The Making Of A May Ball

Victoria Hermon - Features Editor 26 June 2009

For the vast majority of Cambridge students, May Week is a welcome relief from the monotony of exams, essays and lectures. However, for a very special chosen few, May Week, and more specifically, the May Ball, will prove one of the most challenging nights of the year. Victoria Hermon spoke to May Ball Presidents Katrina Hewitt and Ben Hosford to investigate…

Both second years at Jesus College, Katrina and Ben beat off some fierce competition and were selected in Michaelmas term this academic year. Tradition dictates at the college that the current Presidents will select the new ones, and for the last few years, there have always been two; so that they can cover for each other when work is due and exams are looming.

Both had some previous experience in event organising, although neither had ever undertaken such an important job. Katrina held the position of Food Officer for the previous Jesus Ball, whilst Ben has extensive experience within the JCR and ADC. Their first task? Selecting the minions for their committee. When asked what they look for in their helpers, the Presidents explained that whilst commitment and creativity were absolutely essential, they also wanted some fresh perspectives; hence they recruit at the Societies fair, allowing Freshers an opportunity to get involved, as well as older students and grads. They do, of course, look carefully at the recommendations from previous Ball Presidents, and recruit based on the potential of all to be effective and efficient members of a team.

Immediately, the work begins; and the first and perhaps most important task is the selection of the theme. As Hosford describes, ‘‘there were around 20 themes discussed over the course of three meetings in the autumn, but ‘Oz’ was a clear favourite from the beginning”.

Once the idea is established, Hosford explained that ‘‘the majority of the ‘vision’ was left to the design team, and ours this year has been excellent; they decide the ‘feel’ of the Ball and the vibe of each court or area’. Importantly, the design team that gets delegated such a huge responsibility is the biggest one in the entire committee; consisting of four people, they spend the vast majority of the year brainstorming.

However, it is the last few weeks before the ball when the hard work really starts, their ‘creative vision’ being needed throughout the whole setup to ensure that visually, the ball meets the high expectations that the attendees undoubtedly have.

The presidents are also responsible for communicating with the City Council, who are heavily involved with all the colleges’ balls. In fact, every Ball president attends a meeting with the council in November. Other tasks that they have to undertake as dictated by the council include sound monitor training, as well as follow up meetings with the Fire Officer, before an inspection on the day. If they do not pass the inspection, the Ball Licence will not be granted! As well as this, they have to submit risk assessments for everything at the beginning of May, and any food contractors must fill in questionnaires.

Throughout the process, Ex-Ball Presidents are constantly available to offer helpful advice and tips; as Hewitt explains, ‘they are the first people we call when we have a problem or a question, and always reply promptly to emails’. Furthermore, at least at Jesus, the college itself has done everything it can to assist with the process.

Although their chief concern is the care for the buildings and the grounds (particularly the grass!) they have stepped in, in many sticky situations at the last minute on Ball night to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and that a good night is had by all. It would seem that a little compromise and a some mutual understanding can go a long way; this year’s committee is laying down more carpet than ever before, to protect the courts. In return they are receiving extensive help from all members of staff…especially the new Senior Treasurer who has provided some invaluable help in some ‘sticky’ legal situations. Katrina and Ben’s principal point of contact with the College is via the May Ball steering group; consisting of the Buildings Manager, Head Gardener, Head Porter, Manciple and May Ball Senior Treasurer, they meet up at least once a term to discuss any problems or developments. The team itself has met up increasingly over the academic year. It started in Michaelmas with once weekly meetings and by the time Easter arrives they are attending daily planning sessions.

Furthermore, the final countdown to the night is always a 24/7 affair. Packed into the final 100 or so hours are jobs ranging from erecting sculpture protectors to helping set up a multitude of fairground rides. All committee members are put to work checking contracts, emptying bins and meeting with the City Council (who are heavily involved in approving and organising all of the balls in all of the colleges).

A full seven days before the Ball is spent decorating and setting up; the painting, for instance will begin on Monday, in anticipation for hundreds of delivery vans containing supplies such as food, marquees and skips. Will their incredible hard work pay off, and will they get to enjoy their own masterpiece?
‘The porters assure us this is not possible’ explains Hosford, despite the whole committee holding high hopes. Unfortunately, having responsibility for 2000 attendees does not a fun, debauchery filled night create, and one might suspect that the night may be, however rewarding, extremely difficult and even more tiring.

However, high stress levels are not exclusively reserved for Ball night. According to Hosford, ‘There are lots of hoops to jump through and nearly everyone is uncompromising, be it College, contractors or the level that guests expect. After all, we do all this to throw an amazing party as an end of year celebration and it is the guests that will enjoy it! When asked about whether it has been much of a balancing act in sharing time between exams and organising, the Presidential team responded that it is more of a ‘ball-takes-up-all-of-your-time-act’; admitting that the process has been ‘exhausting’ and reduced the amount of work that they were able to put into their studies.

They also admit that the job has been stressful and indeed, on a bad day they can receive up to 100 emails, all of which demand urgent attention. However, the process has also been highly recommended as ‘addictive’ and ‘rewarding’.

Let’s hope the Presidents and their committee had recovered enough to enjoy the festivities at Magdalene two nights later!

This year’s May Ball themes:

Clare: The Forbidden City
Corpus Christi: The Grand Tour
Darwin: E-volution
Downing: Peter Pan’s Neverland
Emmanuel: Commonwealth
Homerton: James Bond 007
Hughes Hall: Passport to Pimlico
Jesus: Oz
Kings Affair: Hedonopolis
Magdalene: No theme
Pembroke: Moonlight Masquerade
Peterhouse: Festival of Britain
Queens’: The Beautiful and Damned
Robinson: Phantasmagoria
St John’s: Voyages of Discovery
Trinity: No theme
Trinity Hall June Event: Fusion
Wolfson June Event: Red Hot

Victoria Hermon – Features Editor