Busting terrible information


As a librarian, information is my “thing”. The teaching that I do is as much about evaluating sources of information as it is about finding them. And so, I find bad information, fake news and misleading social media posts to be really irritating.

I see a lot of bad information and fake news on Facebook, but I don’t always challenge it. That would be a full-time job. But this morning, I did challenge something, because it was particularly ridiculous.

A laptop computer displaying a web page with the word "Fake News" as the banner.
Fake News Media. Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 

I am not going to share the post that wound me up, because I don’t want to propagate it further, hence the “fake news” image. It consisted of a bar graph showing “Disease deaths per day worldwide”. COVID-19 is a way down the image with a figure of 56. An arrow points to it with text reading “THIS is what collapsed the world economy”. Alarm bells rang instantly, and a couple of other people had commented on the post already asking when it was from. The person who had shared it did not know, so I thought I’d do some digging.

First, I took a look at the reported deaths from COVID-19. Statista gave a figure of 757, 471 deaths to 14th August. The WHO has a slightly lower figure of 757,154. If you divide this by the number of days in the year so far, you get either 3,194 or 3,196 deaths per day. Incidentally, this is higher than any of the other figures on the viral post (the highest is tuberculosis, with 3,014). Even if you assume no more deaths will occur for the rest of the year, it would still work out as over 2,000 per day, around the same as the figure for malaria.

This did not answer the question of when the figure of 56 deaths per day worldwide would be from. So I took a look back, using the WHO’s daily situation reports. There are, of course, issues with these reports, as different countries report in slightly different ways with different lengths of delay, but they are the best data I had to work with. According to the WHO, at the end of February, there had been a total of 86 deaths reported worldwide, but by end of March it was over 36,000 and worked out at 400 per day. The last day that I went to work on campus was 18th March, a week before the UK’s national lockdown. I did the calculation for that date – 100 per day. By my reckoning, the last possible date when the figure could have been true would have been 15th March.

I then grew curious about the other figures given in the viral post. Were they accurate. The first alarm bell is that most of these sorts of figures are only available retrospectively – there are very few diseases for which anyone keeps a daily global tally. Generally, such statistics are collated and released after year end. So it seemed unlikely that they were up-to-date stats from 2020. But were they accurate at all?

Surprisingly, yes. I did a few spot checks on the higher totals by finding reported yearly deaths from various diseases and dividing those totals by the number of days in that year. They checked out, roughly. I wasn’t able to identify the exact year in most cases, but they were in the right ball park.

But then I looked further down the list at the diseases with lower figures than COVID-19 and found SARS was listed there. I was fairly confident that there has not been a SARS outbreak recently, but wanted to be sure, so I checked the WHO, the CDC and a number of other sources. Indeed, no outbreak since 2004. The low figure given did match up to the 2002-2003 outbreak, but at this point it was clear that the data was a complete hodge-podge from different years and not worth anyone’s time.

My Facebook friend who shared the post had done it with the best of intentions – to spark a debate about whether it was accurate. But it still concerns me when such obviously bad information is shared, hence not sharing or linking to it here.

I would agree that there are numerous issues with COVID-19 data, particularly how it is counted and categorised, and there are absolutely arguments to be had about the economic impact of measures against COVID-19, not to mention education, societal and mental health impacts. But these figures were not the way to do it.

Still a librarian


These are, to say the least, uncertain times. I am one of the lucky ones, at least so far, but the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly affected me.

The Singing Librarian at work
The Singing Librarian at work in more normal times

Like all libraries in the UK, mine is now closed. The doors are shut for an unspecified (and unspecefiable) amount of time, the study spaces are unoccupied and the books remain untouched on the shelf. And yet, the library is open. As much as we possibly can, we have moved online. And many of the things which make the library a library are still there. Services, resources, support. And most importantly, people. That’s all still there. It’s just that “there” has a different meaning.

When I have told people I’m working from home, to a pretty normal pattern of hours, some have been confused. How can a librarian possibly work from home? I would say that a library needs librarians (in the broadest sense), otherwise it’s just a building full of books, but a librarian doesn’t need a physical library. However much we might love it and miss it and long to get back to it.

So, what do I do from home? For some of the time, the answer is the same as for everyone else who has had to move what they’d normally do face-to-face into the online world. Grapple with technology. Manage the flood of notifications. Say “yes, we can hear you” many times a day. But beyond that, what can I do? I can support, I can advise and I can teach.

