Oxford’s Final Frontier: a chat with Oxford TrekSoc

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 3 June 2016.

They say Oxford is another world, but for many students that simply isn’t enough. Some want to seek out new friends, new experiences, to boldly split infinitives that no man (or indeed woman) has ever split before. Hence the existence of the Oxford Star Trek Society, a group of Trekkies who meet every Monday to watch the show, discuss its nearly fifty years of history, and generally appreciate what lies beyond the final frontier. Heading them up is the newly-elected Captain Rose Atkinson, who was kind enough to meet with me to discuss Star Trek, ropey special effects and the social life of the society.

We started by discussing her role within the society. “I’m the Captain of the Star Trek Society, so I’m responsible for organisation the weekly meetings, arranging the themes of the episodes we pick, keeping the society finances in order, and organising events. There are four of us on the society committee – we’ve got the First Officer, who assists me and helps out with food, that kind of thing. Then there’s the Morale Officer, who also does events, and the Technical Officer, who’s responsible for showing the episodes we watch during the meetings.”

So what does a typical meeting involve? “Usually beforehand we have a poll on the Facebook page, so everyone can pick some episodes that they want to see. Then we turn up, watch a couple of episodes of Star Trek, maybe share some fun Star Trek-related information, but all in a very light-hearted sort of way. Then we go to the pub, usually. It’s quite a nice, easygoing time.”

Star Trek fandom often involves a high level of commitment. How did Rose get involved in the society, and how did she first get into the show generally? “Well, being a lifelong (almost) Trekkie, I went looking for them at the freshers’ fair, because I had heard about them on the offer group, and signed up from there. In terms of how I first got into the show, I think my mum showed me it when I was about ten, or something. I’m a big fan of the original series, and I liked its outlook. It’s a very hopeful show, a very forward-looking show, and also one with a lot of fun in it. The whole Star Trek community is one that enjoys the flaws of the show as well as its selling points, I think. And it has some very good stories, as well.”

What’s the social dynamic of the society like, and what sort of crowd does it draw week to week? “Well, there’s about fourteen or fifteen regular members, so we’re quite a small and close-knit bunch. But to be honest, it’s quite a wide selection: we have grad students, undergrads, all sorts of sciences and humanities. It’s not a stereotypically “nerd” society, really. There’s a lot of different types of people within the group.”

What are the challenges of running a society like this in Oxford specifically? “I think that does have a dint on numbers, because I’m always meeting people who say they are interested in Star Trek, or they signed up at freshers’ fair and they’re still getting emails, but they just don’t have time. And I think maybe it’s perceived as more of a fun society, one that’s not going to look good on your CV, like for instance being a committee member of the Oxford Union or whatever. So it’s perceived as being a sort of frivolous society. I mean it is frivolous and fun, but I think it’s a good way to relax from the Oxford lifestyle. It’s a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously for the most part. I mean we all very much love it, but we can appreciate the silly side of Star Trek, the terrible low budget, the silly costumes and so on. I think it’s a show that lends itself to good-natured fun, really, and the small size of the society means that we all know each other. I mean, we had a contested election this year but it was never in the slightest bit aggressive, or a “hacking” election – there’s nothing to hack for, really, which is why it’s so much fun.”

Having been made Captain this term, does Rose have any grand plans for the society? “Well at the moment I hear this year’s batch of freshers has been bigger than previous years. In previous years the society has been down to about five people, I believe. So we would like to increase from the fourteen, fifteen members. We’re probably going to the fiftieth anniversary convention later this year, and organising a few more social events, because it is very much a society for friends with a similar interest, and getting along with each other. So we’d like a few more social activities to cater that. We’re hopefully going to have a crewdate with another nerdy society. We’d like to get in touch with maybe the Harry Potter society or something later in the year, and we’d like to try and go for a Star Trek picnic, and try and make some of the food that they have on the show. Off the top of my mind I think I’ve seen some recipes for Klingon worm dishes which I’d like to try. Though not using any actual worms, I hope.”

What are Rose’s favourite bits from the half-century of the Star Trek franchise? “I’m an original series Trekkie. My First Officer is more of a Next Generation fan – we tend to watch a lot of the Next Generation in the society, but I think we get quite a good balance of all the series’. It’s always the same people who suggest the episodes of a particular season. We’ve got some people who are very keen on one series and not on the others, so there’s a bit of a split there, but it’s entirely amicable.”

