The St John’s College May Ball is listed as Time magazine’s seventh best party in the world, but just how did they receive that status? The college has held extravagant balls for the students of Cambridge for years, with this year being the 129th anniversary.

It’s famously known for its firework display taking centre stage as punts gather in the river just to catch a glimpse of the show; the technical event production team at Hawthorn have been there to make sure everything is in check ready for the big night.

Access was treated to private tour around the venue ahead of the show this year by James Hunter, the project director at the company to gain a crucial perspective of the workload provided for the evening.

“Hawthorn supply all the tech production as well as power distribution, audio across five stages, lighting to architecture, grounds and stages, projection mapping to the side of First Court Chapel and laser display post reworks,” he explained.

The university college is divided by Courts, all separated into different genres. This year’s theme, Time, featured elements from the roaring 20’s theme of Second Court to the flower power of the 60’s in New Court.

The laser show was a first for the night. Hunter told Access that with the support of Laser Graffix, the company provided “a stunning high impact laser show that will follow on from the reworks display”.

The laser show proved to be a success that guests weren’t expecting, meaning that St John’s and Hawthorn pulled off the unexpected display.

The planning

The company has worked alongside the college for over ten years now, with Hunter involved for the past 12. He describes the experience of working with his clients at the college as ‘very accurate and detailed’ in order to get the party at the top of the pile of everyone’s wish list.

“We do the initial site visit with the college committee in either December or January typically. Followed by more visits in spring,” added Hunter. “Once onsite, the build to get it all up takes three days with the fourth day being live from 7pm until 6am. We then take the whole job down in one day.”

The clients of Hawthorn for this event are the students and the committee, and therefore the demands for the ball, vary year on year. This year, the students even built a gramophone sculpture to sit in the Second Court as a decorative element to signify the iconic 1920’s. Other extravagant pieces include a red wine fountain and ice cream and candyfloss stalls.

“It is always a fresh approach,” said Hunter. “There is always an overarching theme to the ball.”
Orange and pink flower arrangements were strung across the bridge, as well as fairy lights leading the way for students from the Fireworks display to through to third Court. “Each court has its own style and create, that we then design to. We take initial concepts and bring ideas to life.”

Hawthorn Ahead of the market

With technology rapidly advancing, Hawthorn work together to keep ahead of the game in the battle of the best Cambridge college party.

“Our market position demands our tech is relevant and cutting edge,” Hunter added. This month, both St John’s and Trinity, the college next door, held their May Balls within a day of each other, allowing the natural rivalry to flourish between the two universities.

“With St John’s, we apply the right technologies with to sympathetically bring the college architecture and surroundings to life. It’s not always about the latest and greatest equipment but the right application of our kit combined with our team of exceptional staff,” Hunter concluded.

For the students that had made it to 6am, there was a surviors breakfast and photo, marking the end of the event, until next year.


Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of the feature that appeared in the July/August issue.