Support. The library already provides online guidance, but this has become more important than ever. So a good chunk of my time has been spent creating additional guidance for those students and staff who are working off campus for the first time. Reassurance, instructions, information. I have also begun informing different subjects about the resources available electronically, including some which have been made available temporarily during the pandemic.

Advise. I can answer queries. A trickle at first, as everyone had other things on their mind. But a steady stream now, and no doubt a torrent eventually. The usual sorts of questions I would get in the library, just answered by email, through Skype calls, or (after carefully blocking my caller ID, as I don’t have a work phone when at home) by telephone. It takes longer, particularly for telephone calls where neither of us can see the other’s screen. But this essential part of my role remains essentially unchanged.

Teach. Universities across the world have been plunged into an online-only model of teaching and learning for the time being. The three I work for are included in this. I had some teaching planned in for the coming weeks, and am in the process of taking what I would have taught face-to-face and seeing how I can teach this electronically. This is not a simple process, as simply recording a video lecture and telling the students to watch it isn’t really teaching. I have to think about what I want students to learn, how this can best be achieved, and how to engage with the students as people.

Soon, I will be able to get to some of the routine things – making sure our book budget gets spent (on ebooks, obviously!), maintaining online platforms etc. Hopefully do some CPD. Develop our online guidance in a more planned way rather than just reacting. Write a journal article. For now, the most urgent things are the only things getting done. And that’s fine. Everything is taking longer, so I am being kind to myself and just getting done what I can get done. The rest can wait. I’m not going anywhere. Nor is anyone else. But it is good to know that I can be a librarian from home just as much as I can in a library.

Reflecting on The Emperor’s Clothes


So, it has been a week since we closed the wardrobe doors for the time being, and stowed a tremendous variety of clothing items away after the final performance of the debut production of The Emperor’s Clothes. I have come back down to Earth after a tremendous post-production high, and therefore I feel I can write about the experience.

A blue wardrobe with a yellow interior. The clothes inside show the title The Emperor's Clothes.

It was magical. Absolutely magical. No theatrical experience I have had can compare to experiencing an audience reacting to something you have created. Hearing people laugh at jokes or funny moments I dreamed up, or hearing the (sometimes incredibly sustained) applause following my friend and colleague Phil Hornsey’s songs was thrilling. Seeing the characters take three-dimensional form and continue to grow over the five performances, and experiencing the amazing company spirit from everyone involved was heart-warming as well.

The audience reaction was phenomenal, beyond anything I could have expected, and we are quite determined to take this show (and specifically Legacy Performers’ production of it) further.

But first, we need to reflect. The saying “Plays are not written, they’re rewritten” is attributed to 19th-century actor/playwright Dion Boucicault. And it is certainly true of The Emperor’s Clothes. The script that was performed was at least the third complete draft, and won’t be the last. We now have a much better idea of what plays well and what doesn’t, which moments land with an audience, which don’t, and which could if they were set up differently. So the rewrite pencils need to come out. Thankfully, we don’t think we need to do major surgery, just a few nips and tucks. Mostly because the show needs to run a bit shorter, so we need to shave off 10 or 15 minutes. We know the songs all work, though we may trim one or two reprises. The majority of the editing needs to be from the book.

So how will I go about that. In a few ways.

First, repetition – experiencing the show with an audience made me spot areas of repetition which read throughs and rehearsals simply didn’t highlight. There are a few things which we get told twice. So my job is to work out which telling is funnier or more essential to the characters. The other one will need to go.

Second – unnecessary utterances. Looking back over the script, I can now see lines which really serve no purpose. They don’t advance the plot, set up a laugh or expand the characters. So they can go.

Third, pace. We can review the recording we made of the show (for our own purposes) and see where the pace flags. The director and performers did an excellent job of maintaining energy, so any flagging in pace is likely to indicate that the script could be tightened.

Finally, being brutal and asking the question of “do we really need this?” Some exchanges are there because they’ve always been there, but do they still need to be? Or they were written to serve a particular purpose in drawing the characters, but that purpose may now have been answered somewhere else. For example, during the first act we make sure that the audience really doesn’t like one particular character – he is consistently unpleasant to other characters (other than the Emperor) and even if he doesn’t do anything technically villainous, he makes himself very easy to dislike. But do we need every instance of this? Are some of them overkill, or have we got just the right amount of nasty?

