Dan Palmer, fourth-year History student, is currently in charge of Ents, a term which he uses with much restraint since, as he puts it, he is “not sure that anyone knows what Ents actually is.”
Our interview endeavours to see through the man in charge of the invisible clockwork behind the eclectic variety of events staged at the Union on an almost daily basis; his hand has overseen every technical aspect in the Union, from sweaty, gyrating, drunken Bops to the dramatic extravaganzas of Mermaids’ Shakespeare productions. Seated in the main Union Bar, he seems at home in his natural environment of student-run entertainment.
We start with the topic of his favourite event to organise so far. “The Bop with the Balloons during Freshers week was probably the best one for me. We had 2,500 balloons to blow up, and within a minute it was all over, but it formed the culmination of Freshers’ Week”; the technicalities of rigging the netting do not seem to have perturbed him, and the repeat of this spectacle during last week’s Disney Bop is testament to his enthusiasm for producing surprise and delight in his audience.
Indeed, surprise seems to form a major part of his work, whether for better or worse. The closure of the Byre Theatre was perhaps the greatest shock, requiring, as he modestly states, a fair bit of “reshuffling”; he explains that he had just finished scheduling all the Byre shows for the On the Rocks festival, and as such had to re-structure all the shows to be held in Venue 1 of the Union – “I was glad there were contingency plans so nothing had to be cancelled.”
This type of skin-of-the-teeth improvisation characterises much of what he and his team do. I ask him about the microphone problem at Tinchy Stryder’s concert: “Technically, it wasn’t our fault, but we managed to fix it anyway. Tinchy gave one of our helpers a hug, which she went on about for weeks afterwards. That was a challenging one, but it cobbled together in the end.” Sound is a common problem, he points out, but it is hard to predict which exact part of the intricate Ents machine will fold at any one time – “things go wrong, things blow up, things decide not to work…A lot of unexpected problems.”
We move to the differences between big-name acts and student DJs – were the former more demanding than the latter? “Yes and no”, he answers, “People like Tinchy are demanding: he even wanted a poster of Kim Kardashian in his dressing room (we don’t have a dressing room). Student DJs like to think they’re important as well, though – they can also be surprisingly difficult. ”
He explains how the quaint seaside town of St Andrews still attracts the big name acts, citing the cunning organisation skills of Jules Findlay, Director of Events and Services: “He’s got a very good relationship with agents, so we just do as Jules says. He’s also got a good knack of collaborating with other universities: he’s got Goldfish coming up, who are also touring Edinburgh and Dundee, so it’s a good cost-cutting measure to set up dialogue with other places nearby.”
Moving from the topic of his collaboration with others involved in Union matters, I ask him what his personal inspiration was for taking up the role. He mentions his history as a contributor to Barron Theatre affairs, as well as technical manager of Mermaids, whose productions he still regards as “his personal passion.” His appointment as Head of Ents was no gradual progression, however: he regards it more as a flash of inspiration, triggered by the resignation of the previous Head of Ents – “I thought I’d give it a go.” First day on the job? “It took me a while to fall in love with it, but since Freshers’ week I’ve never looked back.”
His roots as Mermaids Technical Officer start to show when I ask which side of events he prefers – Shakespeare or the Bops? “I remain deliberately fairly ignorant of the nuts and bolts of the Bop…I much prefer a stage show: I championed Jules to ask for Wit Tank in Fresher’s as part of the stage shows, since it’s more my forte. It’s difficult to be an expert in both specialisms – I have an excellent events officer, James, who can take care of the Bop side, so I’m more free to concentrate on my own favourites.”
As to the future of the Ents crew, he alludes to the “incredibly full diary” of events which Jules Findlay has booked, as well as perhaps the most pressing issue of the Union Redevelopment. “There are going to be challenges because of the new equipment; the nightclub will become more self-sufficient, more along the lines of The Lizard or The Vic than the current flexibility of Venue 1. It’s going to be interesting, not least because of the retractable wall – we will have to work out how it can balance both the big-name events with the smaller performance space of the nightclubs.”
Another of his goals is to increase the amount of student volunteering for new themes and ideas: Jules, he says, is often the driving force behind thinking of themes, as well as himself – together they constantly strive for “proper themes, not just a half-arsed effort. The Moulin Rouge night was one example: we had a pole-dancer amongst other things – it was really something different.” He says that student volunteering is “one of the biggest challenges” and that they are always on the look-out for people keen to contribute to the efforts of himself and his team. As for Dan himself, his role as Head of Ents seems to remain varied, challenging and incredibly rewarding – the task of “expecting the unexpected” whilst continuing to deliver extraordinary student nights he appears to take enormous pride in, and justifiably so. For more information about volunteering, or Ents in general, please visit their website.