Bootstrapping

I made a bad decision last night. For her birthday I had given my daughter two tickets to see Coriolanus – National Theatre Live at our local cinema. I told her that she could bring a friend or that I could go with her. I assumed that she would prefer the company of a friend and, on the night, a whole group of them went along and had a fabulous time. Apparently the show was stunning.

I feel old and foolish amongst my children’s friends. I worry about embarrassing them, cramping their style, ruining their enjoyment. Why did I make assumptions without talking to my daughter? She told me afterwards that it would have been fine for me to have been there, that another parent attended. I missed a show that I really wanted to see because I did not simply ask if it would be okay for me to go.

It is another dampener on an already down week. I still feel tired and achy despite attempts to rest up. I had nightmares about my husband last night which is a sure sign of negative thoughts, he has done nothing wrong.

Last term I completed a short psychology course which looked at how our brains process information in real time. Studies have shown that most decision making is comparative, that how we perceive things to be at the time of the decision drives the choices we make. As an example we looked at a study of how happy people judged themselves to be.

Imagine that there are two islands. In one island everyone has got an abundance of everything; material possessions, good schools, good hospitals; everything is great. On the other island things are very different, people are much poorer, their lives are much more materially different in every regard. According to Easterlin’s paradox, if these islands are separated from each other and don’t know of each other’s existence, then the average well-being of people will be about the same. However, if the islands communicate then those in the rich island think, ‘thank goodness I’m in the rich island’ and those in the poor island think, ‘I wish I was in the rich island’.  So they all think that they are equally happy until you show them each other. Perhaps for happiness, the perception, the judgement, is all that there is. Is there really any more to being happy than thinking you’re happy?

Being aware of other’s lives helps us to put our troubles in perspective, but the fact that other’s are having a harder time than us does not negate our own feelings; they are still valid. Just because we live on a richer island than others does not mean that we will always be happy. It does mean that we can be made to feel guilty for not being happy.

When I first learned to program computers I was told about Bootstrap programs, small chunks of code that could be used to call other programs and restart a computer. When software problems occur it can be useful to clear working memory and start again, which is why the first thing to do when a computer misbehaves is to switch it off and then on again in the hope that the problem will simply go away.

I like to use the analogy of this with my own way of living. When there seem to be multiple events getting me down, causing a cascade effect whereby it becomes hard to deal with even minor disappointments that I would otherwise be able to shrug off easily, I try to strip away all that is not needed and start again from basics. I remind myself that I live my life surrounded by riches: family, good health, comfortable home.

My problem seems to be my unwillingness to call up the other programs, to ask for support. The energy that it takes for me to overcome my discomfort at leaving the security of my home can be hard to find when I am feeling down. I am reluctant to talk about how I am feeling as I fear I will be berated for not recognising how easy a time I have compared to others.

I need hugs, not advice. I am generally well aware of where I have gone wrong.

As for the show that I missed, oh how I wish that these NT Live shows could be released on DVD. Having been unable to acquire tickets for the theatre, and foolishly forgone the opportunity to see it at the cinema, I would happily part with my money for a chance to enjoy the performance in the comfort of my own home.

Yet I recognise that I need to make myself leave my house more frequently and seek out other’s company. If decision making relies on our perception at the time then I need to broaden my experience of other’s reality.

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First Night Nerves

Last night was my first shift on the Front of House volunteer rota at the wonderful theatre I will be helping out at over the coming months. To say that I was a little nervous would be an understatement. As with any new job, my first day was filled with introductions, instructions and explanations that can be hard to remember fully. What is needed is experience of carrying out the tasks to allow repetition to lodge the information firmly in memory to be recalled without thinking. This can only be achieved over time.

The tasks that I was required to complete were not arduous but they were new, and I have never attempted to do anything like this before. It is a long time since I have chosen to put myself this far out of my comfort zone.

I calm my nerves and build my resolve to succeed by preparing as best I can beforehand. Thus I spent some time yesterday afternoon sorting through the little things that I could anticipate may be issues. I dislike driving, particularly when I am not familiar with the area or when traffic is busy. I live in a rural village whereas the theatre is seventeen miles away in the nearest city. When I go there I will often catch a train to avoid the need to drive, but this is not always possible late at night when scheduled train services are few and far between.

When I have driven in the past I have always parked my car in the same place simply because I know where the car park is. The parking charges are high here however, so I spent yesterday researching alternatives and, having found a couple of viable options, carefully planned and memorised the route so that I could navigate on my own in busy traffic. I know that most people take this sort of thing in their stride; I do not.