Editing is going to be tricky, but ultimately rewarding if we can make this piece (described to me by one enthusiastic audience member as “a gem”) eve better. I would not have missed the Emperor’s experience for anything, which was as much to do with the talented and lovely group of people who came together for it, and it is certainly not going to be the last time my work gets performed.

Onwards and upwards!

Weaving the Emperor’s clothes


I don’t have words to describe how exciting today is. I will soon be leaving the house to go and help get the set and costumes in to the theatre for a show. Not exactly unusual for me, you might think. But this time, it’s a new show which will debut on 28th February at the Arden Theatre in Faversham. And I wrote it!

A blue wardrobe with a yellow interior. The clothes inside show the title The Emperor's Clothes.

Back in 2017, my good friend Phil Hornsey (composer, choir master, musical director and all-round excellent person) asked me to be involved with workshopping some songs for a new show he was working on, based on the fairy tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A few months later, he asked if I could help him with the book (musical theatre-speak for the script), and eventually the book became my thing. I was (and am) so honoured to be asked – the score for this show is, if I may say so, amazing. “A Thousand Footsteps” in particular needs to be heard by as many people as possible – it’s a real stunner.

Now, three years later, we are fast approaching opening night. We held a workshop of a few scenes in the summer of 2017. We then deleted two characters (one was particularly sad to lose as they had some funny lines which we had no way to give to anyone else), and developed it as a show for seven performers, each playing a main role and doubling as a member of the Emperor’s court. We lost the New from the title of the show, as it really is about all of the Emperor’s clothes, not just his new ones. We held a road-through which helped us get to grips with the trickiest characters. And now here we are. With five performances this coming weekend, our show is being brought to life by ten amazing performers, plus the usual small army of musicians, backstage crew, technical wizards and front of house staff.

As I write, about 250 people have booked their tickets to come and see the show, and we’ve had a great reaction to the teaser videos we have put out, even with my very basic video creation skills!

Teaser video 3: “Everyone Knows” (Music & Lyrics by Phil Hornsey).

Seeing these characters come to life, having spent years developing them, is a very special feeling. Which is why I am brimming with excitement (with grace notes of terror) to start getting the set in place. Some brilliant people have helped us out by designing and constructing a centre-piece wardrobe, and our poor producer has tracked down what feels like every possible item of yellow clothing (there’s a reason for that).

I plain to write more about this experience over the next week or so, but for now here are some links:

The Singing Librarian’s 2019 in review – Theatre part 2: doing it


As ever, I haven’t “just” watched theatre this year, I have also been actively involved. I attended the NODA Summer School for the second year running, this year doing a brilliant course on Directing Musical Theatre. I haven’t yet had a chance to put this into practice, as all my theatrical activities this year have been on the stage.

A number of concerts have happened throughout the year, which have seen me sing songs including ‘True Colours’, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, ‘Anthem’ and ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’. The latter was part of Singalong Christmas, which sees us tell the story of the birth of Christ through a wide variety of songs – this one is sung by one of the shepherds, in case you were wondering.

I also performed in two musicals, and I am going to take them in reverse order.

A close-up of a pair of eyes, with the word EVITA written across them.

Promo image of Magaldi in Evita.

First, Evita, which was performed in the Autumn. This was my first time performing in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and rather handily is my favourite of his well-known shows. I played the role of Magaldi, and became accustomed to saying “you know, the role played by Jimmy Nail in the film…”. I didn’t try to emulate Jimmy Nail (never try to copy a performance!), but tried to put my own stamp on it. The character doesn’t have much stage time, but he does memorably sing ‘On This Night of a Thousand Stars’. Twice. This role allowed me to unleash my vocals in a way I don’t usually do – the character is a singer, and a show-off at that. So I put every ounce of volume and embellishment into his big solo that I could find. I also had to hit some ridiculously high notes (without switching to falsetto) in one of the other numbers, which took a few people by surprise. The show was not easy, with tricky harmonies and some super-fast costume changes, but it worked really well.  The direction and design, along with the performances, created something rather special.

A man in a brown cardigan opening a large book.

The Singing Librarian as Henry Higgins.

