Now that the London 2012 Olympic Games is officially over, I reminisce with nostalgia on my participation to this event when the world came together to celebrate humanity through sports. My part was a Coal Miner in the “Pandemonium” or Industrial Revolution segment where the Five Olympic Rings representing each continent were forged to show unity in the most spectacular segment of the ceremonies. It was a daunting task but we were all amazed how we all pulled it off given the fact that majority of the performers where ordinary people coming from different walks of life of British Society who are trying to contribute in their own small way in creating something big. The Opening Ceremonies was indeed dubbed “This is for everyone.”
Last December 2011, a friend posted on Facebook that the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) is still looking for volunteers to audition to become part of one of the Olympics or Paralympics ceremonies. I thought that maybe this is my best chance to be able to watch an opening ceremonies live since I have no ticket and the ones available are very expensive. But at the back my head, I had apprehensions because I am not a performer. I did some theatre when I was still in school but I have never auditioned before for an event where I will perform live to an audience of 80,000 people and be watched by a billion people on TV worldwide. I read the application and it said that I don’t need to prepare anything and that I just have to be myself and most importantly have lots of enthusiasm which I already have. So I applied online without expecting that I will be chosen among the ballot of thousands.
Three weeks later I received an email from the LOCOG that I was chosen in the ballot. They asked me to choose an audition date in February 2012 to test my abilities if I can be part of one of the Olympic Ceremonies. When my audition day arrived, I went to the 3 Mills studio in East London. I was surprised to see my competition and the number of people who were there at the audition – people from different walks of life, young and old, and from different nationalities residing in the UK who came from various parts of the country. It was like a microcosm of British Society in one venue. I, for one was just an international scholar from the Philippines hoping for a chance to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform in an Olympics Ceremony. They gave us our Bib number and they first tested our sense of direction. They put us in a big grid – north, south, east, west with a corresponding letter and numbers. They asked us to physically go to the specific letter and number spot in the grid as directed, if you get lost the chances of being recalled for the next round of audition diminishes. The second part of the audition was testing our dancing skills if we can memorise choreography. I did my best in the audition but I didn’t expect to be recalled back as I noticed that there were other people better than me.
After two days, I got recalled for a second and final audition. What surprised me is that the people who I expected to be there who were much more physically fit and talented in my mind were not there anymore. The people who were there were the ones who I didn’t expect to be there as they were ordinary just like me. I said to myself, what did they saw in me? I didn’t have any talent at all but I did my best. In the second audition, they tested our acting skill in particular. They asked us to line-up in the number order of our Bibs and to perform acting sequences such as how to lay a picnic mat without having a picnic mat, how to fish, and to act out our daily routines from waking up to brushing our teeth until we go home and sleep. It was nerve wracking as they were videotaping us at the same time there were judges going around the studio. The question is how do you get noticed from among thousands who will be trimmed down to become part of the selected volunteer performers? They also let us do some dance choreography which was actually part of the segment they were auditioning us for. The hardest part is that usually I tend to follow the person in front of me, but unfortunately for me, he always does the wrong steps that I tend follow. I was physically drained after that audition and got sick afterwards. My hopes were not high because I did a lot of mistakes. They told us that they will hear from them in the next four weeks.
Four weeks have passed, still I didn’t hear from them. Then the following week I received an email that I have to wait a few more weeks as they are still evaluating all the people who auditioned. Finally, after waiting for almost two months, I got a reply that I got chosen to be part of Field of Play (FOP) – 44 “Warriors” or Coal Miners to do a utility part of the most spectacular sequence of the event. I was very elated that my two auditions were successful and I never have imagined that I will get this far. They asked us to attend the briefing day on May 1 and to submit our volunteer contract and non-disclosure agreement as this was top secret project.
During the briefing, Steve Boyd, Head of Mass Movement Choreography, asked all of us selected volunteer performers, on who among us have worked with an Oscar academy award winning director? Of course none of us raised our hands. But he said, do you not know that all of you will be working with one? Then he introduced us to Danny Boyle, the Artistic Director of the Opening Ceremonies who have directed several critically acclaimed films such as Slumdog Millionaire. Danny then asked all of us to converge around the miniature model of the Olympic Stadium with the model of the Green and Pleasant land stage of the Opening Ceremonies. He described to us what we are going to do and where we would come out of the field of play and told us that there would be live animals in the stage, real grass, flowers and plants, etc. The question that came to our minds how do we move all of this props in a few minutes? Then they showed us the concept of our sequence through video. All of us got goose bumps watching what we are supposed to do and the music by Underworld was exhilarating. The organisers told us that what we are doing is like having all West End shows happening simultaneously in one night.