In that spirit, where does Rose stand on that great Trekkie debate, Kirk or Picard? “Well, personally, I don’t think my Captainhood is much like Captain Kirk’s [William Shatner], but he will always be my favourite captain, because he’s just a lot more fun than Picard [Patrick Stewart]. Picard is rather more realistic, but he’s not half as bombastic.”

Finally, how would Rose try persuade someone to come along to the society? “We’re not a society for “hardcore fans”. Some of us really love the original series, know all the different battleships, all the different cruiser classes, or whatever, and some of us have watched them once or twice, and think they’d like to get into it more. It’s a very welcoming society, there’s not a certain level of knowledge you need about Star Trek in order to get in. You can just turn up and give it a go, even if you’ve never seen it before. It is, after all, a cultural icon, turning fifty this year. It’s such a popular culture reference point that it’s worth coming just to understand the influence it’s had – if you look for it, you start seeing Star Trek everywhere.”

 

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The Oxford Revue and Friends – A preview

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 1 June 2016.

Most Playhouse productions are no laughing matter. Sitting comfortably at the top of the student theatre hierarchy, the Playhouse is a place for high production values and even higher brows. But in two weeks’ time the Oxford Revue, Oxford’s own band of student comics, will be taking to the stage in their annual show, The Oxford Revue and Friends. It sees them teaming up with long-time frenemies the Cambridge Footlights and the Leeds Tealights for two hours of sketches, songs and stand-up, providing a culmination of a year’s worth of shows, and the launching pad for a summer trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. I got to sit down with Revue co-president Jack Chisnall, who told me about the plans for the show.

“The show is a two-hour extravaganza, everyone is going to show off some of their stuff. There’s an air of competitiveness when you bring all these people together. But it’s really a celebration of student comedy, in all its amateurism, and the sense that people could take off from this. The format will be two halves. The first will be the Footlights and the Tealights doing some sketches, songs, whatever they feel like – we give them half an hour each to do whatever they want. And then they’ll hand over to us, the Oxford Revue, for the second half. It’s a chance to really show the kind of smorgasbord of what we did this year, dipping in and out of all the different shows we’ve done.”

“Working with the other troupes, I flatter myself that we all influence each other a little bit. We do a lot of shows together – we’ve met the Footlights three or four times already this year. This kind of show that we’re doing at the Playhouse gets recreated in Cambridge and Durham, and even in Bristol last year. So we see each other a lot – me and Georgia also went up against the Footlights at Varsity this year, so you see each other develop across the three years of your degree. So it’s competitive, in a fun way, but also collaborative. I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously. We all think that we’re going to make it, and that’s daft in its own way.”

“Performing in the Playhouse, well, without getting too precious about it, you’re very aware of the history it’s got. You look at that bruised and battered old stage, and you think, ‘oh, maybe Alan Bennett caused that rupture on the stage, maybe he dropped a heavy prop there’, or ‘maybe that was where Stewart Lee or Michael Palin performed’. It is, traditionally, where the Revue has always done a show. One is aware of the ghosts of the past there, so to speak. You’re aware of the really cool people who’ve performed there before you, and that’s what makes it so incredible.”

“There’s a general sense of being connected. You’re connected to the past, but you’re also connected to people who aren’t students. It’s full of townsfolk – they throw curveballs at you, as a performer. I know what students are going to laugh at, or I flatter myself I do, but you face different audiences when you do the Playhouse, people who don’t share that same set of references. It’s wonderful, because Oxford’s a great city, and you do forget, in a very arrogant way, that it’s actually a thriving town full of very interesting people. For one night a year you get to feel connected to this wonderful history of a city and a history of performance. The Playhouse is this rite of passage for us, and it’s very nice.”

“The music came first” – An Interview with Stephen Hyde

Stephen Hyde is one of the best musicians in the Oxford theatre scene. A prolific director and composer, his credits include Yesterday, King Lear, The Marriage of Kim K, and most recently Queueue, all extremely stylish and well-reviewed productions. He was kind enough to talk to me about his creative process, electronic music, and his experience of Oxford theatre.

Let’s start with Queueue – how did that come about?