And before that was My Fair Lady, performed in the Spring. Yes, I’ve done this show before. But this time was different. Last time, I played Freddy Eynsford-Hill. This time, I played Professor Henry Higgins. This really was the role of a lifetime for me. I’m a character actor, not a romantic lead, so although I have played a fantastic variety of parts, the leading male role in a musical never seemed very likely. And what a role! So many fantastic actors have tackled this part before, and everyone thinks they know the character. He is, I realised, not a very nice man at all. His linguistic snobbishness is quite funny, as is his disdain of certain social conventions such as dressing properly for Ascot. But his attitude towards women, although often played for comedy, really isn’t funny, a fact which audiences can perhaps see more easily now. So a challenge – be true to the character without making him a villain. Enjoy the role and the songs without excusing his behaviour.

And I think it worked. I am as proud of my performance as Henry Higgins as I am of anything else I have achieved in the theatre. It was incredibly difficult, bringing me to tears at times, and I frequently doubted that I could carry it off (not least because at 40, I felt rather young for the part, even though the actor portraying him on Broadway at the time was about the same age as me). But on the night(s), it felt right. As the curtain came down, I knew that we had put on a great show, and that I had done the part justice. We got some fantastic feedback, too, including a glowing show report from NODA.

So two very different roles, which allowed me to prove (if only to myself) that I definitely can act and sing. 2020 has some excitement in store already in terms of my involvement with theatre. It has a great year to live up to!

 

The Singing Librarian’s 2019 in review – Theatre part 1: Watching it


About 20 theatre programmes scattered atop each other.

Some of 2019’s theatre viewing.

This has been quite a year for seeing shows. I have seen 4 West End musicals, 2 Broadway musicals (thanks to my most amazing housemates) and a whole host of other plays, musicals and pantomimes. This has included probably the best show I have ever seen, along with many other memorable moments.

When I see a show, I try to just enjoy it as an audience member. But parts of my brain inevitably end up watching it as an actor, a director, a stage manager, a writer. My mind is awash with “why did they do it like that?”, “nice lighting effect!”, “I wonder how often people spot that switch?”, “fantastic juxtaposition!”, “why was that scene needed?” and “ooh, cool segue!”. As well, of course, as the usual “wow!” and “yay!” and the occasional “bored now…”.

A couple of the shows I saw in London are fairly new musicals which have already established themselves as smash hits and likely to be classics that future generations revive over and over again. Hamilton was one of the slickest productions I can remember, with excellent timing, choreography and company work. Brilliant writing, too, which forces you to pay attention to lyrics delivered at breakneck speed. It struck me that there were many things in this very American show which echo some of the big issues in British society today – certainly I felt that there were things which would resonate with both Remainers and Leavers. And Come From Away, telling the story of Gander, Newfoundland in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, is both uplifting and heartbreaking. This too had brilliant company work, using simple costume changes and a few chairs to create a wide variety of people and places. Definitely the best thing I saw in the UK this year…

Locally, I saw some excellent productions as well. The Lindley Players at the Whitstable Playhouse produced some cracking plays this year. Beautiful ThingThe Woman Who Cooked Her Husband and Frankenstein were all engrossing and memorable with some spot-on performances. I saw Frankenstein in rehearsal (as I was on stage elsewhere during all of its performances), but even without lighting or full costume it was haunting and moving. I saw some original writing as well, which ranged from the sublime to the awkward. This included a brilliantly unsettling piece of site-specific theatre, Left Behind, performed in an attic, plus an unconventional murder mystery. I also saw a rare thing – a musical that I didn’t think should have been a musical. I won’t name it, but it was a case where the piece would have worked much better as a play which would have allowed the potentially fascinating story to live in a different way.

I travelled around England to see friends perform, direct and musical direct a range of shows. One of my friends turned in an astonishing portrayal of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar (yes, I’m probably biased, but he was quite incredible). Others wowed me as fairy tale princesses in Disenchanted and a wide variety of jesters, fairies and more ordinary folk. I love a good pantomime (oh yes I do) and got to see three of them this year. Some of these were quite far away, but well worth the travel time to see friends being amazing and to shout, cheer and boo my head off.

