I'm sitting in the cafe of the V&A in a room designed by James Gamble, right directly next to the William Morris room and listening to a pianist improvise while I eat salmon and a pair of beautifully dressed salads. (They taste good, they're not wearing fascinators or anything like that. Oh, English and your myriad meanings.) A man is rocking a newborn baby in his arms near the piano and shushing him to sleep. What I'm saying here is that life is beautiful.
Here's what else is beautiful: The number of people who popped up to help me get Baba Yaga made.
Months ago I decided I wanted to make a maze out of yarn. Because it would be fun. I considered finding out how annoyed Ella would be if I made it in our living room, but never got further than musing.
Then an email arrived asking for proposals from GSMD grads to use the Barbican Pit Theatre for week long research and development residencies for creative projects. A game, obviously was what I needed to suggest, but what? A thank you needs to go to Holly who pointed out that I could make my maze there, and then for nodding her head while I blathered on about the story that could go with it. “A comb. There are stories where a comb gets turned into a forest. And there's, like, a mirror? And that turns into a lake? But the maze- the maze could be a forest if we put leaves on it and stuff. Right? Validate me here. I need validation.”
I wrote my application to use the Pit Theatre at midnight in a lovely old house in Fountainbleu. Gwen's mother Clare smiled at me as she went upstairs to sleep, “You'll get it done.” She said, knowingly. And I did, just barely in time. Impishly and groggily I decided to call my new venture Casework. Because naming things after yourself is totally not lame at all. (Gwyn insists on calling it “Caseytronics” which I kind of feel is fair enough.)
Thrillingly and unexpectedly given that I had written the application on a whim- the Creative Learning department and the LAB project decided that I could use the theatre from September 5-9th.
That meant that this was real and I actually had to figure out how to do this and fulfil what I said I was going to in the application.
I did an appallingly poor job of getting my team together and, when I did finally contact them, I failed to give them enough information about what I was planning. Magically and mercifully Jonah trusted me on the basis of, “want to do a project with me? It's about Baba Yaga.” He kept texting me and pointing out that I should really tell him about this project he had agreed to do. Dave made a perfect drum line that exactly captured what I wanted for the witch almost instantly during our first, belated, meeting. Viv turned down work in order to keep her week clear. I can't thank them enough.
Planning the maze and the game would have been impossible without the whole Fire-Hazard Pints & Planning crew who inundated me with examples of cool structures, suggestions of game mechanics, and generous offers to take a day off of work to help me build the maze. I sat at our table in the Pembury Arms with two notebooks in front of me and at least three smart phones being passed around with pictures of things that might work for the maze. Without them I still would have tried to make the maze out of yarn, which would have been lame and wouldn't have led to the purchase of 4 kilometres of cling film.
Kevin showed up in the midst of all of this on a holiday to visit London, me, Ella, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Points to him for arranging his vacation so that he could help with Baba Yaga. Things moved more smoothly because of his presence and excitement. Also, when I decided at half eleven one night to start building a maze in the hallway, (Not the living room Ella! This was even more disruptive!) Kevin was the one who started wrapping around the lines we had tied creating a tunnel that ended up being the main design element of the maze.
Monday morning of this week I had somehow collected a team of four to start building the maze. The first thing we needed to do was place the scaffolding poles. It was at this point that I realized that I had very little clue about what I wanted this to look like. Adam, Jonah, Kevin and Viv were all very patient as I wandered more or less arbitrarily around the space shouting, “Here. And, um, here. Also there. Thank you!!” They were also patient when I managed to twist my ankle skipping excitedly down a step I hadn't realized was there. (This was, like, an hour into the whole process. Embarrassing.)
At lunch Jonah invited his dancer friend Georgie to come and meet me. Thank goodness for that because without her we really didn't have a working game mechanic and she dances so beautifully.
Pretty much the best firebird I could have asked for.
As soon as the scaffolding went up, we started twisting rope with our hands and tying it onto the poles. This was how we spent about two thirds of Monday before Keith, the stage hand, quietly left the room and came back with a power drill he'd attached a hook onto. I'm not sure how much rope he managed to make before we noticed and realized that, um, that would A) Work B) Work better, and C) Mean that we weren't blistering our hands. Building the maze continued much faster after that.