I originally went to Leo with this idea I’d had for a few years about writing a musical about Alice Through The Looking Glass. Leo had his own concept which he developed following that conversation, about framing it with the internet. As we went on through the process, this new musical came out, which Damon Albarn had done, Wonder.land, and we realised there was a bit of a clash there. So we decided to broaden it out; it became more about the internet, and the characters in contemporary life we’d experienced around Oxford. The idea to stage it in a coffee shop came very late in the day, but by that point we’d spent a lot of time in coffee shops around Oxford, so we had kind of done all our research before that concept was even introduced.

What was it like, trying to capture the internet through music?

The internet is so multi-layered. You’ve got all these different musics, from all these different cultures and time periods, all in one space, and part of the idea behind the music was this sort of magpie approach. But I was also playing with internet-y sounds, little motifs like the iPhone ringtone and stuff, so that was another defining feature. I’ve played a lot with electronic music in some of my compositions, and I wanted to develop that further, as well as bring indie electronic music into the realm of musical theatre, which is something that’s not really been done much at all.

How did you find playing with those sorts of styles?

It was a massive learning curve. I often write some music, then realise it’s gone somewhere quite different from where I wanted it to go, but in quite interesting ways. PC Music is a genre of music which people said they heard coming through in some of the songs, which I didn’t intend at all. I felt like I had a lot of creative freedom; the music got quite whacky in places, and I just found that really, really fun.

How did you match the music to the action? Which came first, the songs or the script?

I think, by and large, the music came first. Leo had sketched the story before most of the music arrived, but quite often I would send him a piece of music, based on what I was listening to at the time, and he would fit it into the story. In terms of the mechanics of writing, the music would almost invariably come first, then Leo would write the lyrics based on that.

The idea of unconscious influence seems to be coming through here; does that happen a lot when you write music?

It really does, yeah. Quite often I’ll write something, and then only realise afterwards where I got that inspiration from. Before writing Queueue I’d been listening to a lot of upbeat music, stuff like Paul Simon and Rusted Root and Vampire Weekend, so a lot of the music had that kind of optimistic vibe. I was occupied with a new composition technique, which was writing bass lines first, then building a song up from there: writing a melody over the bass line, layering up the texture. But again, after I’d used this technique for a while I realised it was because I’d heard a lot of great bass lines from Paul Simon, without ever consciously acknowledging that.

Jumping back a bit, last term you directed The Marriage of Kim K – what was that like? How did it compare to Queueue?

It was quite different. Leo came to me and asked me to direct it, so I didn’t have such a stake in it as a piece of new writing. But there are certainly Leo E. Mercer trends that you see coming up in both of them, especially in his lyrics. He’s very witty, occasionally quite sardonic, so there was some similarity between the two projects. I was attracted to Kim K because it was doing something new, saying something in a new way.

What are the different demands made of you as a director, rather than a composer? Which do you prefer?

That’s an interesting question – I have very seldom directed anything that I haven’t written the music for. I always want to incorporate music into the fabric of any kind of production, really getting a musical language into the drama. So to say which one I prefer would be extremely difficult. Right now, I’m really enjoying my composition, but I really want to marry the two together.

Last year you composed and directed Yesterday at the BT – could you tell us a bit about that? Do you write music differently for the BT than for the O’Reilly or Modern Art Oxford?

Absolutely – it’s all space-dependent. With Yesterday it was more of a throwback, in terms of some of the musical influences I had, drawing from Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown. The setup there was a chamber ensemble, with just a cello, piano, and drums, and a three-woman cast. So the space determined the ensemble, and the ensemble determined the style of music we were writing. Drums were really at the heart of that – we had a continuous drumming underlay for the whole show, and the BT as a space suited that really well.

You’ve also written a lot of music for Shakespeare productions – what’s it like working with material that well-known?

It’s a great chance to prove how diverse Shakespeare can be. For King Lear we were doing a very filmic, neo-noir multimedia production, so we had a lot of electronic, ethereal soundscapes. Then for some of the other Shakespeares I’ve been doing, for outdoor touring productions, it’s a chance to indulge in my love of folk music, and seeing what sorts of different things you can apply to Shakespeare. I’ve written some songs for a production of As You Like It I’m doing at the moment, and it’s really interesting how music can inform the characters and scenario, how adaptable and diverse Shakespeare is. Music was such a big part of performing Shakespeare when he was alive, and it can still be a big part of it today. As You Like It is full of songs, it’s practically a musical.

