Mass movement choreographer Steve Boyd on harnessing the ability of individuals, what he’s learned after 16 Olympic ceremonies and the importance of being prepared for anything

Steve Boyd is the definition of a ‘people person’. Having contributed to 16 consecutive Olympic Games from 1992 to 2021 in various guises, as well as numerous mass events and celebrations including Galway 2020, he’s well-versed not only in the logistical side of mass movement, but the compassionate side too; specialising in bringing people together to create spectacular and deeply meaningful experiences.

Currently Steve is working as advisor to the International Olympic Committee for the next three Olympics in Tokyo, Beijing and Paris where he’ll continue to collaborate with Piers, Jeremy and the WonderWorks team closely. Here, we chat to Steve about some of his favourite projects, his creative process, and most inspiring work.

WW: How did you get into mass movement choreography?

SB: Well, first of all, I’m not a dance choreographer, I’ve never been a dancer, and that’s one of the things that sets me apart from a lot of my colleagues. I come from a design background and, all the way back, I come from an American marching band background… just because that was the only thing to do back then! In my last two years at school I conducted a 200 kid marching band. When it came to my Olympic ambitions, I thought “I want to be a look-of-the-games designer” and then when I finally got hired on my first Olympics and I went to dress rehearsal for the opening ceremony, it was like, ”No no no… this is the best job!” 

WW: So your first Olympic Games was Barcelona in 1992. Was that as a mass movement choreographer? 

SB: God no! It was for NBC, for a really strange broadcast product, the ‘Triplecast’, which now doesn’t sound strange at all, but back then it was really cutting-edge. It was selling cable TV subscriptions for specific sports. I went around interviewing athletes, and the interviews would be turned into promotional radio spots that were intended to inspire people to subscribe to volleyball or Dream Team basketball on a dedicated channel. I had no business doing that job! I was an interviewer for exactly three weeks! We were all bad at it. It was a total made up thing. But the people I worked with then are still my friends today. They’re such good friends that we sometimes forget where we met.

WW: Then you worked your way up somehow after that?

SB: So after Barcelona I had one credit and then I got a second gig with another TV network that was covering the winter games. I also had a regular job. I was a magazine art director in NYC. I’d work at Condé Nast and other national magazines then I’d run away and do the Olympics, and then come back and get another job at another magazine. It was never a straight shot. Then I met someone who knew someone who knew someone who could help get me in front of Don Mischer who was producing the Atlanta ceremonies. It turned out to be a happy accident. A really happy accident.

WW: What are you doing now? You’re the Advisor on Ceremonies for the Tokyo Olympics?

SB: Now I work primarily for the IOC. We work with all the current and future production teams on the arcane things a ceremony requires. There’s rarely any continuity of knowledge because a show happens and then everyone scatters. We provide institutional knowledge, but more it’s listening to what the creative teams want to achieve and helping them figure out tactics. Then there’s a lot of roll up your sleeves knowhow, and a lot of math, and a lot of timing judgement to craft a television show and craft an athlete experience that is as frictionless as possible… which takes a lot of negotiation. Everyone thinks the parade is just – everyone lines up and you say go. It takes years of negotiating transit, timetables, food and welfare to make sure the athletes have the best experience possible. 

WW: How’s the last year been for you?

SB: It literally went from having a Tokyo meeting in the morning and then getting a call at 4pm to say they’re going to make an announcement about the games being postponed. And then it was five months of crickets. So it’s a good thing I’m a freelancer and I always assume every job is my last! The work is slowly creeping back in every month by a few more hours, a few more hours, a few more hours. It’s about to be crazy again! 

WW: Have you been doing anything else in that time?

SB: I concentrated on my other interests, which are horticulture and gardening. I jumped intensely into studying with the RHS and Capel Manor, and now I’m studying garden and planting design. It uses all the same chops I use for production. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m determined to fit it in with everything else I do. There’s a primary school in my estate where I run a vegetable and flower garden. I have an 8-kid garden club and then we do broader experiences with all the other kids in the school. Tomorrow we’re planting beans with 40 kids as a control group experiment. I just do whatever the teachers need to make their curriculum come to life. We have an edible garden and a pollinators garden that we’re doubling in size this year. That is all because of lockdown. 

WW: Your Olympic work seems like such a huge undertaking. What’s your process? Where do you start?

SB: You start with toilet breaks, water and food. Because everybody you’re working with is a human being. And then you expand to transportation, then to hours of commitment, and then to ethos and then you finally get to teaching for skill. When I’m working in a team, I make sure I have fantastic choreographers who love to teach, then I concentrate on the teaching agendas, the script, the politics, the weather, the production meetings, and anything that goes wrong.

WW: What are the challenges?

SB: Every country where we deliver shows has strengths and foibles. It’s about asking, “What do you have too much of? What don’t you have enough of?” And then you go from there. You have to know the collective attitude of the volunteers. Doing a show in London or in Galway or in Doha requires totally different ways of going about delivering a show. It’s really about understanding the brief and what people need… how people want to present themselves. What are the cliches? The world wants to see the cliche but the host country doesn’t want to show the cliche. “But you’re Australian, you have to have a kangaroo!” It’s like that in every country. 

WW: Do you have an input in creative aspects?