Over in New York, we were lucky enough to take in 2 musicals – both excellent, but so very different. There was a different atmosphere to theatre in NYC, perhaps an extra crackle of anticipation in the air. The first show we saw was Frozen, which is brilliant at what it does. It takes a film which already had a highly theatrical score, and makes it work in a very different medium. The new songs add to it, with the standout being the bizarre ‘Hygge’ and the necessary ice and snow effects make for several “wow” moments – the most impressive being when Elsa’s ice powers spread across the theatre’s proscenium arch.

We then saw Hadestown. Definitely the best thing I saw this year and quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. It takes ancient myth and creates a tale for our time – despair and hope, victory and defeat, love and art and fear are all beautifully drawn. Someone near me in the stalls, probably around 20 years of age, said that she had been several times and this was her generation’s Rent. I didn’t get this at first, but when I talked about if afterwards, it made sense. There is a message of defiant hope, of perseverance against impossible odds and of faith when all seems bleak. This can speak so powerfully to the up and coming generation – a generation who have it all, and who have nothing. The richest ever generation materially, who often seem so poor in other ways, and who legitimately fear the future. These lyrics in particular speak to the growing feeling that there’s a battle which may be hopeless but will be fought nonetheless:

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright.

Our praise is not for them.

But the ones who sing in the dead of night.

We raise our cups to them.

I can’t explain why I loved Hadestown so much, but have never managed to articulate it. Everything just worked – writing, direction, performances, choreography, design, band, sense of occasion. In some ways it is so simple, in others so profound. It contained moment after moment after moment that I will never forget and which keep me thinking about them. About how these ancient stories seem so contemporary, and how hope can bloom in the darkest places. Perhaps it is impossible to explain, and perhaps that is the essence of live theatre – you simply have to be there.

To everyone involved in anything I saw this year, from the very best to the least impressive, and whether I have specifically named it here or not, I say a huge thank you. I was privileged to be in the room where each and every one of these performances happened. I can’t wait to see what the live stage brings in 2020 – if it’s even half as good as what I experienced this year, I’m in for a treat!

Not singing


For the first time since my Sixth Form days (way back in the 20th century!), I am acting in a play. True, in this century, I have played a whole host of characters in a pantomime, five operas and over two dozen musicals, but a play really does feel like a very different thing.  Some of my characters in these shows were non-singing, but I still added vocals to ensemble numbers, sometimes from the wings. I have always said that I approach a musical from the perspective of the words and the character, believing that if these are not in place, the music means nothing. But doing a play forces me to put my money where my mouth is. Can I act without music?

The play is The Year of the Hiker by John B. Keane. An Irish play first performed in 1963, it wasn’t one I’d ever heard of before. But I have grown to love it, as the characters have gradually revealed themselves during our rehearsal period. I am playing Joe Lacey, a young farmer who is forced to deal with some very complicated feelings. His father left 20 years ago, but returns in the play’s second scene. Joe has to work out how he feels about this and what to do when the reasons for his father’s return are revealed. He also has to negotiate a stormy relationship with his younger brother, and the conflicting demands of his other family members.

For the first act, Joe’s true feelings remain unseen. We see some flashes of anger, but not the reasons for them. We see that he doesn’t smile or laugh as much as his relatives, but we don’t find out why. This all comes out in a flood during the final scene, in one of the most emotional moments I have ever had to play. There is some resonance with characters I played in Footloose and When Midnight Strikes, dealing as they did with suppressed emotion in one case and serious daddy issues in the other. The balancing act of portraying a character who has all of this underneath the surface is hard – his eventual outburst needs to be surprising, yet not come out of nowhere.

When I do a musical, I can come offstage aching and sweaty. With the play, neither of these are true, yet I am still exhausted. Playing Joe is emotionally draining. And there are times during the play (particularly in the second act) when I don’t dare go back to the dressing room and sit down, despite having long periods offstage. To do that would break the spell – standing alone in the darkness backstage helps maintain my mood and focus. A musical requires a great deal of concentration too, but the need to stay in my character’s world here has a different quality to it, is more intense. I’m sure the professionals could cope much better, and snap into character in a moment, but I can’t, not for this. I need a bit of a run up!

Some audience members have told me that the show, and particularly one of my moments, has made them cry. I can’t remember anyone saying that since Footloose back in 2010. And there are times – not every time – when I really feel it, like a punch to the gut. I feel his hurt and anger, his bitterness, his incomprehension, his fortitude and later his lack of it. Some actors say they always experience this, that if they don’t feel the character’s emotions themselves, they can’t portray them. I don’t hold with that, but it is a powerful and somewhat frightening thing when it does happen to me.