Prior to that, I was really pondering if I should accept the role as it was a 20-day commitment within June and July when I was suppose to write my dissertation. But after meeting Danny Boyle and seeing the concept video, it was just so hard to turn down this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of something great especially if we pull it off. I made my decision, I chose to do the Olympics Opening Ceremonies because I do not think that I’ll have another opportunity to perform again in my lifetime, I can be a spectator in future Olympics but the chance of becoming a performer rarely comes and I don’t want to regret this decision especially that I am living in London in this very special year for the UK. It was time for me to give back to my host country, which have been so generous to me in giving me the opportunity to study here.
The first practice and succeeding ones was held at a secret location in Dagenham in Zone 5 East of London. We were given an oyster card for ceremonies volunteers and a work wear overalls to protect us from the elements as we were practicing in an open air environment. The first three weeks was held outside of the Olympic Stadium and the weather was not cooperating. It was raining hard all the time that we had to have ponchos to protect ourselves from getting sick. The Mass Choreography told us that in 20 days time they will transform us to become talented actors and performers. We just need to be committed and keep on practicing. Danny Boyle was really a hands-on director as he was always there during the rehearsals and he always try to pep talk each of the group of volunteers. He was very charismatic and approachable person. There was one time when he approached our group and I asked him where the Olympic Cauldron was and he told me in jest “I wouldn’t be friendly anymore as that is a secret you’ll only know on the day itself.” None of us volunteers ever found out where the cauldron was and how it looked like after the opening day as it was a closely guarded secret. He tries to empower each one of us that we are doing something extra-ordinary, something spectacular and that we should believe in ourselves that we can do it. The atmosphere was very friendly among the volunteers, each one helping and assisting one another.
Prior to our part of the sequence, during the Green and Pleasant segment, there were farmers and milkmaids tending 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens, 3 cows, 2 goats, 10 ducks, and 9 geese on stage. When Isambard Brunel, who was an English mechanical and civil engineer that started the industrial revolution, spoke about the coming “Tempest,” the 40ft oak tree model rises, and that is the time where we come out of the grassy hill or “Tor.” Coming out from that location gave us the best vantage view of the whole stadium. My task alongside with 200 other coal miners was to assist in dismantling the props on stage from the other groups who were assigned into different “counties” all within 15 minutes. Just imagine the sheer number of props on stage that we have to move quickly! It was an organised chaos so to speak. There were around 2500 volunteer performers in this sequence alone. Real and artificial turfs were laid on the stage and around 26,156 sq ft was removed in the change of scene from rural to industrial Britain. When all the props are taken out, a giant map of London’s streets is shown. This map was created by urban planning and design company Space Syntax which was based on a mathematical analysis of street networks developed by researchers at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture. Seven 100ft Balloon smokestacks or chimneys were inflated by high-powered fans. A dry-ice machine was also used so that you can smell the sulphur inside the stadium to show pollution. Looms and models of Bessemer steam engines were brought and constructed on stage. Special LED lighting and firework effects were used to create the river of molten steel. A series of winches raised the central ring to join the four others flying in on cables.
Brunel was played by British actor Kenneth Branagh. The background music of this sequence was done by the electronic music duo Underworld who previously worked with Danny Boyle in his films. We had two technical dress rehearsals prior to the Opening to polish everything from entrance to exit. I had to literally grow my hair long and beard to be able to capture the look of the period and we also had to put charcoal make-up on our faces. We were worried during the Opening Ceremonies hoping that it won’t rain given the fact that it is typical British weather. All the things that we move becomes heavier and wet when it rains and the grassy hill that we come out off become slippery. Had the winds were strong, the Chimneys could have bend and it wouldn’t have looked good. Luckily the weather cooperated during the Opening Ceremonies and it was just perfect. One thing that was not apparent in the TV coverage was the sound of the drum beats of 1,000 drummers in the stadium. It was an awesome sight and sound theatrical performance to behold.
I will never forget this once-in-a-lifetime experience and I will do it all over again if I given the chance. Initially, there was a lot of pessimism in the media that London 2012 cannot top what Beijing 2008 did, but Danny Boyle reminded us that what we are doing is something great, something different, and it will be led by volunteers, the people behind the performance, the passion and the emotions. Comparing ourselves and trying to compete with what Beijing 2008 did was a tall order, but it liberated Danny and his team to do something entirely that is British, something that is very creative and unique that has captivated the whole world about the UK. But most importantly, they valued the small contribution of every single volunteer as when you combine all these efforts, you are able to harness the energy of all participants to create something that is great such as the Olympics that will be able to “inspire a generation.”
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