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Opening ceremony ends long road for volunteer actors

By William James

LONDON (Reuters) - The exuberant show that Britain put on for the world on Friday was the culmination of months of rainy rehearsals by thousands of volunteers.

For some of the 7,500 amateur performers, preparing for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics demanded long, late commutes and personal expense - but it has generated memories expected to last a lifetime.

"As soon as I found out in January that this is what I was going to be doing, I put my life on hold. 'For those three months I'm not doing anything, I'm not going anywhere'," said Patricia Henley, a university researcher based in London who played one of hundreds of nurses dancing around hospital beds.

She began rehearsing in mid-April in a segment designed by artistic director Danny Boyle to pay tribute to the staff of the National Health Service. In total she and her group spent almost 150 hours perfecting their routine.

"It's been really demanding," said Matt Andrews, a volunteer actor from Leytonstone in east London.

"At the beginning I had doubts about whether I should do it because of the time needed. But my wife was really encouraging and said 'No, you must do it, you'll regret it if you don't.' And she was absolutely right," Andrews said.

LIFELONG FRIENDS

High spirits and camaraderie were on display in the last few hours before the performers entered the Olympic park to don their make-up and costumes.

"I've made some really great friends here, lifelong friends, and that's what sums up the Olympics. For me, it's Britain being really inclusive - so many people coming together from all walks of life and putting on this show," Andrews said.

At one wet rehearsal earlier this month, some of the volunteers distributed song sheets and broke into a modified chorus of the Irish ballad "Danny Boy" that they had planned, using a secret Facebook group, to express their appreciation for Boyle.

"If he's not made Sir Danny Boyle after this, I swear I will eat my hat... and my neighbor's hat. It's just amazing," said Henley.

HIGH PRICE

For some, participating in the ceremony has cost more than just weekends and evenings. Pam Hollyman, who has worked in the NHS for 32 years, said she had been commuting from her home in Chichester, southwest of London, at a total cost of up to 400 pounds ($630).

"I'd spend that much on a holiday, but this was worth it," she said.

Others said they knew of people who had travelled to rehearsals from as far as Belfast in Northern Ireland and the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

As the pace of rehearsals has picked up, culminating in two marathon half-day practice runs at the stadium earlier this week, so has the strain of such a huge commitment.

"I have had to rely on my family to hold the fort. These last few weeks have been tough for them. But it was worth it, they came up to see the ceremony rehearsal and they were blown away," said Jess Hillicks, who travelled two hours by train and tube to get to the park.

"I feel really privileged to have been part of it. It's a once in a lifetime experience. To be on stage and be part of something so global, and yet so personal - with it being hosted in Great Britain - that's what made it worth it for me."

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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