I don't think I can say enough about how helpful and gung-ho the staff at the Barbican were. Keith and Steve jumped right in and helped us build the maze. Steve in particular spent way more time than he was technically supposed to designing the lighting for the maze and just generally making himself invaluably useful.
We learned to stretch the rope so it wouldn't twist up- walking backwards to pull and pull and pull. We learned how to keep the cling film taut when wrapping or creating a tooth. We learned that dropping a roll from a high height is not a terrible idea as long as one end it attached to something because it is so sticky that it takes a while to roll off itself and sometimes you even have to help it along. We learned that there's no sense in trying to talk in a room filled with people unwrapping cling film because it is So. Loud. (And I learned to tie a square knot and a half hitch, but everyone else already knew how to do that.)
Day one ended and it felt like we had made a lot of progress. So off to the pub we went.
Day two brought a different group of people (thanks Nick!) and started off with teaching the newbies the tricks of the material. We built and built and built and somewhere in there Viv decided to make the fire bird costume. She showed up on day three with a bag of fabric and feathers and a sewing machine. We built and built and built realising that the high stuff needed to be finished before we wrapped any more lower panels because otherwise we couldn't place the ladders. Weirdly, the more we built the less finished it became. By the end of day three I was panicking that we'd never get the maze done. Also, we'd run out of cling film which resulted in all of us using the wireless network on various devices trying to find a shop in London that would courier us another 750 metres of cling film. Somehow we found one and an hour or so later a taxi pulled up with three more rolls.
You know. Just a day in the life.
People came for a day or an hour to help us build and test (thank you Patrick and Ruth and Holly). Jo was the first to try going through the maze with the characters and the music, but Elena helped too and said it was one of the most terrifying things she'd ever done. Excellent. It was then that we realized that even if nothing more happened, we had something that worked. We also realized that we were dreaming in cling film. I mean that literally, I kept seeing the organic twisty shapes we were making in my sleep.
At this point we're not even to the performance day. First we have to get through Thursday. At 5 (we we meant to be out by 6) the three of us who had been there the whole week (Viv, Jonah, and myself) started getting perfectionistic about the maze. I was going around with a pair of scissors taking the loose ends off of any and all knots I could reach. Viv kept wrapping more things and making sure pathways existed- noting which entrances let to the most direct and/or most convoluted passages. And Jonah got a bit compulsive about one of his tunnels. That night my father patiently dealt with me as I had a mini breakdown over skype; “so few people get to see it! And then it's all going to disappear!” I grieved, certain that this was a representative microcosm of my time in London.
At one in the morning the day of the performance Elena, Viv, Jonah and I were still passing emails back and forth writing and re-writing the game instructions which were now made up of rhyming stanzas. (Each message ended with, “okay, off to sleep now!” but then someone else would respond and we'd all start emailing again.) Also that evening we finally figured out what sort of a gem we had on our hands. All of us sent off as many messages as we could to as wide a network as each of us possessed: “Yes, this is during a working day, but it's AMAZING. Please, please come- not for us, but for you. Don't miss this.”
And so Friday took off. Viv showed up with beautiful instruction sheets she'd made that morning and sewed Georgie and I into our costumes. Elena volunteered to be the doorman, and then after the first round of players she and Adam decided that there needed to be an internet presence for the game- so they set up a tumblr account. Clare ferried people up and down the labyrinthine workings of the backstage of the Barbican. Steve brought in his camera and started taking quality photographs of the maze. Adam volunteered to make a video out of all of my time-lapse photographs. Jonah, Georgie, Dave, and Viv all cut their lunch short so we could film. Kevan and Emily both came back after they played and stuck around long enough to help us with the tear down. People were patient waiting for their turn. People tweeted and texted and emailed and our guest list grew DURING THE DAY. Jonah overheated and the paramedic wouldn't let us go on again for another forty minutes (“Just a plaster. Couldn't I just have a plaster?” Jonah said plaintively as the paramedic stuck a thermometer in his ear and took his blood pressure.) and still people waited their turn. My camera's memory filled up and other cameras appeared in my hands. Gwyn put all the digital files on to his computer. Elena set up a drop box for all the documents we'd created. The pile of positive feedback forms grew. People I hadn't seen in ages showed up and I glowed and felt so honoured and humbled by everything.
It was magic. The whole experience was magic. Still is magic.
God, I'm blessed.