Archive for the ‘ Ramblings ’ Category

In/out/in/out, shake us all about…

Last year, I wrote about the general inability this country has to cope with snow.  It appears that we have learned little, if anything from the experience and our recent attack of the frozen white stuff has caused even more confusion and problems than the last.  Partly this is down to a lack of snow-related infrastructure  and contingency – unlike places where heavy snow is a frequent event, our train tracks can’t cope with ice, our cars lack winter tyres and even main roads can quickly become impassable.

Just like everywhere else, the shiny new learning centre was affected by the turn in the weather.  On the first day of snow, a number of staff left early in order not to miss the last busses and trains to their various home towns, then many of them found themselves unable to get in on either the second or third day due to the public transport system running away and whimpering in a corner somewhere.  However, a large number of staff did manage to attend, and services were able to run as normal.  But the general air of panic which seemed to sweep the country (even in areas like mine which were not so seriously affected) meant that before long, services could not continue as usual after all.  The whole university was closed at 12 noon on the Friday (the third day of snow), to reopen after the weekend, much to the surprise of the throng of library staff who were merrily getting on with our various tasks.  Still, we didn’t complain too much, to be honest – I, for one, loved the snowy walk with the dogs which the free afternoon allowed me to take.

Then the confusion set in.

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One year later

It is a really amazing thought that it is a year ago today that Ben Mills first asked the audience what to do with the lamp, rubbed it and received a visitation from a librarian in an alarmingly revealing costume.  Yes, Aladdin opened a year ago, and what a year it has been, both on stage and off.

Such a lot has happened over the past twelve months, much of it never mentioned here.  Many things have had more significance than you might expect, such as the arrival of carpet in various rooms of the house (bedrooms, front room, hall, stairs and landing) which really helped make it feel like home.  More major life changes have included the move from the old Library of Doom to the sparkly new building which I am coming to think of as the Learning Centre of Farce.  There have been some very good times and some very bad times – there have been points during the last 12 months when I’ve been proud of myself and others where I’ve been ashamed.

In theatrical terms, the year has been varied and exciting.  Continue reading

It is me? The great Christmas No. 1 battle

Is it me?  I can’t help but be baffled by the news report I’ve just seen about the shocking result of the traditional race to be number one in the Christmas chart.  I say shocking, but it isn’t really – I think it was to be expected, really.  On one side, we have the X-Factor juggernaut, with a technically brilliant singer releasing a worryingly catchy song (Joe McElderry is a great singer [his performances that I’ve seen were near-as-dammit to flawless], there really is no question, I’m just not convinced he’s a superstar), on the other side you have a Facebook-fuelled campaign to get an alternative track to the top spot.  Never underestimate the power of Facebook.

Essentially, the choice of song (Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”) made it quite clear that the campaign was more about sticking two fingers up at the way in which people like Simon Cowell dominate the music industry than it was about musical taste.  I’d be astonished if all the people who bought the song liked it.  But the whole thing strikes me as wonderfully ironic.  Continue reading

The joy of techs revisited

For me, the last week in October was largely spent dressed in black, navigating with the aid of blue lights.  In other words, it was spent backstage, specifically as a stage manager for Herne Bay Operatic Society’s compilation show Thoroughly Modern Musicals, the first time I’ve performed that particular function for a show (though I have played the character of a stage manager before).  I thought this was a rather crazy move on the part of the Society’s committee, and was fearing I would manage to do something truly disastrous.  As it turned out, I  didn’t cause a calamity, but the day of the tech and the days afterwards were still remarkably scary and exhilarating.  After all, the stage manager is in charge once the show is up and running – the thought that it was all my responsibility was positively terrifying.