Could you tell us about this production?

Absolutely! Right now I’m working on Macbeth and As You Like It. I’m writing the music for both, but I’m also directing Macbeth, which has been really good fun. We’re a group of five acting musicians, and we’re doing a tour of the UK; it’s all about storytelling through musical instruments, and we assign instruments to different characters. Banquo is associated with a mandolin, Macbeth with a drum, Lady Macbeth with a recorder, and they’re used to create soundscapes, but also as physical extensions of that character, or ways that character can express themselves, so that’s been really interesting to work with. The tour starts in Glamis Castle in Scotland, and then we finish in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’re performing in an RSC venue, which is really exciting. That’ll be my last project for a little while – after that I’m going to need a break!

Stephen Hyde will be on tour with the Three Inch Fools Theatre Company until 1 August. Tickets are available here. You can also find Stephen’s music on his Soundcloud page.

Cards, Charizard and Championships: a chat with Oxford Pokémon Society

Photo: Stéfan on Flickr

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 27 May 2016. It was a collaboration with my good friend Redha Rubaie, who is a very good student journalist in his own right – he doesn’t have a blog, but as soon as I persuade him to get one I’ll point you all his way. Huge thanks also to Lychee Lu for being so nice when we interviewed him, and putting up with out dumb questions about Charizard.

‘Gotta catch ’em all!’ The rallying cry of a generation of schoolchildren, a generation currently in the process of growing up, getting jobs, and (in some unfortunate cases) studying at Oxford. Hence the Oxford Pokémon Society, a group of young aficionados who meet regularly to play, discuss, and generally enjoy everyone’s favourite child-friendly blood sport. Heading them up is Lychee Lu, a third-year biochemist and lifelong Poké-fan, who met with us to discuss trading cards, orange dragons and the ever-changing nature of the franchise.

Lychee kicked off by telling us his role within the society. “In the Pokémon society, like most other societies, we have standard committee positions, but we’ve also decided to give them an interesting spin. So the president is the Champion, followed by the vice president, who’s the Dragon Tamer, and the secretary is the Master of Minutes, and the welfare officer is Nurse Joy, understandably. And the treasurer is the Keeper of Plushies, because out society has lots of plushies, as you’ll know if you’ve seen our stall at freshers’ fair.”

What plushies does the society have? “We started with just what our members had – we had Pikachu, who’s the obvious choice, I suppose. And then we have a few random ones as well, I think some people had some Evolutions, which seem to be very popular with people, just because maybe they look kind of cute, and we have some of the Legendary Pokémon as well.”

What are Lychee’s favourite starter Pokémon, and which generation of the game does he prefer? “I’ve always played the card game, but I was never allowed a GameBoy growing up, and then when I came to Oxford I got the money to actually buy one, that was when Omega Ruby and Sapphire came out, so that was technically my first game. But I’ve since played some of the others on emulators and such. I first started playing the card game competitively at the Diamond and Pearl stage, so a lot of my favourite Pokémon come from that generation. But generation one is probably my favourite, in terms of the all-roundedness and the different aspects of the Pokémon world it represents.”

“I used to collect the cards a lot as a child. I grew up in Singapore, and I think a lot of my friends around me were playing as well. But I never played it until I got on to secondary school. One day I was watching TV, watching the Pokémon TV show actually, and one of the commercial breaks they had an ad for the Pokémon national championships. I didn’t realise people had actual competitions for this, so I went along, and I’ve been playing ever since. I played in Singapore through my A levels, and then I came here and discovered the local Pokémon community, and I’ve since been travelling around the country with my friends to play.”

Pokémon is a famously competitive scene – why does the game create such passion? “I suppose, with any kind of game, when you reach a rather high level it does get pretty skill-based, which I’d like to think Pokémon is. Certainly it has a lot of players, though not as many as it used to. I was at last year’s UK National Championships, and I’d say we had a good 250 people for the card game, and about 600-700 for the video game side, it was quite a sizeable number, and with that kind of pool you do get a good amount of competition.”

What does Lychee think of the criminally overrated Charizard? “I’m not sure – my personal favourite is Dialga, the metal dragon from Pokémon Diamond. I think people just have a strange fascination with dragons in general, they’re such a huge thing in popular culture. I suppose Charizard is essentially a fire dragon, and he’s one of the starters, which made it quite accessible to people, so I guess that all contributed to the reputation he’s got.”

