With everything seeming to bring out the worst in our country recently, it was a real pleasure to watch the BBC’s Imagine special about the making of the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony; this ceremony which had so clearly and magnificently celebrated the best of all that we can be. It was good to remember that we can come together to create something incredibly uplifting when we want to. It was a great reminder that we have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to be proud of.
To put on this amazing spectacle, director, Danny Boyle, and his team took thousands of volunteers who had never drummed, danced or acted before, and trained them to perform in front of the whole world. It had to be more than good; every timing, sound and movement had to be absolutely perfect. The reputation of the entire nation was on the line.
It was interesting to see the process by which the team took such large number of inexperienced strangers and turned them into a group of highly credible performers. As an educator, there was a lot to learn from.
Right from the outset, Danny talked about the power of a collaborative enterprise and the need to create something these people really wanted to be a part of. He recognised that this performance was going to require hard work, dedication and commitment, so creating a shared vision and purpose was really important. It provided the intrinsic motivation needed for when rehearsals got tough and people got tired.
In addition to this, the dance and drum coaches were both inspiring people who had a strong belief in their students’ abilities to learn. ‘If you give someone the right language, the belief in themselves and trust in other people,’ said the dance coach, ‘you can teach them anything.’ A powerful statement.
The learning was also made memorable. The drum coach taught the drummers the correct rhythm by associating it with a phrase – ‘play-the-drums-so-your-Mum-can-see-you-on-TV.’ It was catchy (it had rhythm and rhyme); it had a mini narrative (I’m gonna be on TV!); and it made an appeal to emotion (my Mum’s gonna to be so proud of me!) The coach knew how to make the learning stick for this group of people.
Interestingly, at one point in the run up to the ceremony, a certain Mr Jeremy Hunt had wanted the NHS scene to be axed. (In the words of Alanis Morrisette, a little too ironic, don’t you think?) Well Danny Boyle was having none of it. If his volunteer doctors and nurses couldn’t participate, he would walk away from the show. ‘We have to be inclusive,’ he said, ‘you can’t just cut them out at the end.’
I loved that even the engineers were given a new lease of life. They had to devise some solutions to get the chimneys to go up for the industrial revolution scene, and Danny talked about how crazy it was that these engineers were so dreamy – that they had all this creativity bottled up inside them, and they were just waiting to be asked to use it.
Relationships really did seem to be at the heart of this performance. It was moving to hear the coaches talking to the volunteers through headsets during the actual ceremony. They prompted, encouraged and congratulated throughout. “Remember what we learned! Group 2, go now! Smile! You can do it! I’m so proud of you!” These performers had been well-trained, but weren’t left to flounder on their own. Their coaches were alongside them the whole time. They were safe to give their all and find out what they were really made of.
The whole production team genuinely recognised the vital importance of these ordinary people. The costume director even went out of her way to make individual costumes for each one of them to make them feel special. They weren’t seen as an irritation to be put up with, or a bunch of amateurs getting in the way of the professionals. They were made to feel like a crucial part of the process, because they were.
‘They thought they were pawns in the whole thing,’ mused Danny at the end, ‘but really, they were the kings.’