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The art of storytelling: Danny Boyle's London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony

By Evelyn Tsitas - posted Friday, 3 August 2012


Olympic Games opening ceremonies serve to showcase the might, power and confidence of the host nation, which is why so many fade into the background after their shock and awe blitz.

Consider the Beijing Games opening ceremony; more than 2000 drummers and illuminated drums, massed groups of choreographed and costumed singers, acrobats and other performers. It was an overwhelming display of perfectly orchestrated numbers meant to convince us of a nation's greatness.

What made London 2012's opening ceremony so memorable was the fact that it harnessed the power of storytelling. Storytelling is an intrinsic part of most cultures, and there are some stories that need to be told again and again, to every generation. They tell us of who we are, where our tribe has been, and what is important about the culture we belong to. Great events like Danny Boyle's London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony work because as both a director and a story teller, he understands the power of story to tell us who we are and what we care about.

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French media agreed, with daily paper Le Parisien saying: "So British....an opening ceremony that was magnificent, inventive and offbeat drawing heavily on the roots of British identity".

Boyle is well known for his memorable hit movie Slumdog Millionare, but it was his provocative and economical staging of Frankenstein at the National Theatre last year that saw the test run of many of the ideas conceived large scale on the Olympic arena.

So many of these potent visual images were transferred to the Olympic stadium for Boyle's opening ceremony. In Frankenstein he gave us an arc of flickering light globes above the stage, to symbolize the energy of the scientific age and the power of "galvanism" that the novel's creator Mary Shelly imagined was the electrical spark that charged Frankenstein's creature to life.

On the small stage, the industrial revolution was conjured through railway tracks and a carriage, with a small band of actors and some steam heralding the dramatic change, energy and transformation of the age of machine. For the Olympics, Boyle magnified this to the towering chimneys emerging from the ground, the dense smoke and noise of the dark satanic mills of progress.

Those ideas Boyle trialed went beyond the visual. When I watched the 2011 National Theatre live telecast of Frankenstein at Carlton's Nova cinema, what was obvious was that as a director, Boyle cared about the story of the individual. This marked a direct contrast with the Beijing games opening ceremony.

In recreating Mary Shelley's classic monster for the stage, Boyle gave the narrative to the misunderstood and rejected creature. He chose to give the creature a voice and tell Shelley's story as a creation myth for the scientific age. Where does the individual stand in the face of progress? What are our responsibilities as a society?

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Likewise, in the London 2012 Opening ceremony, Boyle cleverly chose stories that didn't just tell the history of United Kingdom; there was (apart from the skydiving Queen) no mention of monarchy, or the transportation of convicts. Throughout history we have used stories to ponder our legacy for future generations and the reason for our existence. So Boyle turned to the country's stories, and storytellers, to define more hard to define concepts like identity, values and legacy.

Boyle selected from Britain's past the stories that handed the best moments to the individual person; Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, J.K. Rowling, who gave the world magic of Harry Potter, and the dancing doctors and nurses and sick children of the Great Ormond Hospital in Boyle's celebratory homage to that most British institution, the National Health Service.

The NHS tells a story about country able to rally together to help each other collectively, and provide assistance for all – making sure the weakest and poorest in the community are not left to suffer. It's a story that America cannot tell of itself as a great nation. It is America's failure of an ability to share a communal story about helping each other collectively and relying on the support of a government to help out the weakest and poorest in the community that means there is no universal health scheme in such a wealthy country.

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About the Author

Dr Evelyn Tsitas works at RMIT University and has an extensive background in journalism (10 years at the Herald Sun) and communications. As well as crime fiction and horror, she writes about media, popular culture, parenting and Gothic horror and the arts and society in general. She likes to take her academic research to the mass media and to provoke debate.

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