It is often said of musicals that characters sing when words alone aren’t enough. Joe is a character who metaphorically can’t sing. He can hardly express himself in speech, and if an underscore were to start, I believe that there would be no melody, no harmony, no dance steps for him. His ability to sing and dance left him when his father walked out. He had to grow up overnight, and for Joe, part of that was leaving anything fun behind him. We get a hint that he had a social life, even a love life, once upon a time, but even that would have been a quiet, unemotional thing. As he puts it (speaking of filial affection) when he finally allows himself to sit down and talk to his father, “that kind of feeling isn’t in me.”

With two performances left, I am proud of what I have achieved here. I have proved to myself that I can act, not sing or perform (though I can do those things), but act. Take on a character and move an audience without the aid of music. And even when I’ve tied myself in knots with the script once or twice, I have been able to extricate myself and my fellow actors while remaining in character.

Will I do a play again? Absolutely. And hopefully it won’t be another 22 year gap between The Year of the Hiker and the next one, as there was between A Doll’s House and this. But I’m not going to give up musicals. Each is deeply challenging, each is deeply rewarding. The processes are much the same, but they feel so different and give differing qualities of satisfaction. I suspect I will remain a musicals man primarily, but now I know that I can be happy not singing.

The Year of the Hiker - flyer

Midnight Strikes again


WMS 2013 flyer

Lightning may or may not strike twice, but midnight most certainly can. During the last two weeks of August, I revisited a show I first performed in during 2010, When Midnight Strikes. Although this production of the show was with the same company as the first (Lights Up Productions), there were many differences – only a few cast members were the same, it was performed in a different venue, and we put it together over an intensive nine days of rehearsals. For me, though, a key difference was that I was playing a different character. Quite a challenge, and quite a fascinating experience seeing the show from a different perspective.

Last time I did the show, I was worried about letting others and myself down because the role was so different to the sorts of things I usually do. This time, I was worried because the role was quite similar to my usual casting – a character who exists almost entirely for comic purposes, a function much needed in what is quite an emotional show. What worried me was knowing that the comedy needed to be funny, but my character, Edward, needed to remain real. It would be detrimental to the style of the show if he came across as a broad caricature, and given that I have played several parts recently where hamming it up was strongly encouraged, I didn’t want to give in to that temptation.

Edward is one of the outsiders at the party which the show follows. Although he was invited (unlike some of the eventual ‘guests’), he does not fit in, to the extent that even the host and hostess don’t really want to talk to him. He falls in love at first sight with another character, but is far too nervous to actually talk to her, and makes a number of social mistakes throughout the course of the evening. For me, to make him real, I had to live inside his world for the whole show and think whatever he was thinking, even if I was sitting on a chair at the back of the set. Whether he was trying to join a conversation, working out how to talk to his intended love, or wondering whether a shocking announcement was true, he was always thinking something. And although he sometimes put on a cheerful front (particularly once the alcohol had been flowing for a while), there was a profound sadness to him. He desperately wanted to fit in, but knew that he didn’t. Even when things began to go his way, in his/my mind, he couldn’t quite believe it was really happening. Most of these thoughts and feelings would have gone completely unnoticed by the audience, but they helped me a great deal.

Nine days of rehearsal was a tight schedule, but still allowed for plenty of character work alongside the technical necessities of working out who goes where and when everyone’s head should move in the ensemble numbers. We would often stop to work out what each character’s reaction to a particular moment was, and we were strongly encouraged to develop our own storylines when we weren’t directly involved with the action. As the show is set at a party, we were all on stage for much of it – what were we doing, thinking, feeling during those times when we weren’t talking or even when we weren’t aware of what was being said by other characters? The ensemble nature of the show meant that the 12 different personalities interacted in numerous (sometimes quite complex) ways, and exploring these was fascinating.

Our director and musical director were both very keen on details. There were times when we all had to breathe in a song, regardless of whether we needed to take in air. There were head movements that had to happen at exactly the same time. Certain props needed to move from one place to another at exactly the right moment. Good enough was not good enough – we were aiming higher than that. All of this (in addition to the individual details) helped bring the ensemble together as a true ensemble. By the time we arrived in the theatre, the whole team (actors, musicians, stage management etc) was a team. We were all doing this together and it was worth doing.