SB: Yeah, it just depends on the gig. With Rio I got folded in with the creative team, and I’m there as the concepts develop to brainstorm on how best to deliver them with volunteer performers. In Rio, I can’t know Brasilian culture, but I can say “Is this concept something that deserves the time of 1.3 billion people for 7 minutes? Are you in love with this?” There’s a lot of that and a lot of practical stuff, like managing mass numbers in auditions, developing FAQs, briefings and orientations. Fortunately I’ve been on many productions with so many executive producers and I’ve seen the same problems solved in many different ways that I am alert to a lot of practical things that can be show-stoppers. In Rio, I mistakenly thought the attendance of the volunteers at rehearsals was really poor. I had to run one rehearsal with 400 people missing! It turned out that because the volunteer numbers were so low in general, everybody in the ceremony was also doing gamestime volunteering, and their jobs, and looking after their families. Then you have London and Salt Lake for instance which had an over abundance of people who wanted to participate. It’s always different.

WW: You’ve worked with Wonder Works on a few things. What’s your usual process there?

SB: I had one day where I was a client for an hour long call with Piers, then we had another call immediately after where I was his supplier, so it’s that type of world! The best thing about working with Piers and the team, especially on Galway, was evident that all we had to do was the work. It’s a lot of really solid people who love production. They’re not empire builders, they just love ideas and they love working in groups and making things happen, and they love fabricating things plucked from their imaginations and bringing them to fruition. They collect collaborators that have that same attitude. It really is people who, capital letters, LOVE PRODUCTION, and the lifestyle that comes with it, and that’s really the fun part. 

WW: What was your role on Galway?

SB: It was a complex scheduling endeavor bringing five cities together – making sure it wasn’t too big of an ask, making sure every rehearsal didn’t fall on the same day at the same time so shift workers could take part. Making sure rehearsals didn’t always fall at the same time so we could include people raising families. We knew we wanted people with differing abilities. It’s awesome when they volunteer and we can consult with someone who has mobility or learning difficulties and we say, “Ok, what do you need to be successful?” The Galway concept was super modest so my creative input, I think, was building a schedule that would make people say, “Oh I can do that!” and then coming up with ways of teaching. No one was good at drumming, so we taught a couple hundred people how to drum, and our promise to them was that we didn’t have a set outcome. Our attitude was, “We’re not teaching you to play a song, we’re teaching you to play instruments, and we’re creating a show based on your collective abilities. As you improve we’ll add complexity to challenge you.” So that was a really cool style of teaching a show that I’d never tried before. It was never a rehearsal to stage a show, it was learning a new skill and then sharing the outcome with an audience. They came and they were learning. That was really fun. That project was the first time any of us had experienced a cancellation of a show and it was heartbreaking. I just wanted to see all of those flaming torches burning across that whole 400m stretch of stage. For the people who participated it was heartbreaking because they’d become friends and they all worked hard to create something authentic. I wanted them to have the experience of performing for an audience. We thought that winter storm cancelling the show was the worst thing that could happen that year!!!

WW: What was your role in the 2012 Olympic ceremonies?

SB: Piers was head of the tech department that I worked closely with. I had 28 people on my team and then I had senior people that took on different scenes. I concentrated on the Industrial Revolution and that was really working closely with Piers’s team on methods of turf management, prop distribution and collection, timings, trap doors, inflatables, strike and re-setting speeds. It was great to work with people that would say, “Do you know what would actually work, is agricultural industry furniture” and I’m like, “Well that totally makes sense!” They love cranes, they love machinery, they love plant, and they never want to do the same thing twice, which is really fun. They’re always up for cross-pollination and I totally love that. 

WW: What’s your favourite project with Wonder Works?

SB: Oh, Galway. Galway, Galway. Because everybody was just good and delightful at their job. Even the client. It was one of those things where you think, “Ooo you never get everything!” You never get good workmates, a good client, a good committee, a good cast, a good staff. But that was one of those fantastic moments where they built something really lovely. These community based celebrations I like best because you’re doing a show that actually does enrich people’s individual lives, and also because you don’t have the cameras for broadcast, because you can have different lighting, because you have more intimate creativity and audience experience. In Galway it was really important that the musicians be as close as possible to the audience because we wanted little kids to be able to look up at a woman playing a bass drum and think, “That’s really cool, I wanna do that.” That’s the intimacy you don’t necessarily get on a big stadium show. That’s what I hope we’re gonna do a lot more of with Wonder Works.

WW: What satisfaction do you gain from your work? What keeps you doing it?

SB: There’s a moment when you’ve been auditioning people, rehearsing people, teaching them, teaching them, teaching them, and then there’s a moment of lift-off. That is magical in a rehearsal when you realise the cast is counting and shouting their cues back at you. They don’t need you any longer. That’s the moment where it turns from learning to performing. You never know when it’s going to come. It’s usually before camera rehearsals, and it’s a really intense, gratifying thing, because you know everybody is doing something collectively they had no idea could be done. That’s the kind of confidence that sticks with them forever. They know, “Oh if I can perform in front of a billion people, I can do anything in front of forty.” That is ultimately the magic. I don’t do theatre, I don’t do rock and roll, because that’s not the fascinating part to me. It’s the regular folks who are the nourishing part. Working with volunteers are the good days, when you know that your efforts and their efforts are making something bigger than anyone expected.