I was very fortunate to be a performer in the opening segment of the Paralympics Opening Ceremony during 2012. It was a truly phenomenal experience and I simply can’t explain how much a privilege it was and how much fun we had. I met many inspirational people along the way and when I heard that Bradley Hemmings, one of the co-artisitic directors, was giving a talk about the ceremony from his point of view I simply couldn’t pass up the chance.
The artistic directors for the ceremony were decided in July 2011, giving them 14 months to prepare everything. Every other ceremony had a single Artistic Director, whereas for this ceremony the amazing forces of Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings.
Jenny leads the field in disability arts and is the Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre. She is so inspirational and passionate about what she does that you cannot help but warm to her the moment you meet her. Bradley is equally as passionate but comes from a different area of expertise, having experience in large-scale, outdoor events. He is currently the Artistic Director and Founder of Greenwich + Docklands International Festival.
Inspiration for Enlightenment
As many of you will know, but some may not, the Paralympics Opening Ceremony was called Enlightenment.
The main themes that they wanted to portray were:
- Understanding our place in the universe
- Transforming the perception of people with disabilities
- A celebration of British science
- Declaration of human rights and how the Paralympics is placed within that stream
Anyone that has seen the ceremony cannot fail to see each of these strands. One of the things that was so impressive about the ceremony was that every theme was immensely visible. There was no hiding. During our rehearsals we always had an understanding of our place within the ceremony and what we were portraying. You really felt like you were part of something special.
This was a really fascinating part for me. Bradley was very open about the fact that they had huge obstacles to overcome in realising their vision for the ceremony. The part we are all guilty of forgetting when watching such spectacles is that there is a huge amount of protocol to navigate.
Firstly this was a celebration of Paralympic athletes. I think it was really something special when the athletes were bought onto the field of play (the performing space) so that they were right at the forefront and got to watch the ceremony and be involved instead of walking in right at the end.
Jenny and Bradley wanted to build in a new level of access to the ceremony. For example, having a BSL interpreter right next to the Queen was something that had never been done before. This re-imagining and inventiveness, enabling BSL and audio description to be integrated into the ceremony was absolutely vital. This is something that has also come about in our OYAP training. No matter what a person’s background or abilities we have to try to open up the arts and encourage as much involvement as possible and increase access for everyone.
Creative Contributors and LOCOG
There were a whole host of contributors that Bradley mentioned but I’m just going to go into a few.
Jon Bausor – Designer: Jon was the person to help come up with the three main motifs. The umbrella to protect us, the book for learning and rights, and the use of the Alison Lapper statue.
Errollyn Wallen – Composer: Errollyn was the composer who wrote the magnificent choral piece for a 600 strong choir formed of London based choral societies and community choirs. She also wrote Spirit in Motion which was sung by Denise Leigh.
Circus Space & Gandini: These two organisations allowed for a wider range of movement. I cannot tell you how impressive it was to see artists with missing limbs climbing swaying poles or being suspended and lowered from the top of the stadium and flying through the air.
LOCOG: Locog enabled a shared infrastructure to evolve, including the 360 degree screen made up of hand held pixel screens on every seat that the audience could wave and move.
Transforming Perceptions and Emotional Storytelling
The Paralmypics Opening Ceremony was watched by 1 billion people worldwide and 60,000 in the stadium audience. It had a cast of over 3000 performers as well as professional cast.
By using the story and the central character of Miranda, Bradley described how they could use the Tempest motif to pay homage to the athletes as Miranda wondered at the world and ‘beauteous mankind’. This was such an important theme that transcended the whole ceremony.
One of the most emotional parts I found during the ceremony was the opening documentary. This was not given the TV coverage it should have been as it was so emotional. It told the story of past and present paralympians and those with disabilities and finished with a pilot describing how he had trained with Aerobility and finally asking the audience to Look Up. He then flew the lit plane over the stadium that opened the ceremony. My heart absolutely swelled at that point, especially as I was just about to go on with 600 other performers and dance in the opening segment.
From there the ceremony beautifully portrayed a real sense of wonderment and equality. Stephen Hawking took to the stage to first establish our place in the universe and how science is progressing. It then moved through to empowerment. Paralympics is about being equal and that is what they aimed to portray. The huge (and I really do mean huge) statue of Alison Lapper that was revealed at the end was spectacular and definitely made its point.
The lighting of the cauldron was very emotive with the passing of the flame from Joe Townsend to David Clarke to Margaret Maughan, bringing together the past, present and future.
Finally the whole audience and cast joined in with Beverley Knight as she sang ‘I Am What I Am’. The most special part? We were all signing the chorus in BSL. It was incredible.
It was really interesting to hear about the ceremony from Bradley’s point of view. Having seen it from a performers point of view it was fascinating to hear about the lead up to rehearsals and how Bradley and Jenny developed and designed the ceremony, the troubles they faced, the moments they cut, and the moments they created.
Everyone involved felt that they were part of a movement that was changing perceptions, exactly as the Artistic Directors had intended. Even such phrases as ‘For those who are able, please stand for the National Anthem’, these little touches made the ceremony and made everyone feel included.
I’m so proud to have been part of something so special.