We know it was worth doing from the reaction we’ve had since. People really enjoyed the show, and fed back positively about everyone involved. There really wasn’t a weak link in the cast (if we’re honest, we all know that there usually is, and we always know who it was) and it is a privilege to have been involved with the production. We coped with some major challenges, both emotional and technical and put on a great piece of theatre. Personally, I know I made a far better Edward than Christopher (the role I played last time). There are still things I’d like to have done better, but this was definitely a productive use of two weeks of my annual leave. There aren’t many shows I feel the need to revisit, but I would happily have midnight strike a third time in my life.

++++++++++++++++++++

Related posts (about When Midnight Strikes, the first time around):

Recording – Apparition Smith and the B Musical.


Although I have performed in everything from seventeenth-century opera to recent shows which began life on Broadway or the West End, it is particularly exciting to get to sing something which nobody else has sung before.  New works I’ve performed in include the Christmas oratorio Prepare the Way by Phil Hornsey and the musical Behind Closed Doors by Stephen Clee.

Last year, I was contacted by Ethan Lewis Maltby, who I know from performing in the ensemble of his musical Courtenay. He was recording material from 3 of his shows, and asked me to participate in two of them.  Firstly, B Musical, a science-fiction piece about the alien invasion of a small town.  And secondly, Apparition Smith, a 19th-century tale about a group who put on fake séances. The material from B Musical had been recorded before, though the show has yet to be performed, and the pieces from Apparition Smith were as yet unheard.

This was exciting – it was great (and rather flattering) to be asked to take part and exciting to sing something new.  I therefore spent some time learning the music and a few evenings recording it.  Recording is an unusual experience – there is no audience to play to and the environment is a strange one. Unlike in live performance, there is nothing you can do to hide, but you can go back and fix even the slightest error, and do it as many times as is necessary to get it just right. Of course, this didn’t mean that I didn’t get annoyed with myself when things didn’t go right – quite the reverse! There were bits of the section I sang in B Musical which made me more and more cross with myself as I struggled to get them right. Ethan and Jenna (the lyricist for Apparition Smith, who also did the sound engineering – a skill I am in awe of) were very patient, but I dread to think how many attempts we must have made.

A little while later, the results of everyone’s work were released, and sound great!  They have been made available on-line, and I really hope that they lead to the shows being picked up for production – I would be happy to see any one of them on the stage.  Each has its own website:

  • Apparition Smith. The tale of Nathanial Smith, a charismatic conman who travels 19th-century Britain setting up fake séances. I can be heard on the tracks ‘The Legend of Apparition Smith’ as a Legend-Teller and ‘Setting Up For a Séance’ as Ed.
  • B-Musical.  A comedy about a typical American family who have to deal with the somewhat unexpected arrival of aliens in their community. I play the part of Pa, and can be heard on the tracks ‘Strangeness About’ and ‘Tantrum’
  • Courtenay. The true story of the remarkable Sir William Courtenay and of the last battle fought on mainland English soil.  I don’t sing on this one, but you won’t regret checking it out!

If you’re curious about what singing librarians sound like, have a listen. If you like checking out new writing in musical theatre, have a listen. If you… well, just have a listen. Ethan and his lyricists are talented people, and their work deserves to be heard and seen.  The three shows have very different sounds and styles and offer proof (if proof were needed) that there is great work in British musical theatre going unheard.

If you are particularly pressed for time, I am most pleased with ‘The Legend of Apparition Smith’. Most unusually, I can listen to that track without feeling embarrassed about hearing my own voice. You could possibly even say that I’m proud of my work there – an astonishing feat worthy of Apparition Smith himself!

The Singing Librarian – being both


singinglibrarianI’m a librarian. I’m a performer. And being both makes me better.

Librarians have a key body of professional knowledge and a set of professional skills. If we didn’t, there really wouldn’t be much point to us.  Performers, too (whether professional or amateur) draw upon a set of skills and a body of knowledge.

