT’s HQ. The day began with welcoming chats and the essential admin but it was the first time we gained access to the most important details regarding the 30 minute piece that will welcome athletic teams from 204 countries competing at the Olympics. Conventionally the welcoming ceremonies are merely a matter of protocol and feature the raising of the flag, the national anthem and the exchange of gifts between countries. LOCOG (London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) and the National Youth Theatre have joined arms to produce a spectacle that leaves the athletes with a lasting impression upon their initial meeting with their host country. Whilst we’re not part of the main body of Danny Boyle’s ceremony, we are just as important in terms of ensuring the athletes are at home in Great Britain.

The performance combines acrobatics, puppets, orchestral music mixed with contemporary scores and choral singing from the ensemble. The sentiment and the structure of the script is taken from the three hits by Queen; Bicycle Race, We Are the Champions and Don’t Stop Me Now. LOCOG called for a global soundtrack that translates over continents and these three tracks in particular celebrate the notion of pride in a nation and the concept of competition. The piece also takes inspiration from the idea of our current Elizabethan age in the 16th Century with our history of welcoming important visitors through the tradition of the pageant. The plaza of the Olympic Village will be transformed into ‘Celebration Avenue’; a red carpet is rolled out and the athletes are guided through the procession by the Queen of Ceremonies and the ensemble cast. Actors are lifted above heads revealing umbrellas filled with tickets, the Truce Wall is signed, a pageant carnival atmosphere is enjoyed and its a race to the Ceremonial ‘Finish Line.’ The turnover has to be slick with the performance potentially being performed 11 times a day.

It appears vague at the moment and the script is minimal because of a need for universality. Anything that is said needs to be translated into French; the official Olympic language. There is a need for poetic rhythm and an appreciation of the beauty of the language; the idea that despite complete understanding, a delight in the sound can be savoured. Unlike previous productions NYT commissions, we do not have complete creative freedom and there are specific guidelines we need to keep to with LOCOG, Universal and EMI who hold the rights to Queen’s music. Nevertheless, Brian May knows of our plans for the performance and we have been assured that he has plans to visit music rehearsals. Stephen Daldry, who has directed Billy Elliot and The Reader is also making an appearance next Saturday. Even now, it doesn’t seem real that I can type that and it actually be true.

After throwing each other around the room through a series complex lifts and dives in an attempt to build trust amongst the company the afternoon drifted into a session with representatives from LOCOG. The ceremonies are made up of the Team Welcoming Ceremonies, the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Closing Ceremonies and the Paralympic Ceremonies, the latter of which we are also involved in. The Olympic Torch was passed around the room and we were allowed access to an Olympic and a Paralympic Gold Medal. They are designed by David Watkins and  weigh 400g. The main emblem on the medal is of the Thames running through the Olympic Logo. We were allowed photos with the medal but only the athlete who wins the medal is entitled to wear it around their neck.

The rehearsal then turned to a two hour music workshop with Tristan Parkes and Bunny. The main purpose of the majority of the rehearsals within the first week are in order to develop a mutual language amongst the cast and the directors. These workshops were particularly for Tristan to pinpoint main singers and to test the groups sense of harmony and musical togetherness. This developed from a warm-up and extended into making small scratch performances to showcase individual voices.

A ten hour rehearsal and a two hour commute home. Incredibly tiring but rewarding first day.


Day Two: Tuesday 26th June

10am-1pm: Circuit Training and Lifts
2pm-3pm: Music workshop with Bunny
3PM-5PM: Speech workshop with Paul Roseby.

Kane Husbands is notorious for his physically exhausting and simultaneously invigorating movement workshops. Kane is our choreographer and his aim for the entire rehearsal process is to rapidly increase our stamina. He wants to prepare us fully for the extended periods of time we’ll be outside, tiring in itself, and indeed for the many performances we’re likely to be involved in each day. Physical stamina and strength is vital to the performance of stadium art and is the core of most of National Youth Theatre’s training. And so, the morning began with an intense hour and a half session of circuit training. In groups of five we travelled around burpees, squats, 3 minute planks and other such wonderfully painful activities. I’m writing this the morning after and it’s definitely a struggle to climb stairs.

We then moved onto more complex lifts including those above our heads, around the whole body, and dance-like lifts at the side of the body. Whilst these are exercises to build our own vocabulary, they are also to test and find a feel for how well we can perform these exercises. The last lift above the head and a climb around the body in itself became a spectacle and when accompanied with music, they did become something quite beautiful. The lifts are incredibly challenging but the sense of trust amongst the cast makes them entirely conquerable.

