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Glasgow 2014: producing the opening ceremony

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21 July 2014

A rather large shadow, in the form of London 2012, looms over the organisers of this month’s Glasgow Commonweatlh Games opening ceremony.

Danny Boyle’s bravura, exuberant Olympic Games opener set a new benchmark for the genre. Russia responded to the challenge earlier this year by spending a fortune on the Sochi ceremony.

Glasgow, meanwhile, has far less money to spend: £21m on its opening and closing events, compared to the £80m London spent across the four Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies.

It presents a daunting challenge to the team behind the Glasgow ceremonies, which are being produced by Jack Morton Worldwide. All the more so because there’s an added layer of complexity for Glasgow: each ceremony will be staged at a different venue, Celtic Park and Hampden Park, which means prepping two locations.

However, Jack Morton has form in the genre, staging ceremonies at two previous Commonwealth Games, as well as the South Africa World Cup, the Athens Olympics and consulting for Beijing.

This track record is one of the reasons that Jack Morton won the Glasgow tender, says head of ceremonies and artistic director David Zolkwer (pictured, above right). However, it also won, he feels, because they “embraced the challenge” of producing ceremonies which will inevitably be compared to London and Sochi.

Their response is to attempt to do things differently.  There’s a danger Glasgow would somehow fall short if it aped a conventional ceremony, Zolkwer says. “We neither have the resources nor, being in Glasgow, the inclination to play the shock and awe card,” he says.

It’s meant respectfully reassessing what ceremonies have become, says Zolkwer. “Are they actually as generous in spirit as they purport to be, are budgets escalating beyond reason, are they being done to places rather than by places, who owns the output?”

He notes that, wonderful as London was, it’s known as Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony. “Our goal is to create Glasgow’s ceremonies so you won’t hear any of our names flying around, despite this conversation.”

The objective, Zolkwer says is “to be authentic”, and to find the seed of the ceremony’s story from within the character of the city and its people. A key theme of the ceremony is about Glasgow being a generous host. “Glasgow is the most social, hospitable city – it’s extraordinary,” says Zolkwer.

It means viewers shouldn’t expect to see too much in the way of synchronized moves from a massed cast of volunteers. “We’re more interested in celebrating individuality. As far as being a generous host is concerned, we are not going to invite the world into our home, shut the door and then tell them how fantastic we are. (We have done our fair share of that in the past.) Glasgow and Scotland are interested in engaging with the rest of the world and the Commonwealth, more interested in celebrating what we have in common than what makes us different.”

The full content of the ceremonies is being kept under wraps. Details released so far include the installation of a huge 97x10m screen, the biggest ever seen in Europe, that will run along the south stand of Celtic Park. Thousands of volunteers have also been recruited to take part. Controversial plans to demolish Glasgow’s Red Road tower blocks live during the ceremony have been scrapped, though.

Games ceremonies are an odd hybrid for producers – part theatre (with a cast of thousands), part OB television spectacular (airing to up to 1bn people) and part ceremonial (the format includes the arrival of The Queen and the Parade of Nations). As in theatre or film, the challenge is coming up with the story, casting, rehearsing and staging it, says Zolkwer. Then, there are the technical and operational challenges of staging the event. “In effect,” says David Proctor, head of production (pictured above, left), “we are, along with our colleagues at SVGTV (the host broadcaster), creating a large studio with a massive studio audience for global broadcast.”

Glenn Bolton, head of technical (pictured above, centre), says his team will be on site at Celtic Park for 66 days before the ceremony. The equivalent of 7,678 man days of labour are required to build the theatre infrastructure required. The screen weighs 48 tons alone, and needs a 120 ton support structure. The stage, meanwhile, weighs in at 45 tons and there’s 55 tons of equipment in the roof.

Adding to the complexity, points out Proctor, is that there are also multiple stakeholders to work and collaborate with. These include the organising committee, Glasgow 2014, the Commonwealth Games Federation and Glasgow Life, as well as sponsors and local creative and social communities.

Zolkwer speaks of a “very close, friendly, mutually supportive relationship” with the organising committee, their key client. “We are very keen not to come to Glasgow and ‘do’ the ceremony to the City, and the OC is very keen on that as well…Our job is to make Glasgow and Scotland shine and it will best do that by being allowed to speak for itself.”




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