In the case of librarians, the perception may be that we rely largely on knowledge rather than skills.  This is not really the case.  In terms of finding information on-line, for example, we don’t learn the ins and outs of every search engine, digital library, repository or on-line archive. We draw upon skills that we have learned (formally or otherwise) and then honed through experience to help us when we encounter new resources. Similarly, the ability to work out exactly what it is that someone is actually looking for is a skill.  On the other hand, performers do not (or should not) rely entirely on skill. There is a body of knowledge to draw on in terms of creating a character, using voice and so on. Perhaps more importantly, theatre has a language, etiquette and culture that have to be learned – sometimes, knowledge of this can avoid injury, so it’s rather important.

But how do the knowledge and skills from each side of my life relate to each other? In many ways, but in order to keep things relatively short, there are five main areas where I see my performing activities and my library work intersecting: memory, adaptability, use of voice, confidence and organisation.

Firstly, memory. It is a common misconception that librarians know everything – our job (or at least my job) is to help other people access information, not to know the answers for them. However, I find it is useful to have a lot of information ready to retrieve from the mental filing cabinet – whether that is the status of particular book orders, the location of books on the Spanish civil war or the best database to use for locating information on CTG. In my other activities, memory is just as vital. Lines, harmonies, dance steps, location of clothing for quick changes… the list of things to remember during a show is worryingly long. Thankfully, I am usually a quick learner, and I think this may be partly due to my work-life combination.  Each side of me exercises my memory storage and retrieval capacity, though in different ways, and so each side of my life enhances the other.

Secondly, adaptability. Sometimes, in theatre, things just don’t go the way they should. Someone forgets to enter for a particular scene, a prop shatters as you pick it up, words get jumbled or a follow spot operator has a bad day. As a performer or member of the technical crew, you just have to cope and carry on, preferably without most of the audience realising that anything went wrong at all. This is relevant in library life surprisingly often. I have to demonstrate various websites, software packages etc. to many different people, sometimes one-to-one, sometimes in lecture theatres. And, of course, things go wrong. A site goes down for maintenance, the internet connection decides on a go-slow or the network cuts out entirely. In these instances, I don’t pretend that nothing is wrong, but I either have to keep the audience entertained (as it were) or come up with an alternative plan. Improvisation is an important skill!

Thirdly, use of voice. As I don’t tend to engage in mimed performances, the use of my voice is rather key to the performing part of my life (most obviously when singing). I therefore know how to project my voice, and have strategies I can fall back on to keep my voice going when it’s tired.   I do so many lectures and workshops on campus that this is extremely important to me in the work environment as well. We have two training rooms in our library, and one of these has a microphone that can be used. I always book the other one to leave the mic. available for colleagues. I’m not a naturally loud person, but I know how to make myself heard. And when there are times of year when you go from workshop to lecture to tour with barely any breaks, being able to take care of your voice is important.  The techniques I’ve learned as a performer have thus been invaluable as an academic librarian.

Fourthly, confidence. I am not confident when meeting people I don’t know, or when being myself in front of people. On the other hand, I am (in some ways) confident when I get up and perform as a character. That may say all sorts of things about me psychologically, but the strange “I’m terrified, but nobody can tell” confidence I have on stage can translate into work situations, such as large lectures. To a small extent, I take on a character. His name is David and he’s a librarian. Yes, he’s me, but being able to perform in some way helps make the whole thing less disturbing. I also tend to leaven my presentations with a light sprinkling of humour, as any public speaker probably should.

Lastly, organisation. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not one of the world’s tidiest people, but as a librarian, I do have a certain professional appreciation for order, for the proper arrangement of information, for categorisation and sequencing. This can help me as a performer, particularly if a show has a myriad of costumes or other items to keep track of – everything has its place and all is well. It’s even more useful in other aspects of theatre. As a director or a stage manager, I am super-organised. I have lists and spreadsheets and diagrams and more lists.  Yes, there’s certainly plenty of room for creativity and spontaneity (lists can always be re-written), but the librarian approach to life definitely makes me more efficient and effective in the theatre. Managing and organising information is not a pointless skill beyond the walls of the library, it reaps bounteous artistic rewards!

Of course, none of these things are unique to librarianship or to performing, but it’s interesting how they interact and how different parts of my life feeds back into others. I firmly believe that as the Singing Librarian, I am stronger – librarianship helps make me a better performer, and performing helps make me a better librarian.

Beyond the dilemma of the work-life balance, how do your leisure activities impact on your work? Or vice versa? I’d be fascinated to know – leave a comment!

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