Standing on the shoulders of Giants

As April’s Titanic anniversary drew nearer, I was pretty excited about the prospect of French street theatre specialists Royal de Luxe bringing a new production to Liverpool. A rival company, La Machine (also based in Nantes) brought the giant spider ‘La Princesse’ to the City in 2008 as part of the Capital of Culture programme. Four years on, some things have changed in the city but some things stay the same and it seems the appetite for large-scale public events remains as insatiable as ever.

A week before the Sea Odyssey – Giant Spectacular event, I was working at the Grand National and missed a call that would have landed me a place working with Royal de Luxe. I was pretty disappointed but then a few days later there was a second call and I was asked to get to the secret rehearsal venue asap, to replace someone who left the team. Soon I found myself at Bramley-Moore Dock (near the colossal Tobacco Warehouse), putting on a hi-vis jacket, hard hat and facing two huge marionettes and a giant dog. This was set to become, at the very least, a unique experience.

One thing that became apparent after a few hours working at the Site was the confusing mix of French and local crews, the language barrier and the tensions of two different groups thrown together. The Royal de Luxe team, who it turns out are mostly French but also include several other nationalities, are a tight knit group who have travelled round the world together. With a disparate group of temporary local workers coming into that environment, some problems were bound to arise. However, with patience, a bit of effort trying some broken French and plenty of sign language, the barriers quickly broke down.

Tuesday before the event was my first full day on the job and some of the stories I was told of chaotic organisation, lack of communication, long periods of inactivity became apparent and could easily have become frustrating. The key was to appreciate that the Giant Spectacular was (albeit on a massive scale) street theatre. Theatre takes time, it’s not always a simple task, it can’t be judged as a standard enterprise. It is, rightly so, a fluid rather than a transactional process. Throw in various mechanical and remote controlled systems and staging the event becomes very complicated indeed. It was clear that a lot of patience was required on all sides. Once we relaxed a little, the frequent changes of pace and demands of rehearsal became much easier.

I was part of the team operating Xolo, the dog that was to accompany the Little Girl Giant throughout the weekend. The Uncle (larger) Giant had a distinct team and throughout the rehearsals we didn’t really interact much. However, the crews of the Girl Giant and Xolo working alongside each other was perfect and it felt like we had the more interesting tasks. The Uncle has impact because of his sheer size (standing at around 50 foot high). By contrast it felt that the impact of the Girl and Dog was in their interaction, in the variety of actions they could perform and a greater subtlety of expressions.

The interaction was sometimes hard to see fully in rehearsal but over the weekend it became joyfully apparent. It was fantastic to see Xolo approaching children in the crowd and at one point carrying a girl on his back. Similarly, the Girl Giant had children swinging from her arms at various points along the route and perhaps spectacularly of all, danced high in the air at Kings Dock on Saturday and Sunday. The separation of the Giants was interesting to experience from a workers point of view but when all three came together, it felt very special. When they met and the Girl found her Uncle on Saturday evening, the reunion was a genuinely emotional experience. From various accounts, it seems to have had an impact on the crowds but the same was definitely felt by many on the crew. Talking with some friends on the team, we all said it was a bit strange to have an emotional response – we know they are giant marionettes made of wood and metal – but it can become hard not to invest, or rather project emotions, into the performance.

My main task over the weekend was to walk behind Xolo, guiding the rig when it reversed and making sure the crowds stepped back when we turned around. In some places this was pretty simple but it became very challenging in tight spots. However, my position did give me the oppourtunity to observe the crowds and see their reactions up close. Before the performance began I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or how well we would be received, but from the start of the event on Friday the reactions were universally positive.

The crowds in Stanley Park, right the way through to Everton Brow exceeded my expectations and were amazing to see. I quickly heard words and congratulations which would recur throughout the three days: ‘Brilliant’, ‘Fantastic’, ‘Incredible’, ‘Well done!’ or just ‘Wow’ plus a spattering of ‘Bravo les Francais!’. I shook some hands, was patted on the back along the way. Although I only played a small part in the whole event I felt incredibly proud of what the team was doing together. Later, as we moved down into town and eventually to St George’s Plateau, the crowds and reception there took my breath away. As Xolo and the team rode along Lime Street, we were greeted by a sea of people all around. Further on in the city centre people on the streets were joined by those peering out of windows and from balconies of flats, offices, shops and pubs, eager to experience the spectacle as we made our way past. It felt that we were part of a fantastic shared experience.

The nature of shared experience is one of the most interesting aspects of the Giant Spectacular, as with any large-scale public performance. One feature that those I worked with talked about and local commentators noted was the number of people taking photos and video, sharing their recordings, updating social networks. All along the route I would say at least 75% of people were recording what they saw. Maybe half on phones and half on cameras but also a significant number of people using iPads and other tablets. The use of tablets is what stood out the most and just looked impractical. Though it didn’t spoil my experience, I don’t think I would have been happy to stand behind someone using one.

For me it has sparked an examination of why we are so keen to take so many photos. At what point does taking photos to remember and share the experience tip over into only experiencing the event through a screen, whether that be a viewfinder or a 9 x 7” iPad display? Adverts for the ‘New iPad’ boast about the quality of its display, suggesting it ‘helps you connect better with the things you love’, but surely even with the best display available, it will never substitute for the reality of what is looming large in front of you. Why view the event through your giant screen when you can see the giants for real and unfiltered? Some theories on use of cameras to record experiences suggest it enhances the event but to my mind over use can reduce the experience and dampen the enjoyment.

Although tired by the end of the weekend, and slightly wet after a few showers, our enjoyment was anything but diminished. Sunday’s finale proved a fitting ending and cemented memories of a truly amazing experience. All three giants strolled along The Strand, with Xolo the dog running in front, then back and around amongst the parade. The procession was punctuated regularly with the clash of giant cymbals and the blast of a mail cannon firing confetti and hand-written letters into the air and down onto the crowd. One of the Royal de Luxe company had died suddenly just before the production came to Liverpool and I later found out that some of his ashes had been mixed in with the confetti, postcards and letters blown triumphantly into the air. Perhaps a fitting tribute to someone who had helped bring the performance to life.

At midday, the Giants moved to a ship waiting in Canning Dock. Amongst mist and to the sound of foghorns they sailed away, into the River and we waved goodbye. For the estimated half a million people who visited the City over the weekend, it will hopefully be an event to remember for many years. For those who worked on the team, it was one incredible experience. On Sunday night we celebrated with Champagne, then Pernod and many other drinks. It felt as though we had been welcomed into a crazy but loveable family for a week our lives and hopefully at some point in the future we may get to experience it all over again. As was shouted many times on the streets, Bravo les Francais!