DCMS blog

How to make domino spirals out of 1,000 hardback books

by

Michelle Thomas

Placement at an Opera Company through the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries Scheme

DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries - Bursary Blog
From naked bike rides to an unusual version of dominos via the mysteries of gaffa tape, arts graduate Michelle Thomas fills us in on what she’s learnt from her placement at an opera company through the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries Scheme.


Eight months. Blimey.
Eight months since I arrived in London with a suitcase, a friend’s floor to sleep on and a new job: Creative Associate at The Opera Group.
Having earned my degree in Theatre Practice in 2009 and spending the following year in Bristol concentrating on my own work (which you can read about on my personal blog) and collaborating with numerous companies and artists, I:
a) needed a full time job – a priority I shared with some 40,000 unemployed graduates at that time;
b) needed a full time job that I didn’t actively dislike (ditto);
c) wanted to move to London.

Reasons why the role of Creative Associate at The Opera Group feels tailor-made for me


  • I’m being paid to do something I enjoy and have previously done for free.

  • I feel this role will help me continue to find creative work that I am good at and that I enjoy.

  • It gives me the opportunity to make a genuine contribution to new and exciting work.

  • I got to move to London! The Capital! Just around the corner from The London Eye, Big Ben and The Queen!

I have done so much in so little time. I helped produce my first opera, Save the Diva, within two months. I have toured the country twice – once with two shows simultaneously. I have been inspired, scared, thrilled, perplexed, frustrated, proud and occasionally been so busy I forgot to breathe.

Some Truths I Have Learnt


  • A helium balloon must be at least 5 inches in circumference before inflation in order to float.

  • It is acceptable to carry a spear on public transport as part of a Valkyrie costume as long as it is covered up and “not used in a threatening or provocative manner”.

  • Microsoft Excel is a harsh mistress to the uninitiated.

  • One particularly surreal day at the office involved arranging bouquets in the room next to where theatre and film director Ian Rickson was holding auditions for Ophelia. I’d hoped he’d take my being there doing what I was doing as a sign that I should be given the role. He didn’t. Fair enough.

  • Due to a happy scheduling coincidence, I heroically stage-managed Save the Diva at an unusual event without giggling or crying.

  • If it moves when it shouldn’t: Gaffa Tape. If it should move and doesn’t: WD40 – Techie Wisdom

How to make domino spirals out of 1,000 hardback books


Michelle with the books on stage“Ok folks, the books needs to be roughly equidistant, with the spines facing the audience. If the book’s even a tiny bit wobbly, get rid. It’s too big a risk, and there are plenty of spares – we’ve got the complete works of Danielle Steele back there. No, no, no – look, that gap’s far too big, that book won’t hit that book and the whole thing will just grind to a halt.
“Corners are tricky – use lots of light, thin books to minimise the risk of failure – heavy ones are harder to topple. Use the heavy ones at junctions – I favour the encyclopaedias but the big books of Scottish law are also good – but you need to make sure there’s a chunky book before it to make sure it goes.
“No, no, stay away from there, that bit of the stage is particularly springy and I’ve already built that row three times. Right, keep an eye out for five prop books. They’re the ones with singed edges. Ooh, speaking of which, when you’re building the table out of books, be careful not to block the trough where the flame paste goes. Yes, all these books have been flambarred, that’s what that chalky residue is. Make sure you wash your hands afterwards.”
(Making the set for Seven Angels)

More truth


During my time on this placement, I have accepted what I have known for a long time: that I need to make my own work as a theatre practitioner.
I have been inspired by watching John Fulljames, co-founder of The Opera Group and now Associate Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, in the rehearsal room, and in my meetings with my mentor David Harradine, Artistic Director of performance company Fevered Sleep. I showed him my work (shyly) and he has given me so much encouragement and support I feel bound to commit myself to create, make and to do.
It’s difficult for me to articulate how much I’ve benefitted from this placement – because it doesn’t feel like one. To the credit of my employers, at no point have I felt like a trainee, or a student, or anything other than an employee – a professional – at a definitive stage in her career. I am the sum of my experiences, and my time at The Opera Group has been a significant one. Personal experience informs creative endeavour, and the lessons I have learned at The Opera Group – as stage manager, a producer, and researcher – will absolutely guide me in the choices I make as a freelance practitioner.

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