Having prepared the family dinner and left my daughter to serve it up, I departed feeling very on edge. It was a beautiful, sunny evening and the drive was, thankfully, trouble free. I found my way through the maze of streets and one way systems without difficulty. Although traffic was heavy I was not bothered by aggressive tailgaters, impatient to get me out of their way. The car park appeared where expected and spaces were available. The first challenge of the evening had been accomplished.

I had a little time before the pre show staff meeting to check out the best route from theatre to car park. I expected it to be dark when I emerged from the show so wished to walk on lit and busy paths. In the event I was released at dusk; the joys of these long, summer days. There were still plenty of people around so I was comfortable on my journey which was a welcome, short, pleasant and relaxing stroll after the challenges of the evening.

So, what did my evening entail? Arriving at the theatre I found everything shut off, as I should have anticipated, to prevent members of the public entering before show time. I should have just walked in, but made the mistake of asking the staff at the booking desk if I may do so. They had never heard of the volunteer scheme and told me to wait outside, taking me to be a member of the audience. They were busy and disinterested in the explanation I attempted to give.

I dithered before deciding that I couldn’t be late on my first night. Gathering my courage as best I could I walked through and round the barrier into a room full of Front of House staff just as the meeting began. Although I received a few curious looks I was not challenged and, at a suitable moment in the briefing, was introduced. It was a relief to be expected by the manager giving the briefing who then took me in hand to ensure that I knew what to do and where to be throughout the evening.

From there my job began. Of the dozen or so people I was introduced to I remember barely a couple of names; I have never been good at remembering names. At first I felt foolish standing in the foyer greeting strangers, checking their tickets and ensuring that they knew how to find their way to their seats. It helped though that all the people I encountered throughout the evening were friendly and polite, if a little curious. This volunteer experiment is as new for the theatre as it was for me.

The show itself, Bernard Shaw’s Candida, was very enjoyable. Part of my job is to ensure that the audience abide by the rules, particularly as regards photography, and to check that nobody becomes unwell or requires assistance during the performance. Watching the audience watching the show meant that I was unable to immerse myself fully in the play as I normally would. However, I was able to appreciate the skill of the players even if I missed some of the nuances of the dialogue.

I was particularly impressed with Christopher Godwin, who was playing Mr Burgess. He was on stage having had 48 hours to learn the part (including opening night) following the unexpected, sudden departure of the original member of the cast due to family illness. He fully deserved the extra applause he was given at curtain call.

I felt rather foolish walking the designated route around the theatre during the interval to allow myself to be seen by the audience as other staff members carried out their tasks in the bars and selling tubs of ice cream. As I was called upon several times for information this must have been of some use to the patrons. I am so unused to putting myself in a position where I need to be seen; normally I prefer invisibility.

Overall then, I enjoyed the experience and feel that I fulfilled the purpose for which I was taken on. I gained a better understanding of how the smooth cogs of a working theatre are oiled to enable patrons to relax and enjoy their experience. I also got to meet some lovely people and to watch the show; all the reasons why I took on this role were ticked.

Having handed back my staff badge and distinguishing shoulder bag, I collected my things and returned to my car. The main road that I use to travel into the city was by this time closed due to roadworks, so I had to find my way home by an alternative route. This stressed me a little (I am such a wuss) but was accomplished without incident. I arrived home to a silent house with all my family retired peacefully to bed.

Due to forthcoming family holidays, my next night ‘on duty’ is a month away. Next time should be easier as there will be fewer unknowns. I am looking forward to it already.

The Georgian terrace of Royal Crescent (Bath, ...

Playing my part

‘All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players’

The theatre represents a microcosm of society. It exists as a thing of elegance and beauty, but much of what is experienced and enjoyed by the individuals who pass through it’s rooms is an illusion. A good performance will leave the participants feeling cultivated, educated, entertained and sated. They may then walk away; return to the lives that they live unseen; gain from contemplation of the experience or set it aside as just another memory, soon forgotten in the bustle of future encounters.

In this costly facade there will be the few who will shine and the many who happily follow the cues of the crowd. Each fulfils their role, then bows out feeling richer in mind and spirit. Live theatre has a buzz that cannot be conveyed by cinema or television; a personal interaction between audience and players. Yesterday I experienced the other side to theatre; the workers who toil diligently in the background to make it all happen.

