There was a summer ritual in my family, one that I hold dear. My oldest brother, Jef, went camping in Maine every year. On the night he returned home to Maryland, after 12 hours of driving, he’d wake us all up for a lobster boil. This generally occurred around 2 or 3 a.m. We’d come padding down the steps in PJs, bleary-eyed and dripping with dreams, to gather round the dining room table for a meal and the chance to hear stories of the northern wilds. There was an excitement to the radical nonconformity of eating dinner in the middle of the night. And it wasn’t just pancakes—no, this was full-on lobster with melted butter, cracked assertively over a tablecloth of old newspapers. No one else’s family did this kind of thing, which made us feel special and cool.
While I have burned the midnight oil on many occasions, it’s been a while since I have pulled an actual “all-nighter.” So, when my college pal Susan Larsen, who teaches at University of Cambridge, proposed that I accompany her to an event in London called the Midnight Run, I questioned whether I’d make it through this overnight, arts-filled, cultural journey. Susan discovered the event while attempting to purchase tickets for the sold-out performance of Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre. She was intrigued and selected this adventure instead.
The brainchild of the London-based Nigerian poet and playwright Inua Ellams, the Midnight Run is now in its 10th year and has been replicated in 4 other cities. In this anniversary year, groups of 30 or more people gathered at theatres in South, North, East, and West London (the Albany, the Roundhouse, the Almeida, and the Bush). Each group was populated with a facilitator and several artists. The facilitators’ jobs were to map out a journey through their assigned sections of London. Artists, who were part of our group, gave workshops along the way. Participants experienced parks, churchyards, secret pathways, and businesses they wouldn’t have otherwise seen—or seen in this manner. Rory Bowens, an assistant studio manager at NTS (Nuts to Soup radio), conducted interviews and captured sounds. A story was broadcast at midnight. Meanwhile, Katie Garrett filmed the experience. Honoring UNESCO’s International Year of Light, 50 percent of the proceeds went to provide sustainable lighting to a women’s center in Senegal.
Our group—the Almeida Greeks East London Group—was led by writer/publisher/broadcaster Kit Caless and began with a series of games to break the ice. He explained that he grew up in a creative family of limited means, so his mother was constantly inventing homemade versions of popular box games such as Pictionary. They were laced throughout the evening’s journey, building camaraderie and levity and helping to keep us awake.
Our journey was loosely themed around ancient Greek narratives, since our “run” began at the Almeida. As sunlight faded around us, we found ourselves in an open space along the New River Path, where SJ Fowler, a well-known contemporary poet/artist/curator, began the first workshop. While most of us expected to pull out our Midnight Run–branded notebooks (“Not all those who wander are Lost,” they read) in order to pen some poetry, Fowler explained that, in addition to being a poet, he comes from a dynasty of Greco-Roman wrestlers, and that he himself is an expert in the form. He proceeded to give us a lesson about proper alignment of the body in order to stand strong against one’s opponent; we practiced various moves with the group. We could have gone on for hours, but after 30 minutes or so, we were off to the next stop. Paula Varjack, a writer, filmmaker, and performer, took us to a fountain near the housing complex she’d lived in many years before—her workshop focused on the story of Narcissus. Ironically, the fountain was turned off and there was no pool of water around it, so she improvised, asking us to imagine our faces being reflected back at us. Her workshop evoked an inward-looking series of questions that would be shared one-on-one with partners in the group.
After wandering through lush parks and cobblestone streets, riding the Tube, picking up snacks at a grocery and devouring them in the Dalston Curve Gardens, and visiting NTS (one of Europe’s most popular online radio stations), we came upon the concrete entryway to a locked-up parking lot, where we sat with writer and singer Tanya Wells. Her workshop brought us together in meditation, while she performed exquisitely several songs in the Indian classical tradition.
Ultimately, our East London group met up at Soho Theatre with more than 125 people who had been exploring London on distinctly designed Midnight Runs. We spent time meeting each other, singing, and telling stories before we set off as one large group on further adventures. When all of us piled into a Chinese restaurant for a prearranged full dinner at 3 a.m., I couldn’t help but think of those wee-hours lobster feasts from my youth.
As the sun rose on St. James’s Park at 6 a.m., where we concluded our Midnight Run, we all felt a powerful sense of accomplishment and camaradarie. A final exercise, led by Inua Ellams, asked us to get back into our original groups and talk with one another about what moments were most special during the course of our 12 hours together. Not surprisingly, most brought up the new friendships made that night.
We talk about the experience of theatre, the importance of being in a room with others, breathing the same air, etc., but how often do people sitting next to each other in the theatre exchange e-mail addresses and go for coffee later—or create entire Facebook groups? Theatre may always be a shared experience—but how does it lead to audience cohesion, bonding, and a deepened sense of connection among those present? This Midnight Run showed us how.