Many a Pokémon player will remember the infamously creepy Lavender Town from the early games. Is Pokémon ultimately for kids or adults? “This is actually something my fellow card game players and I have discussed quite often – most of them are older than I am, generally mid-twenties or early thirties. We were comparing the designs of the older cards and the newer ones. The newer cards have a lot more text on them, and some of it’s even quite complicated. There is actually a professional exam now which you have to be able to pass to judge competitions officially, and it’s mainly about the intricate wordings of the text. It’s not quite something that small children would be able to pick up immediately. So in that sense, I’d say their target audience has shifted, slightly. There’s a generation which grew up with Pokémon, so it’s adjusted along with them.”

How would Lychee persuade potential new members to give Pokémon a go? “We do face this problem a lot at freshers’ fair;  a lot of people walk by and say ‘oh, I remember that from like ten, fifteen years ago’, but they might be reluctant to give it a go now. It’s a similar situation for almost all of us in the society, and we tell them, essentially, you can always pick it up again. Especially the competitive side to it, I guess when people see it they realise it can actually be a lot more fun and skill-based, which can help get people interested. If you enjoyed it in the past, you’ll certainly enjoy it a lot more now. Like, have you tried Pokémon with alcohol? That’s something most ten year-olds won’t have tried, and I can say from experience that it’s great fun.”

Interview: Jenny Spruce, Oxford Sirens Captain

Photo: Christopher Humphries

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 20 May 2016. This interview was a real pleasure to do, and you can find out more about the Oxford Sirens here, or on their Facebook page.

Cheerleading is one of the fastest-growing sports in the UK, and Oxford’s own squad, the Oxford Sirens, has certainly been doing its bit. This Sunday sees Oxford colleges going head to head in Cheerleading Cuppers, and the Oxford Sirens’ President Jennifer Spruce was kind enough to talk to me about the demands of the sport, the perils of Oxford athletics, and the pains of early morning training.

Could you tell us a bit about Cheerleading Cuppers?

We’re holding it on Sunday the 15th of May, at 3:30 at Iffley. We’ve got a wide variety of colleges joining in, a lot of people trying the sport for the first time, which is great to see. People from Sirens recruit people from their college, to come and bring them to training, so we train them for just two weeks. We have to make up a one and a half minute routine, to a set music piece. It needs to consist of tumbling, stunts, dance, and jumps – that’s what they get points for. We’ve got a judge, who’s our old Sirens coach, Katt Walton, who’s competed in [US cheerleading championship] Worlds. She’s been in involved in cheer for most of her life. So she’ll be giving points on the difficulty of the stunts, the jumps, the dance, the tumbles, and we’re also going to factor in how many new people in the team – obviously those who’ve only been doing it two weeks are at a disadvantage, so we’re going to make it fairer that way.

Is there much interest in Cuppers?

There’s more involvement, definitely, this year. In previous years there were less than five teams competing, and now there are quite a lot more. I think the standard is a lot higher now, and that seems to have occurred across the country. Going to competitions now, the standard has increased compared to what it was three years ago. I’m not sure why that is – I guess people look at YouTube videos of the big competitions in America, and there’s interest through social media, so more people are trying it for the first time.

You’ve been involved in the Sirens for a couple of years – what attracted you to it in the first place?

My first year at uni I wasn’t involved in cheerleading. Then in second year I signed up at freshers’ fair, went to a taster session, and I just thoroughly enjoyed it. I come from a dance background, and most people on the Sirens have got some dance background, or gymnastics, they’ve not necessarily done cheerleading before. There’s very few people with cheerleading experience. It’s a lot more difficult than it seems, it’s quite demanding, and that actually made me want to do it more. It is a proper sport, and people recognise, especially when they come to do Cuppers, how hard it is, and appreciate that you have to be an athlete to do it. It involves strength, stamina, flexibility, it’s really technically demanding.

What does a typical cheerleading routine involve?

Most people focus on the stunts. In each stunt you need a flier (a person who’s thrown in the air, normally a small, flexible person). Then we have two bases, and then a back, normally someone who’s a bit taller. The moves consist of lifts, preps, extensions, cradles, baskets – there’s a huge variety, and you combine them all together. The background you come from also affects things. If you’ve got a gymnastics background, you can tumble, you’ll be in the tumble sections. If you’re a dancer, we’ll put you at the front, if you’re flexible you’ll be a flier, if you’ve done more strength-based sports, they’re normally great people to do basing. It requires a range of people, and there’s a role for every type of person.