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Farewell to the Library of Doom

So, on the day of the penultimate Hot Mikado performance, we closed the doors of the Library of Doom for the very last time.  Since then, most of our stock has gone into storage, while the merry band of librarians and library assistants have been scattered to the winds, dispersed across five different buildings on the university campus.  My team is based in a Temporary Library in an examinations hall, and we are all waiting out the summer, in anticipation of the grand opening of our big new, shiny learning centre.  Each day, as we go about our business, we can see the old library building being gutted, as teams of builders prepare it for a new life as a collection of teaching labs. 

It was hardly a perfect building. It leaked, sometimes causing large chunks of paint to fall from the ceiling.  It flooded once, which was rather exciting as an old storm drain suddenly made its presence felt in the foyer.  A shelf once came loose and made a valiant attempt at decapitating me.  The carpet tiles made endless attempts to trip people up.  The building was always either too cold or too hot.  The book return box was an eyesore.  It had slopes in inconvenient places which made it difficult to wheel the trolleys around.  Some of the light switches were behind shelves of music books.  The layout didn’t make sense, even after nearly nine years of working there.  There was never enough space for the books.  It had wheelchair access issues and a frightening lift.

I miss it, though.  I was the final member of staff to go through the closing-up routine and even as I passed the dodgy shelves, switched off the inconvenient lights, wrestled with the complicated doors on the first floor and took in each of the building’s faults, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss as each room was plunged into darkness and sealed away from marauding students.  I locked the Group Study Room and remembered the Children in Need fundraiser event, S Club Library.  I chuckled as I saw a few videos which reminded me of our Easter Egg Hunt (bags of mini eggs were hidden inside some of the video cases).  I passed the office with the hideous yellow shelves and remembered the student who came in there and asked for photographs of the Great Fire of London.  Almost eight years is a long time to work in one building, and had clearly allowed many memories to build up.  The different areas we’d sealed off with hazard tape from time to time.  The hysteria I’d shared with a colleague when the shelf tried to kill me.  The desk where I was sitting when I got the email asking me to perform in Aladdin.  The secluded part of the Open Access Area (computer lab) where I’d done some of the assignments for my librarianship qualification.  And more, of course.

All gone, now.  But the stock remains (and believe me, some of the books, DVDs and equipment have memories attached to them) and more importantly, my colleagues are still around as well.  I couldn’t hope for a better group of peers.  We share a lot of laughs and the odd tear now and then.  Whole shelves of librarians turn out to watch my shows, and we have regular trips to the local noodle bar and other eating and drinking establishments.  Frustrations are shared, ideas are passed to and fro and we seem to cope with anything, from the complete loss of our library management software (otherwise known as The Month We Do Not Speak Of) to unspeakably rude library patrons, and from yet another brood of ducklings in the garden to malfunctioning exit doors. 

So in a strange way I miss the nasty old Library of Doom, even as I look forward to the new building.  Whatever the environment’s like, I know we’ll be forging some new memories there.  I just hope it never becomes the Shiny Learning Centre of Doom…

It’s about time…

I have a bit of an issue with time.  If I have a deadline, or an estimated time of arrival, I absolutely have to make it or I will teeter on the brink of an anxiety attack.  I dislike arriving late so much that I will always aim to be early, sometimes excessively so (just in case something happens en route which delays me), and often end up walking around the block a few times, or pacing up and down, since arriving early can be terribly inconvenient for the people you are meeting as well (as the lovely carpet fitters who came 45 minutes earlier than expected proved, catching us still frantically painting ceilings and moving furniture).

I don’t apply the same standard to everyone else, at least not to the same extent, but it does make me annoyed when people drift in to rehearsals over a 15 minute period, seemingly unaware of the alleged start time.  I think part of that is connected with the concept of purpose.  The purpose of the time spent at rehearsals is to rehearse, so I get very impatient if I’m at the rehearsal venue, but not actually doing anything connected with the show.

Sometimes I wish I wasn’t quite so worried about timekeeping – it would be nice to have one less potential cause of stress and anxiety, since I am so very good at winding myself up.  I have wondered whether it’s one of the traits that marks me out as being very British, but since I don’t drink either tea or beer, am not overly fond of cricket and don’t always mind a bit of rain, I’m not entirely sure that I fit the stereotypical mould at all.