After lunch, we moved off into our split cast formations into a music workshop with Bunny. The focus was on using the original scores of Bicycle Race by Queen to inspire new versions and again to test the water to see how well we cope with composing under pressure. We played with creating operatic, soul and folk versions of the song along with beatbox and dubstep style rewrites. Testing the quality of each genre and revealing which particular lines work well with which genre was interesting and enlightening in terms of incorporating the qualities of the cast’s voices and to combine the musical landscape of the whole of Great Britain. We are indeed a microcosm for the whole of the country and it’s definitely important for us to remember this in terms of fairly representing all regions. The majority of the cast are from the Southern region so I’m proud to be representing the North of England and indeed Scotland.

Paul Roseby then workshopped voice and text with us. The main body of the script comes from poetry written by a cast member Deanne Rodgers. The language is relatively simplistic but there is a need for it to be understandable by all regardless of whether the audience are native speakers. Really, it is akin to negative spacing in art; drawing the outside of the shape of the apple for instance, rather than the apple itself. You’re filling the outside to reveal the inside. Radio drama exercises revealed that the key lies in the sound of the language rather than the meaning of the language. Upward inflections, tonal changes and the use of accents are particularly significant. We making the choral speaking alive, not robotic but still allowing for individual voices and accents to be heard. Here’s a snippet of what we were working on:

We open our court of jest and fun.
To you who have travelled oceans and land.
Our golden race- is now in hand.

Before you run, before you leap
For medals bronze, silver, gold to reap

First lays your ears
To our lips
And kiss
Our sounds
With patient heart

For in this Elizabethan age, our second in history
The Queen of Ceremonies will first wish you victory.

Lungs charged with determined breathe we welcome you all

We got let off at 5pm instead of 8pm which was definitely welcome by the whole cast. Day 2 and we are all exhausted. But alas, the fun continues….


Day 3: Wednesday 27th June

Today was the first day we were broken off into our original casting groups. These are divided into the Ensemble, Musicians, Choir and the Movers. I have been cast in the choir which makes up about 30 of the cast. Everything we rehearse is doubled because of the need for a rotation of cast. There are 130 of us in total split into two casts of 75. We began the morning with a much needed and appreciated series of relaxation exercises focusing on our diaphragm and breathing. The massage section of any morning is obviously a highlight. We then split off into groups according to our preferred genres in order to enhance our individual sound. The genre divides were made up of Classical, Soul, Indie, Pop and Folk. At first we developed harmonic accapella versions of You’ve Got the Love; the pop group featured a hilarious version of Justin Bieber and then we moved onto versions of Bicycle Race. The idea is to develop individually so our sub-sections don’t get lost in the vast number of cast. During the afternoon we came back to the musicians and engaged in a ‘sharing’ of that which we had developed. The musicians had worked from a score to develop an orchestral version of Bicycle Race and so naturally they merged with the classical version of Bicycle Race. LOCOG have dictated that formalities remain and because the main structure of the script has been signed off, there is little room for change initially. The rest of the choir merged with the band section made up of ‘pans,’ guitar, bass, harp and the accordion. Together we worked on the harmonies and the staccato rhythms of a dubstep inspired version of ‘We are the Champions.’

Whilst the work is useful, much of the process at this stage is experimentation and whilst it does become frustrating when work gets lost, you just have to accept it is merely part of the journey. The rest of the week will be a lot of trying and testing, feeling our way through the first bases of the piece. Whilst its only 30 minutes long, every single second has to count because of the amount of cameras that could be sitting at every corner of the Plaza space. No-one is going to be lost in the cast and every movement, note and word counts.


Day 4: Thursday 28th June

The first day of rehearsals that became truly frustrating. But it is all in the name of giving ownership to the whole cast rather than it becoming a dictatorship. Because of the definite constraints we’re under with LOCOG there is a danger it could become constrained by these limitations. Instead this is where we have been given a certain amount of creative freedom.

The structure of the day was very loose and mainly became a series of experiments; one of which I’ve attached as a soundfile at the bottom of the page. It feels like very little got done, but a lot of learning, discovering, trying and testing took place which is indeed vital to the way we approach the entirety of the piece and the rehearsals. We are currently split into groups according to core ability; Choir, Musicians, Movement and Ensemble but this doesn’t mean to say that we are limited to only these. We played around with We Are the Champions and Don’t Stop Me Now whilst the orchestra and the classical singers developed the original score of Bicycle Race. The latter song will open the whole show and sets the formal tone and adds a degree of surprise to what could easily be seen as a ‘youth’ show.