 

What’s your favourite part of being involved in the Sirens?

I think it is just being part of a team, and you do form great connections with everyone. You have to rely on other people a lot more than in other sports. I’ve made so many friends from it. It’s not an individual sport, like swimming, where you’re all trying to be the fastest and the best. Everyone is helping each other to make the team improve as a whole. It’s so much more difficult than I ever thought it would be, and I really enjoy that. I enjoy pushing myself.

How would you persuade someone to get involved?

I’d say come to Cuppers, it’ll be a great chance for you to see what people can achieve in just two weeks. It is just really, really fun. Every practice and rehearsal I’ve been to I’ve enjoyed, and it makes it worth going to those 7am training sessions, and I’m sure everyone in Sirens would agree.

Such dank, much meme: an interview with Oxford Dank Memes Society

Photo: Luis Bambi

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 13 May 2016. Ada was absolutely brilliant, and I recommend everyone check out the group. DISCLAIMER ADDED 28/08/16 – Pepe the Frog has been designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League due to its popularity among white supremacists. This article was written before this came to light, and both Ada and myself strongly disavow any and all white supremacists, regardless of whether they use this meme. 

Oxford has a lot of student societies but earlier this year second-year PPEist and Corpuscle Ada Pospiszyl noticed that there was no society for lovers of the iconic images we so love to share online; a requiem for a meme. So she decided to rectify this by creating the Oxford Dank Memes Society, a Facebook page for Oxford students to share whatever memes necessary. Assisted by her fellow founders Mark Scott, Srishti Suresh, Shane Finn and Harrison Edmonds, they have turned the page into Oxford’s premier destination for light relief and Doge pictures. She met with me to discuss internet culture, Pepe the Frog, and the secrets of Oxford’s heart of dankness.

I started by asking how the society was first established. “There was one event late last Hilary that we called the Dank Memes Society launch, but then there was no plan for an actual society. We just kind of did it as a joke. Then by the end of term I was obviously doing everything I could do to avoid doing work, so I thought ‘Hey, let’s make it into a real society, that’ll be really funny’. The meme culture is not very strong in Oxford, because we think we’re all so serious, and we have to have Serious Societies. I just thought, you know, it would be an interesting experiment to set one up. If you go on [political Facebook group] Open Oxford, sometimes they’ll start posting memes, and most of them are irrelevant, unfunny, they’re not dank at all. They’re way too political, and mostly like two years old. So we wanted to try and do something better.”

A truly dank meme, to Ada’s mind, “has to be relatable. The whole funniness comes from the fact that this joke is repeated so many times, even if it wasn’t funny at the beginning. I mean, there’s nothing funny about Pepe – it’s just a frog, right? That’s what made it funny in the beginning. It’s not a funny image, it’s a miserable-looking frog, it’s sad if anything, but that repetition makes it funny when it does appear. It’s like a second level of funniness, if you know what I mean. It just sort of comes from nowhere. So I think the secret to a good meme is just accepting that it’s basically quite lame, and sort of laughing at yourself.”

What are the president’s favourite memes? “I love Pepe, just because I think it represents everything that memes are, it’s so lame. I like Doge as well, just because I think it’s very hard to make an offensive Doge meme. I don’t think political memes are the best memes. I think the best memes are just really pure, and I think that Doge represents that. I also love that it lets you use Comic Sans “ironically”. Memes are a very twenty-first century thing, because of the way they’re shared so many times, and that makes them funny. I think that interconnectedness is something that’s quite basic to all memes.”

Memes can also play a unique social, even political role for society members. “If you go on, I don’t know, a Libertarian fan page, there will be so many memes, if you go on a Communist fan page, you have Sassy Socialist Memes, about five different Communist memes fan pages. Every single sub-group in society has their own memes, so I don’t think there is a specific group that likes memes more than others, but I suppose some groups are maybe more open about it. Although on Dank Memes Society we try not to encourage too many political memes, because people get way too excited, and it often becomes quite offensive really easily. That’s not the point of memes.”

