Our latest Chevening Conversations blog has an Olympic theme as Filipino Chevening Scholar Benedict Carandang tells us about how he was selected as a performer for the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony.
Now that the London 2012 Olympic Games have sadly ended, I would like to share with you my amazing journey as one of the volunteer performers of the greatest show on Earth and how the organisers of the Opening Ceremony transformed me from being an ordinary volunteer in 20 days to doing the extra-ordinary.
I played a Coal Miner in the “Pandemonium” or Industrial Revolution segment of the Opening Ceremony when the Five Olympic Rings representing each continent were forged to show unity. It was the most spectacular segment of the ceremony. It was a daunting task but we were all amazed at how we all pulled it off given the fact that majority of the performers were ordinary people coming from every section of British society.
The auditions and training
Three weeks later I received an email from LOCOG. I was chosen in the ballot! When my audition day arrived I met people from many 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 a Chevening 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 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 got lost the chances of being recalled for the next round of audition diminished. The second part of the audition was testing our dancing skills to see if we could memorise choreography.
Two days after my first audition, I was recalled for a second and final audition. In the second audition, they tested our acting skills, including acting out 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. It was nerve wracking as they were videotaping us at the same time.
The question in my mind was how do you get noticed from among thousands? Finally, after waiting for almost two months after my second audition, I was told that I had been chosen to be a Coal Miner as part of the most spectacular sequence of the event! I was elated that my two auditions were successful and I never imagined that I would get this far!
They asked us to attend a briefing day on 1st May where we were introduced to Danny Boyle, the Artistic Director of the Opening Ceremony. Danny Boyle has directed several critically acclaimed films such as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. Danny 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 Ceremony.
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. Then they showed us the concept of our sequence through video. We all got goose bumps watching what we were supposed to do and the music by Underworld was exhilarating. The organisers told us that what we would do was like having every West End show happening simultaneously in one night.
The practice sessions were held at a secret location in Dagenham in East London. The first three weeks were held outside of the Olympic Stadium and it was raining all the time! We were told that that in just 20 days we would be transformed into talented actors and performers. We just needed to be committed and keep on practicing. Danny Boyle was a hands-on director as he was always there during the rehearsals and he always gave pep talks to the volunteers. He was a very charismatic and approachable person.
We had two technical dress rehearsals prior to the Opening to polish everything from our entrance to exit. I had to 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. The atmosphere was very friendly among the volunteers, each one helping and assisting one another.
The Opening Ceremony
In the first sequence of the Opening Ceremony, the Green and Pleasant Land segment, there were farmers and milkmaids tending 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens, 3 cows, 2 goats, 10 ducks, and 9 geese on stage and real turf was used for the grass! When Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played by Kenneth Branagh, spoke about the coming “Tempest,” the giant 40ft oak tree rose, and we poured out of the grassy hill or “Tor.” Coming out from that location gave us the best view of the whole stadium, and it was stunning.
My task alongside with 200 other coal miners was to assist in dismantling the Green and Pleasant Land, all within 15 minutes. Just imagine the sheer number of props on stage that we had to move quickly! There were around 2500 volunteer performers in this sequence alone and around 26,156 square feet of props were removed when the scene changed from rural to industrial Britain.
When all the props were taken out, a giant map of London’s streets appeared and seven 100ft balloon smokestacks were inflated by high-powered fans. A dry-ice machine was also used so that you can smell the sulphur inside the stadium to simulate pollution. 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.
We were worried during the Opening Ceremonies that it would rain but luckily the weather cooperated during the Opening Ceremony 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 performance of sight and sound.
It was a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget and I would do it all over again if given the chance. Initially, there was a lot of pessimism in the media that London 2012 could not top what Beijing 2008 did, but Danny Boyle reminded us that what we were doing was something great, something different, and it would 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 was British, something that was very creative and unique about the UK that has captivated the whole world.
But most importantly, they valued the small contribution of every single volunteer. When you combine all these efforts you are able to harness the energy of all participants to create something that is great such as an Olympics that will “inspire a generation.”
It is indeed GREAT BRITAIN.
If you are a Chevening scholar or alumnus and you would like to submit a blog entry, please get in touch.
Entries should be 500 to 700 words please. Remember that you can link to your own blog page if you have more to say. We would be particularly interested to hear about the experiences of the UK from our new 2012/2013 scholars.