It is anything but that.


Day 5: Friday 29th June

9am-1pm: Movement warm-up and blocking with Kane : combination of blocking from all four disciplines
2pm-3pm: Sharing those with the other half of the cast
4pm: A special guest arrives

It was a pleasure to get back to the movement side of the performance after a very stagnant few days singing and playing instruments. The soundtrack to the whole performance is vital of course, but it’s equally as important that we maintain other areas of our performance despite our nominated core ability. The divides in ability are merely there to develop the core material which is teachable to the rest of the cast. Everything is doubled and relayed. We started the morning with Kane’s trademark routine involving a series of ines copying a particular move which can be anything from a pirouette across a 50ft rehearsal space or long jumps to the best soundtrack possible at 9am in the morning. It’s surprising how much you itch for physicality; it’s a brilliant way of psyching you up for acting and the physicality of characters. We had a short ballet workshop in order to imitate the held physique of the Elizabethan age. It was a unique way of achieving the upright and regal movements of the aristocracy and led into the blocking perfectly.

The previous afternoon the ‘movers’ had been working on the opening sequence which unsurprisingly has to come in with a real veracity. We sat and watched what they had been working on before being incorporated into the sequence. Personally I’m singing in the choir but the rest of the cast create an opening spectacle which incorporates a traditional call on a trumpet and the setting off of a race. Instead of running theres a series of cartwheels, complex lifts and regal elizabethan dances accompanied by an orchestral version of Bicycle Race. Theres a huge amount going on within the first three minutes of the show and most definitely fulfills the brief of a ‘stadium spectacle.’ This leads into the text that opens the ‘court of jest and fun.’ We worked on the impetus behind the lines with Paul Roseby for an hour, scrutinizing every last detail of the intonation to ensure a melody was maintained. The words are not language, but a song. The core of the beginning of the piece is there but obviously needs to be tightened and rehearsed time and time again. Across such a large area theres huge room of error in the timing and the cues for each cartwheel, trumpet blast and lift. Umbrellas are opened to reveal a series of tickets intricately timed to the calls of ‘bronze,silver and gold.’

This took us right up until 3pm and we were informed earlier of the possibility of a guest coming through to see rehearsals. Those who wanted to carry on could but the other cast were the primary attention. Everyone waited, naturally. At 4pm, none other than the ex NYT member Matt Smith who plays the current Doctor Who walked through the door. All of our jaws dropped simultaneously and a rapturous applause followed. Paul bought him through in the middle of the choreographed sequence. IT was great to see how humble he was despite his success and he announced he expressed vehemently how much NYT made an effect on his career and his life as an actor. He gained his first agent from an NYT show in London and that paved the way to where he is now as Doctor Who. Smith spoke highly on his time with the organization, what he learnt and the friends and indeed networking group he still holds close today. He shared the same opinion as all of us that National Youth Theatre is quite literally a life changing and defining endeavor. The opportunities you are given access to, the things you learn and the friends you meet really are an unexplainable unit. Matt expressed his intention to come and see us at the Olympics and showered praise over the cast. He kindly allowed us to ask questions about his career and some novelty personal questions. It was amazing to have a base on which we all shared a common appreciation. Despite what I write and the insights I can give, those who have experienced NYT have a universal language. They know what you go through, experience and how you grow as an individual and as an actor throughout your time with the organization.

Meeting someone so successful reinvigorated our passion for and excitement about the work. Matt Smith is a testament to the success we are all striving for. As he said, we’re all still young yet. There’s no rush. But we’re having the time of our lives.


Day 6: Saturday 30th June

2pm-5pm: Singing with Tristan

A weekend rehearsal but a shorter and more relaxed day. The main aim of the day was to get the basics down of We Are the Champions. The only way I can describe it is as dubstep jazz. It has brassy ‘stabs’ and a dubstep beat accompanied by staccato singing. It works incredibly well and provides a contrast to the other two songs in the piece. Work on this featured the majority of the cast so we then broke off into a smaller group of lead vocals who felt they could sing individually and had a deep soul resonance to their voice. It’s astounding the level of talent in the cast and it was wonderful to hear everyone’s voice individually. It’s easy for these qualities to get lost in the chorus work and its great they’re encouraging us to maintain our own quirks. It adds a richness to the group; we are not striving for uniformity.

Tomorrow a day off; a move to central London and a visit to the Tate to see Damien Hirst’s exhibition.


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