It’s also about time I started posting here on a regular schedule again, and preferably with something more about either singing or being a librarian, since those are the title topics of the blog.  I shall try.

Speak up!

I have recently been asked, in two completely different contexts, about how to project the voice.  One query was from someone who has a very, very quiet speaking voice and would quite like to be heard, and the other was from a group of young people about to do a performance.  It struck me that although, in theory, I’m a good person to ask about this, given how often I have to project my voice, it was a very difficult question to answer.  How, exactly, do I project my voice?

I know I was never specifically taught projection techniques of any kind – it was a skill I somehow picked up naturally.  This is a strange thing, because in ‘real’ life, I am often difficult to hear.  I can mumble quite unintentionally and very often have to be asked to repeat what I’ve said.  Yet, put me on a stage and suddenly I can be heard.  Projection also comes in handy when getting users of the Library of Doom to be quiet – sometimes it’s necessary to get a whole roomful of people to turn the volume down.

When I thought about it, I realised that projection has something to do with breathing, something to do with confidence, something to do with psychology and something to do with posture.  The sound has to come from further down, starting deep down inside you rather than in your throat.  There has to be enough air in your lungs to support it.  You have to imagine that you’re speaking or singing directly to someone who is quite far away.  And you absolutely do not have to shout – persistent shouting instead of projecting hurts and would probably ruin the voice if it was tried for too long.

Explaining a process that I don’t entirely understand proved to be a difficult task.  It’s hard to explain how to breathe or how to think yourself into projection.  It made me realise once more how much a mystery performing is to many people.  As well as all the joy of creating a character, and the great conundrum of ‘how do you learn the lines?’, there are a great many technical bits and pieces that evidently aren’t as normal and natural as years of doing them might make them feel.  There’s an art to speaking up and speaking out – now I just need to learn how to apply that art, in a minor way, to conversation.  Speak up, Singing Librarian!

The Very Model?

I like to keep myself on my toes when performing, preferring not to do the same sort of thing twice if I can avoid it.  Thus, having played several ‘young, silly and in love’ roles in musicals over the last few years, I’ve just spent a week as Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance.  To be fair, the Major General is more than a little silly, but he is definitely not young and the only thing he’s in love with is the idea of staying alive.  I’m always happiest playing character parts, and he is most definitely a character and a half, alternating between stroppy and snivelly for much of his stage time.  The part also shares something in common with many of my roles, in that it has maximum impact for minimum stage time – thanks largely to that wonderful patter song.  I can’t imagine there are many people who’ve never heard ‘I am the very model of a modern major general’ before.

As I was one of the youngest members of the cast, yet played the father or potential father-in-law of more than a dozen people, this involved both a long time sorting out hair and make-up and a lot of concentration.  The grey hair, bushy sideburns and wrinkles did a lot of the work in creating the illusion of being old, but I still had to remember at every moment that I should not be able to move quickly and easily as I can.  In the first act, I had a walking stick to lean on, which helped keep my back bent, but I had no such aid in the second act (only a handkerchief, which saw more use than most props tend to) and often caught myself being more upright than I should have been.  A slow sag was necessary to regain the proper posture without drawing attention to it.

As with many shows, I spent some time singing in the wings, both as an honorary pirate and an honorary policeman, adding to the chorus vocals.  In rehearsals, I also sang along with the numbers for the Major General’s daughters, but refrained from doing so in performance.  Wing-singing gives me something to do when I’m off-stage and in this case meant that I didn’t miss out on some of the best parts of the show, most notably ‘With Cat-Like Tread’, which is a fantastic sing.