Being an admin for a group like this also has its challenges. “Once, one of the admins thought it would be a good idea to accept a middle-aged woman who’d been on Facebook for five days onto the group, and she started just offering everyone a cheap loan. So that was a bit embarrassing. A lot of the stuff that gets posted is quite off-limits, like swastikas, porn, that sort of stuff. Not a lot, but we do get it frequently. It’s a bit gross, but then you just click ‘Delete’. But sometimes you do get borderline cases where something is a bit funny but also not really OK, especially at the very beginning there were a lot of Socialist memes. Some of them were funny, but some of them were just, like pictures of Stalin going ‘Ha ha, I don’t know where all the capitalists went’, and then a picture of a gulag or whatever. It might be funny to a small group of people, but it’s not really OK. At the same time you don’t want to discourage people from posting, so it’s quite hard sometimes to decide whether something is so offensive that you don’t want it there.”

“It can sometimes be difficult to get people to try and make jokes about their weaknesses, so many Oxford students think we all need to be having serious debates about Freedom and so on. That’s good in a way, because it means we’re having meaningful and important discussions, but I think it’s also good to try and take a step back and laugh at it all.”

How would Ada persuade potential new members to sign up? “It’s easy and it’s free. If you feel bored, if you have to write an essay, you can always go on the group, have a bit of fun, or judge the bad memes, because let’s face it, those do get posted. There’s nothing to lose. really, and there is so much dankness to gain.”

“My job is to adapt the internet” – An Interview with Leo Mercer

Leo Mercer is perhaps the most experimental playwright in the Oxford theatre scene. His latest effort, Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical, looks to be shaking things up even more than usual. Set to be staged in the Modern Art Oxford Cafe, Mercer and director Scott Bolohan have created an exciting, experimental show, which I previewed for the OxStu here. Leo was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss immersive theatre, internet culture and The Lego Movie.

Could you start by just telling us what Queueue is and what it’s about?

So it’s a musical set in a coffee shop, staged in a coffee shop. It’s about the people in that coffee shop, and the small but very beautiful interactions that they have. It lets the audience sit actually inside the cafe as it’s happening, so it’s very intimate, and it’s very real. We’re not going for a massive, overblown musical, with big things on stage, far away. It’s entirely the opposite; it’s pure contemporary life, with contemporary music.

So where did the idea for this show come from?

It’s a funny story. It began as an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, with the notion of ‘let’s go from a very normal space to a very weird space’. That was Stephen’s idea, who wrote the music, and then I thought, cool, I like the internet, and the internet is kind of its own wonderland, so let’s try and merge the two. We gradually lost the Alice in Wonderland frame as we went along – the main character’s still called Alice, as a kind of throwback. But I think in some sense it is still an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Both of those novels took little, normal things, like a mirror, or a garden party, and transformed them into fantastical things. It’s the same with the internet. You can sit there in a cafe, and everyone will be working on laptops, and it’s very real life, but at the same time everyone’s on a computer, they’re linking to everywhere in the world, seeing so many different things. So on the one hand it’s very mundane. and on the other it’s just completely wacky. I guess that’s what Queueue is about, it’s about finding the wackiness in the mundane.

Let’s talk about the music – where did the sound of the show come from?

A really cool thing about coffee shops is that they have their own music, in a way the internet doesn’t. The internet is more of a visual space than an auditory one. A coffee shop, on the other hand, has its own kind of sound, and so it makes sense to begin there when you’re writing the music. So we started with that very familiar sound, and then built outwards. For me, as a writer, my job isn’t to adapt Alice in Wonderland, it’s to adapt the internet. Stephen’s job as a composer is not to write a musical, it’s to write a coffee shop.

Do you feel there’s a natural affinity between coffee shops and the internet?

Definitely. It’s counter-intuitive, because the internet is so virtual, whereas the cafe is such a physical space, and it prides itself on that. But you couldn’t have one without the other. There’s a new breed of human life which is emerging as a result of the internet and coffee shops coming together. Paul Mason has a lovely section in his book, PostCapitalism, talking about Shakespeare’s histories versus his comedies. The histories are these grand stories about bygone types of people, but all the comedies are set in the real world. He’s noticing a new kind of person exists, and Mason says that in future literature it’s going to be the same, that a certain type of entrepreneur/freelancer type person who works away from home, in places like coffee shops is going to emerge and have stories told about them.