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Day 15: Darling, your fusion was simply wonderful

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

I have developed a theory about why actors stereotypically call one another darling. But you will have to be patient. I will come on to that in a minute. I hit upon it in Cambridge, at Girton College, to be precise. The elusive concept of community has been my goal in this month- long tour of the nation and the various summer schools that fill our universities during the vacation seemed the place to examine it in its most transient form.

The day I arrived, Girton was hostess to three separate groups: the actors of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival who were ensconced for 11 weeks; the teachers of St Andrew’s Language School, who were in residence for two months; and the members of the Essex Young People’s Orchestra, who were there for just five days.

It was mid-morning break in the red-brick Victorian gothic college with its trim lawns and stately cedars, and the adolescents of Essex were sitting in the TV room watching Teletubbies. Communities do not come much more temporary than this. The orchestra exists for only 15 days each year. Its 98 members, aged between 14 and 18, do not rehearse on a weekly basis like a school orchestra. They meet only for three five-day sessions during the holidays – Easter, summer and Christmas – when they put in at least eight solid hours’ practice.

“This way,” said Richard Brittain who runs the enterprise, “they can make progress on nuances and textures.” Progress is made on other fronts too. “Richard, stop chatting her up,” one young fiddler was admonished as concentration wandered towards the end of the morning’s three-hour section practice for the first violins.

Rituals of courtship are just the unofficial part of the community-building process. “We deliberately programme group activities in the free time – swimming, a quiz night, a barn dance,” said Mr Brittain. “And they are all responsible for setting up the performance area and clearing it afterwards.” Thus, they hope, the balance between self-discipline and youthful rebellion will be arrived at.

Similar processes were at work among the other groups visiting the college. Common purpose was not deemed a sufficient cement on the two-week courses at the language school down the corridor. “When they arrive we have a whole programme of ice-breakers – name games and non-language games designed to build trust,” said Helen Holwil, the young course director. Morning classes are followed by afternoon games and day trips designed to bridge cultural gaps among pupils of different nationalities about what is acceptable in class.

“You learn there is some truth in national stereotypes: ask the group an open question and an Italian will begin and talk for hours. But the Japanese will not, even if they know the answer, because part of their culture is not appearing to know more than your neighbour. Ask the class to go into pairs and talk about music and an Arab may come back and say he’s not being paired with a woman; the Japanese will come back and ask what kind of music.” The process is artificial, but it is an effective accelerator. “By the end of two weeks some will even ask to come back next year with the same group.”

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival actors had also created techniques for fusion. A company of 50 actors had gathered for eight shows over nine weeks. “Although they are all professionals, they are all expected to muck in,” said Dr David Crilly, the director of the festival, which is now in its 10th year. “We all build the sets, put up the lighting towers, lay the cables.” They are also expected to take part in a rigorous social life. Punting, rounders, pub pool, bar football tournaments etc are all compulsory. “There’s 10 in each company so everyone has to join in to make the five-a-sides work,” said the effusive Crilly. “Performance may be the common denominator but much more is needed if everyone is to fuse instantly into a team.” And then came the clue to the “darling” syndrome. “The week after the festival finishes I feel bereft,” said Crilly, who then reverts to his job as a university music lecturer. “These people have become my best friends and yet I may never meet them again.” For professional actors such hothouse intensity is a part of everyday life. They build a tremendous sense of emotional familiarity with their fellow thesps. Then, years later, they meet and having forgotten each other’s names, they summon an appellation which is, at once, intimate and anonymous. Hence, darling. How odd, I then thought, that these transient communities all seem to know that they need conscious strategies to develop their common identity. How odd, too, that those who lament the decline of a more permanent and deep-rooted sense of community in the nation have not come to the same realisation, but rather assume that it will be nurtured and fostered without thought or effort. Which is not to be dewy-eyed.

Communities are places of conflict as well as companionship. “If this was a football team you’d never get selected,” boomed the Essex conductor, Antoine Mitchell, as the French horn fluffed for the fifth time in the full orchestral run-through of Liszt’s Les Preludes. The back-row trombone looked up from reading FHM to gaze across the orchestra at his guilty colleague. “Why are you talking?” barked the conductor. The horn muttered. “Oh, so that isn’t talking, when your mouth moves up and down and noise comes out. Get out.” Later in the day, I spotted the French horn in a “Why-should-you-not- be-sent-home?” conference with the orchestral authorities. He thought of a good reason, and was not. Mechanisms of resolution are integral to community too. Late that night there was more jostling and jockeying in the bar where The Tempest was playing Romeo and Juliet in a knock-out tournament. The actors were on the pool table again, grumbled the teachers. The Essex youth were engaged in some private internal discord, to judge by the raised voices. And it would be the same in the weeks to come when the British Antarctic Survey, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, or the British Organ Donors Society filled the college for conferences that would be so similar in their dynamics for all the difference of their subject matter. “No one has brought the glasses back,” grumbled Tom, the ancient barman, as he pulled down the shutters at 2am. “But, then, no one ever does.


Tomorrow Day 16: Farewell Britain, hello the Great Wen

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