Behind the glitz and glamour: the reality of staging a ball

Student Life

Famed for their extravagance, overflowing with drink, and remembered for years: it could only be an Oxford ball. Every year thousands of students flock to various colleges for a night of debauched entertainment and riotous fun in what is one of Oxford’s most famous traditions. As someone enjoying the ball, it can, however, be easy to forget that an enormous amount of work goes into making the night magical, and that behind the scenes a dedicated ball committee will be working hard to ensure that the evening goes with a bang, and without a glitch. I caught up with the St Hugh’s Ball President Matthew Shaw for a look at the hidden world of planning a ball…

Firstly, the most important question for someone in your role: what does a Ball President actually do?

A Ball President’s main job is coordination, ensuring a dialogue between college, the ball guests, and the committee itself: with a team of seventeen there’s obviously a lot of delegation but it’s important for the President to be directly involved. For example, I’m responsible for the production side of the ball- staging the acts, lighting up the grounds, and ensuring that everything looks stunning.

Talking of lighting and staging, I’d imagine that one of the biggest difficulties a ball faces is the logistics of putting on such a big event outside- how do you cope with that?

It is a challenge- you’re putting on what you hope will be an incredible event on a surface that is obviously not designed for it, before you’ve even factored in the possibility of bad weather! The main way to address it is to simply have a plan for everything, and I imagine that in the run-up to the ball the team will be watching weather reports very closely!

St Hugh’s is a big site for a ball- does this raise any specific logistical challenges?

As anyone who has ever made the journey up north to Hugh’s will know, it’s a beautiful college (one of the biggest in Oxford), which has fantastic gardens, and so is perfect for our ‘Enchanted Forest’ theme. However, the size does present problems. Security issues are every ball’s nightmare, and it is a worry making sure that only ticketed guests can get in, and those that do have a great time while staying safe. However, like preparing for the weather, you just have to stay on top of things; we’ve been meticulous in our site planning and prepared for every eventuality.

What are you enjoying most about being Ball President?

Imagining the end result which all your hard work will bring is enormously satisfying, and I get excited walking around the site and imagining how it’s going to look! Also great fun is working with the food and drinks teams- I’m particularly looking forward to the tasting that we’ve got planned for next term…

And, on the other side of things, have there been any particular stresses?

Some people have the idea that attractions at the ball just drop out of the sky, but in reality getting everything onto the grounds is a real obstacle (shockingly most Oxford colleges were not built for big 21st century balls). St Hugh’s also only has a ball once every three years, so apart from a handover document we have very little information from previous years to support us, particularly as many of the college staff who were involved in the last ball have moved into different roles. The advantage of this is that it gives us the freedom to create a unique experience and stand out from the last ball, but it can also be challenging- we’ve all had to learn the ropes of running a ball independently.

You mentioned that your committee has seventeen members- is it difficult to coordinate so many people?

We’ve been lucky with the St Hugh’s Ball Committee this year because we all share the same vision, and so communication is generally strong. Having lots of people is also a bonus because it makes it easier for everyone to share the work and juggle their other commitments.

You’re obviously working incredibly hard- will you get to enjoy the ball on the night?

Everyone asks me this! It will be a very different experience to the other balls that I’ve been to because I will be working to ensure that everything goes smoothly, but I think the satisfaction of seeing what we’ve achieved will give me a great night.

Would you encourage others to get involved in balls, whether it be their college ball, RAG ball or a Union Ball?

Definitely. Personally, I’m keen to go into events planning in the future, and the ball obviously provides fantastic experience for this because you have to be involved in so many areas- bars, entertainment, ticketing, security- the list goes on. You learn different skills, from drafting contractual terms and conditions, to running a main stage, to time management. But if organising a ball is good experience, it’s also great fun- if you think that going to a ball is exciting, imagine what it’s like to decide on all of the things that make it such a great night!

As Ball President, what has been your most exciting moment so far?

Getting Governing Body permission in the first place was a big plus! But apart from finding out that we were actually getting a ball, the public launch was really exciting, although a little nerve-wracking, as it’s the first time that other people can react to your ideas, and you don’t know how they’ll go down. Luckily Hugh’s Ball has had a fantastic response, and the feedback has enabled us to make it even better.

Based on your experiences, what do you think makes an Oxford ball stand out?

Oxford balls have become very samey over the years, so when there is something unexpected it’s always great. A ball needs to be unique- it’s a special night, and you want it to be full of things that you’ve never done or seen before, and possibly won’t again. It’s also important to have a good launch night- I’m hoping that ours (in eighth week at Bridge) will be one to remember!

Do you think that it’s possible that the extravagance of Oxford balls confirms some of the stereotypes about the privilege and debauchery of Oxford students?

There’s no denying that a ball is a very luxurious affair, and there is always the possibility that they will confirm certain ideas that some people have about Oxford. However, balls are a tradition for a reason- they’re special occasions which will be remembered for years afterwards, and just as most Oxford students don’t conform to the stereotype, neither do the balls; they can be forces for good- this year, St Hugh’s Ball will support the charity Oxford Homeless Pathways. Guests can make an optional donation to the charity when they buy their ticket, and we are raising awareness of a serious problem in our city even as we enjoy ourselves.

Why should we come to St Hugh’s ball?

St Hugh’s has a great reputation for throwing balls, and the Enchanted Forest Ball will be the biggest black tie one ever held in Oxford! Without giving too much away there’s going to be great music acts, entertainment from all genres, the menu looks great and the bar will be well-stocked. We’re also priding ourselves on the attention to detail that we’ve shown so far, which will manifest itself on the night and ensure that the event is flawless!

PHOTO/Mark Rivkin

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