Published July 27, 2012
LONDON – Penelope Summers is not a singer, dancer, juggler, clown, stunt biker or roller skater. She's a 34-year-old sales project manager.
Yet on Friday, she was one of 10,000 volunteers at Danny Boyle's mesmerizing opening ceremony for the London Olympics, performing before an estimated 1 billion people watching on TV.
How did she get there? It happened as many things do — on a lark, she signed up for an audition.
WE ARE WATCHING YOU
It's easy to volunteer when you have no idea of what you are getting into, Summers noted in an interview before the ceremony.
In November, she and three friends turned up one Saturday at 3 Mills Studio in east London, joining a queue of thousands being sorted into groups of 200 for the audition.
No room for shy retiring types.
"There was a lot of excitement on the Tube, no one knew what to expect," Summers said.
Choreographers taught the hopefuls several different dance moves over the next few hours — a daunting challenge for someone whose only previous experience was dancing in clubs. The would-be performers practiced in rows that rotated toward the front of the stage, with trainers walking in between, evaluating people.
"They were looking for several kinds of roles, these auditions were sorting out what you could do, what they needed," she said. "They tried to see how you adopted to different styles ... it was important to look as if you are having a good time."
Almost immediately, she and her friends knew this was going to be something very special.
"We had so much fun at that first audition, we knew we wanted to go all the way," she said.
At the second audition in December, the pressure was on. Those who had specific skills — dancers, jugglers, high-wire artists — were already slotted to different sections. More evaluators appeared, along with more cameras. A wider variety of tasks were ordered up.
"We were being watched a lot more, they has cameras everywhere. And it was still just as fun," Summers said.
The volunteers had to dance, role play, think on their feet, speak before hundreds of people. Everything was noticed, including their body language.
"The psychology behind it was very interesting, the way you move and dance was as important as how you interacted with people," Summers said.
Then the big news came: All four friends made the cut. One went into the roller skating segment, the lone guy became a dancer, and Summer and her friend Jasvin Sanghera, a 30-year-old business analyst, were accepted into the 'Mechanicals' group, which focused on crowd interaction.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
The rehearsals started in June, with all but one at the Olympic Stadium, and the two women spent days of vacation to attend. Three hundred people were in the Mechanicals group, from mid-20s to late fifties.
The pace quickly picked up: The week of July 16, they rehearsed three days in a row, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. The next week they were at Olympic Stadium from 1 p.m. to midnight, every other day.
They weren't always on their feet. Often they hung out in the stands of Olympic Stadium as other groups practiced, munching on sandwiches and drinking tea or coffee that organizers handed out. Sometimes it rained and they had to practice in ponchos.
"At first, you do something, it's in a silo, you don't know what to think," Summers said. "Then you see all the parts and it gradually comes together."
Both women called the opening ceremony costumes "amazing" — except, sadly for their own, which consisted of white overalls, a black t-shirt, and a bag for the air gun that shoots bubbles into the stadium crowd.
"Someone said we look like the Mario brothers in these big white ugly overalls. I think they may be right!" Jasvin laughed.
AND IT ALL COMES TOGETHER
For Jasvin, there's almost too many favorite parts of the opening ceremony to mention. But high on her list has to be the Industrial Revolution and James Bond segments, the queen humming the national anthem, those who parachute down and when Mary Poppins comes in to save children from a nightmare.
"There's a lot of 'wow' moments for me," Jasvin said. "Danny Boyle was so active in the decision-making in the rehearsals, really amazing to see."
Summers liked the punks, the dancing nurses, the costumes on the placard-bearers, the decades of British music — and of course, Mary Poppins. Her mother in Australia was going to be up at 5 a.m. in the morning to watch the ceremony her daughter has worked so hard to help produce.
"I feel nervous and excited! So amazing to think tonight will be in front of a billion people! Wooohoooooo! I'm so ready and can't wait!" Summers emailed just before she entered the stadium Friday night in her costume.