In order to be accepted as a volunteer Audience Host, a role that I had applied for a few weeks ago, I was required to attend an afternoon training session at the beautiful theatre located in our nearest city. I was nervous and excited, looking forward to the prospect but having to make myself continue when it would have been so much easier to simply continue with my quiet life as it is. The personal challenges that I faced were numerous: leaving my children to arrive home from school with no adult to greet them or cook their dinner; driving to the bustling city and finding a suitable parking space on my own; walking into the theatre and introducing myself to the staff running the training and the other volunteers participating in the scheme. I had to push myself, ignore my anxieties and make myself go through the motions required of the part with apparent confidence and grace.

I strongly dislike being late for appointments so arrived much too early. Knowing that this was likely to be the case I was prepared and spent an enjoyable hour sitting in the sun with a cup of coffee and my book. Arriving at the theatre I then settled into an interesting period of people watching as I assessed the other volunteers and tried to remember the names of the members of staff we were introduced to. It was a fascinating afternoon.

The theatre itself is a beautiful, old building with a warren of corridors, staircases and both public and private doors that the volunteers were required to get to know. One of the main aspects of the role I was there to learn was the ability to direct members of the audience, who I must now refer to as patrons, to wherever they wish to go. We were shown the restaurants, bars, cloakrooms and stores; we were instructed in how to use the lift, how to access the members rooms, how to remember the names of each level of seating and the best way to reach each area; we were taken backstage and allowed to view the theatre from the actor’s perspective, a first for me.

As with any role, costume and props are important. As members of the Front of House team we must be visible to those who require our services but merge into the provisions of the building. The patrons are as important as the players in the experience that everyone will remember. The hosts role is to facilitate; to be available discreetly to ensure that all needs are met before they become issues; that issues, when they arise, are dealt with quietly and efficiently with minimum disruption to others. When at all possible, the illusion of the patron’s experience must be maintained whatever unforeseen circumstances occur.

After training had been completed, each volunteer was issued with a ticket for the evening performance and dismissed. Already some of the volunteers were deciding that the role was not for them; I remained eager to take part. Stepping out into the late afternoon sunshine I walked around the city centre watching the workers as they hurried home, the school children as they congregated and parted, the young adults as they met up at the bars and restaurants, the elderly as they strolled and perused the menus outside the many eateries. I am so unused to such bustle it felt strange to be a part of it. I relished my invisibility as I familiarised myself with the streets and open spaces.

Returning to the theatre early to observe the Front of House staff dealing with the arrival of the patrons, I was able to fully appreciate the task that I will be taking on. Getting close to nine hundred people through the doors, up to the bars and on to their seats is quite a task and one that I had not observed fully whilst participating. This is the point of the Audience Host: to assist in providing a stress free environment, ensuring that the patrons may move smoothly to wherever they wish to go without realising that they are being assisted.

The show itself was well played, funny and highly entertaining. As instructed, I observed the contribution of the audience as much as the players; their reaction to the play is key to creating the atmosphere that all should enjoy. Sitting up in the gods amongst a large group of school children it was hard to appreciate the nuances and interplay between actors and patrons; the reactions of those sitting closer to the stage were quite different to those so far away. The extra money I have spent in the past ensuring that I may enjoy a show from a good seat has been well spent.

It felt strange to leave the theatre alone. I rarely drive in the dark but the journey home passed without incident. I will get used to walking through a city on my own and gain confidence in dealing with the more aggressive drivers in time.

The illusion of my very different, challenging but enjoyable day lasted until I walked through my front door. It was late, close to midnight; lights were out and my family were all in bed; evidence of their day was all around. I observed the school shoes kicked off and abandoned on the kitchen floor, the used pots on the hob and dirty dishes abandoned on the side, the unwiped surfaces, the laundry taken off the line as requested but then left in the basket by the door. It would seem that I have my uses after all.

My day was interesting and I look forward to returning to the theatre as a member of staff, albeit unpaid and transitory. It is a role that I wish to play and I will do my best to perform well. As hoped, I feel that I have been shown a different side to the theatre experience. I look forward to being a part of the invisible team.

English: Entrance to the Theatre Royal, Bath

Arts appreciation

I have attempted to learn to play various musical instruments over the course of my life. At a young age my father taught me the basics on the piano. Although I enjoyed playing, I did not practice enough to progress much. I still enjoy tinkering on this instrument, and still do not play often enough to improve.