Because I am who I am, I was acutely aware of every mistake I made, large or small, particularly in the patter number.  I had a strange problem in rehearsals, getting my animals and vegetables mixed up in the phrase “In short in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, I am the very model of a modern major general”, and this certainly happened in performance as well, though not quite so spectacularly.  “Babylonic cuneiform” also defied pronunciation one night and I managed not to sing one phrase at all on one occasion, a I was so busy acting (a feat which the Pirate King then echoed during our dialogue scene later).  It is very difficult not to let mistakes prey on your mind for the rest of the performance, even if they’re so small that even your fellow performers fail to notice them.

Did I enjoy it?  Yes, I did, particularly the last performance, where I felt I could just let go and stop worrying about it.  I enjoyed the opportunity to add another string to my performing bow – the patter song.  I enjoyed working with a talented, supportive cast (in very cosy conditions backstage!).  I enjoyed everyone’s reactions to seeing the hair and make-up job for the first time.  And I enjoyed my first fully-staged Gilbert and Sullivan production.  Many audience members said they were surprised how much they enjoyed it and how much they laughed.  It just goes to show that the two men’s work is not anywhere near as dated as people often think.  There are rich veins of beauty and humour to be mined, and I look forward to mining them many times more in the future.

Quite a compliment

Recently, someone who was on the audition committee for a show said that I caused great difficulty during the casting process.  Naturally, I apologised (I’m good at apologising, particularly if the apology is needless), but was soon reassured that this was not a bad thing.  Apparently, they could have slotted me in anywhere, which made the decision about what to do with me harder than it otherwise might have been.  A strange thought, but on reflection, it’s possibly one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.  What better praise can there be for a performer than to have their flexibility or adaptability noted?  It’s nice to know that I’m a versatile singing librarian.

Snow joke

I love my country, and am proud to be British, but sometimes I despair.

Weather is a fairly common occurrence here on this lovely group of islands. In fact, it is such an important part of our lives that I would have thought it was our most common topic of conversation, even if we tend to grumble about it in all its variations. Come rain or shine, come gale or snow, sleet or hail, drizzle or heatwave, the British can be counted on to complain. It will be too hot, too cold, too damp, too dry, too windy or too calm. And in extreme circumstances, such as the appearance of frozen water from the sky, we simply retreat into our shells and hide until it’s over.

Today, it seems that snow brought the country to a standstill. Or at least it brought London to a standstill and this had a knock-on effect across much of the nation, partly because it seems all the trains had been sleeping in London overnight and were therefore not available to transport anyone to their chosen destinations. In my part of Kent, the snow made a vague attempt at doing its job, but mostly looked pretty and melted. It would be very generous indeed to suggest that we had an inch of it. Further west, roads were harder to travel on due to the lack of gritters. Quite why gritting had not happened, I don’t know. Snow on Sunday and Monday was forecast before the weekend, so there was plenty of warning. To be fair, the major roads around here seemed to be fine, but reports from colleagues and friends suggest that this was not true everywhere.

The Library of Doom held out longer than many places. Plenty of High Street shops remained closed today, and most of the rest of Kent’s institutions of higher education either never opened or shut up shop at lunchtime. We sent home those people who were having public transport difficulties, then continued providing our usual librarianic services until 6 o’clock, when we put the books to bed and turned out the lights.

Reports suggest that other areas were hit harder by snowstorms, but it is clear that the levels of snow were and are nothing compared to snowfall in places such as Russia, Canada and Scandinavia, where life seems to continue happily during even the bleakest winter. Here, however, our winters are less harsh than they once were, but they seem to affect us in ways they never did before. Suddenly, many places of work and education are closed, public transport throws in the towel and the radio is warning us of impending doom. Is it the wrong sort of snow, or is the country just a bit pathetic? I suspect more of the latter, but tinged with a lack of preparation, an amazing ability to be taken by surprise by something we all knew was coming. One suspects that the rest of the world (and probably other parts of the United Kingdom as well) is sniggering at us behind their hands. If so, I really don’t blame them.

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