In primary school I learnt to play the cornet. Playing in the school band was fun, but carrying a heavy, brass instrument on the walk to and from school put me off continuing to learn when I moved to secondary school. Instead I chose to take up a small and light woodwind instrument, the oboe. I continued with this for seven years, passing all of the graded exams as well as music ‘O’ level. I considered working for my diploma whilst at university but was advised by my music teacher that, although I was technically competent, I showed little musical talent. This feedback was enough to persuade me to give the instrument up.

As a teenager I was involved in a lot of church groups. I learnt the basics of acoustic guitar so that I could play along to the rousing songs that we sang at meetings. Once again, I enjoyed taking part but showed little aptitude for the instrument. By the time I moved to England my career in musical performance, such as it had been, came to an end. I left the cheap guitar at my parent’s house where it warped and fell apart, traded in the beautiful French oboe that my father had bought me for a keyboard, and used this to encourage my children to learn to make their own music. My boys now play the piano and viola; my daughter listens more than performs.

My father’s beautiful piano playing was the soundtrack to my childhood. This, alongside my own experiences of playing in various bands and orchestras, led to me gaining an appreciation of classical music. My elder son is now showing a similar interest in this genre and we have managed to attend a couple of concerts this year together. My son often gets exasperated with me so I welcome these opportunities to spend time together doing something that we can both value and discuss.

As well as classical music, my son enjoys many of the books that I read and has recently shown an interest in theatre. I love the theatre. Again, I have my father to thank for introducing me to the variety of shows available when I was a teenager.

When my children were younger I would take them to see the popular musicals being performed in London’s West End. My sons showed little interest at this age, but my daughter enjoyed the outings and we went to quite a number of shows together over the years. She attended a weekend stage school when she was younger, has taken part in various school productions and studied drama for her recent GCSEs.

My trips to the theatre have sometimes been in the company of an old friend of mine who is a theatre critic for one of the national newspapers and editor of a magazine that publishes theatre reviews. It is quite a different experience attending a show on press night with an expert rather than for pure entertainment with family. It can, however, be frustrating being unable to discuss the performance afterwards as my friend will not share his views prior to having them published!

I do not attend as many shows as I would like due to the cost of the tickets. When I took my children to see the critically acclaimed ‘War Horse’ in London, which we all enjoyed immensely, it cost over £200 before transport and food. Such an outing can only be a rare treat.

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be offered free tickets to a show at a more local theatre. I had been given two tickets and both my elder son and my daughter wished to accompany me. As I had taken my son to see an adaptation of a book we had both read and enjoyed recently (deadkidssongs), as well as to the classical concerts, I opted to have my daughter accompany me. The play, ‘Fifty Words’, was fabulous and made me determined to attend more theatre if I could.

With this in mind, I applied for a role I saw advertised to be a volunteer host at the theatre where the recent shows had been performed. I feel quite thrilled that I have been accepted and will attend a training session next week. I am also rather nervous. I do not normally put myself forward in this way, but the opportunity to become more involved in the running of a professional theatre is too good to miss.

My elder son’s reaction when he heard that I had applied for this role was rather negative as it is unpaid. He often berates me for not going out to work. My daughter has, however, been much more encouraging. I suspect that she observes how I spend my days and worries that she may one day be a housewife and mother, required to spend her time doing a lot of mundane chores rather than having fun. When I prove that I can do things just for me it gives her hope!

The cost of tickets for theatre shows and concerts is off putting for many and means that funding for the arts can be a controversial issue. When money is tight there is an argument that tax payers should not be subsidising endeavours that can only be afforded by the already wealthy. In many ways I have sympathy with this view but I also think that, as a society, we need the arts to nourish our souls. The industry generates revenue in terms of employment and spending both directly and in so many supporting sectors such as transport, accommodation and food provision (Arts and culture worth more than £850m to UK export trade). It is about so much more than just money though.

The arts are not a commodity, they are an experience that enrich our lives beyond measure. Drama may be enjoyed live, at cinemas or on television. The plethora of genres of music offer sustenance for all, from babies acting out ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ to the elderly reliving the happy memories triggered by a dance hall song or a Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack.

I look forward to the opportunity that I have been presented with to expand my knowledge of the arts and to experience the drama that a theatre can provide both on and off the stage. In taking on this new challenge I am stepping outside my comfort zone, but look forward so much to entering the periphery of a world that I have long admired from afar.

A trumpet, foreground, a piccolo trumpet behin...