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St. Thomas’s Church and Poculi Ludique Societas
A Medieval Christmas: Such Splendid Sight Was Never Seen
Friday, December 13 | 7:30 pm
Saturday, December 14 | 2 pm and 7:30 pm
St. Thomas’s Church
383 Huron Street, Toronto
Regular $20 | Senior $15 | Student $10
To order: 416-978-5096
St. Thomas’s Anglican Church and Poculi Ludique Societas co-present their third Medieval Christmas production. In this Q & A interview, the members of the artistic team and scholar Dr. Alexandra Johnston discuss this year’s production, and the rewards and insights they have discovered in mounting Biblical plays that were first performed in the Middle Ages. – Julia Armstrong
LINDA PHILLIPS is the artistic director of Poculi Ludique Societas (PLS), Toronto’s medieval and early drama performance troupe, and the costume designer for A Medieval Christmas.
DR. ALEXANDRA JOHNSTON is the founder and senior consultant of the Records of Early English Drama (REED) at the University of Toronto. For several years, she chaired the board of Poculi Ludique Societas.
FR. ROBERT MITCHELL is associate priest at St. Thomas’s and co-producer of the A Medieval Christmas. He has also acted in all joint productions.
KIM RADMACHER is the director of A Medieval Christmas. She studied at the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, and has been directing early modern drama since the mid-1990s, including the St. Thomas’s/PLS co-productions.
Q: What are the “Towneley Plays,” and how did they get their name?
Dr. Alexandra Johnston: This manuscript is now believed to be a collection of Biblical plays that were performed in western Yorkshire during the 15th and 16th centuries (c. 1450 to 1556). About 12 of the 32 plays have been derived from the York Cycle – the plays performed in York from c. 1376 to 1569. Five others have been identified as being written by the same playwright, usually called the Wakefield Master. The manuscript was written down in the 1550s. Why it was compiled is still a matter of scholarly debate. What is now agreed upon is that it is not a longstanding “cycle” like the York Cycle and the Chester Cycle, which were sponsored by the town of Wakefield. The “Towneley Plays” are named after the East Lancashire family who owned the manuscript. Today, the original unique manuscript is housed in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. There is a facsimile in the REED office, and a copy available through the University of Toronto Library.
Q: Why did you select the Towneley Plays for the show this year?
Linda Phillips: There are only so many surviving medieval manuscripts from which to choose. In the past few years, we have performed selections from the Chester Cycle, the York Cycle and the N-Town Plays, so Towneley was the next logical choice. It was also on our minds because we are currently digitizing the modernized text prepared by the late Dr. David Parry for PLS’s 1985 production; we will be adding it to our online collection of acting texts.
Q: What is the significance of these plays?
Dr. Alexandra Johnston: Some of the plays in this collection are among the “best made” Biblical plays that survive from the late Middle Ages – particularly those of the so-called Wakefield Master. Some are mere hack work. The variation in sophistication is quite striking. Some were meant to be played outdoors on booth stages or wagons, but others were played indoors for highly sophisticated patrons. The performance by the PLS in 1985 of the complete collection as it had come down to us was one of the turning points in the history of the scholarship on this manuscript. We realized as we tried to make it work as a cycle that there were thematic, linguistic, and staging inconsistencies that proved beyond any doubt that this collection is not a single unit with many parts like the York and Chester plays. Other arguments have come to light more recently through work on the external evidence by REED editors.
Q: How many of the Towneley Plays are you doing?
Linda Phillips: We are doing four. I worked with director Kim Radmacher to put together and cut the script from “The Annunciation and Visitation to Elizabeth,” “The First Play of the Shepherds,” “The Gifts of the Magi,” and “The Flight into Egypt.” The play that most people know from Towneley is the “Second Shepherds’ Play,” which PLS has produced several times. This year we decided it was time to do the “First Play of the Shepherds.” Although there are two shepherds’ plays, the Towneley manuscript does not include a Nativity play, which presents an interesting challenge for this production.
Q: You have decided to approach the production from a 19th-century point of view, a time when there was a revival of interest in things medieval. What are your reasons?
Kim Radmacher: This is the fourth St Thomas’s/PLS co-production I have directed, and since many of us have now worked together a few times, I thought it would be fun to give the production a bit of minor shift in direction. The inspiration to approach the play from a 19th-century perspective came from music director Bryan Martin, a musicologist who sings in the St. Thomas’s choirs; he suggested that the music for this year’s production feature mostly early 19th-century carols, and he has organized St. Thomas’s choristers to perform. I think both Bryan and I intuitively felt the Towneley plays would especially lend themselves to this conceit. They offer the serious story of the Virgin birth, but also are filled with the antics of a very melodramatic Herod and the clown-like innocence of the shepherds. Typically, 19th-century performances were filled with melodrama, romanticism and comedy sketches, which all lend themselves well to the sequence of plays we have selected. As well, the stage technology was evolving quickly during this period: imagistic scenic painting and limelight were introduced. We will be giving a nod to all of this through our staging – I don’t want to give too much away, because part of the enjoyment for the audience will come from the element of delight and surprise.
Q: Why was the text modernized?
Dr. Alexandra Johnston: As Linda mentioned, Dr. David Parry, who was for several years the artistic director of PLS, prepared the modernized text for the 1985 performance. The Middle English Yorkshire dialect of the original is very hard for modern actors to learn and pronounce, and also very hard for a modern audience to understand. During the years that Dr. Parry was artistic director, we adopted the policy, when seeking to solve puzzles about the nature of medieval performance practice, to perform the plays with “authentic” staging but modernized texts. When these plays have been performed in Yorkshire, the original dialect has been used because some of the idiomatic expressions are still common there.
Q: When and where else have the Towneley Plays been performed over the years?
Dr. Alexandra Johnston: PLS performed the complete collection in 1985, and it was also performed in Leeds and in Wakefield in the 1980s. Episodes or groups of episodes from the collection have been performed by PLS in 1965 (the first season) and in each of the following years: 1968-74, 1976-7, 1980, 1982, 1997, and 2004.
Q: Where would they have originally been performed and by whom?
Dr. Alexandra Johnston: As we are now discovering through REED, Biblical plays were performed all over the country under varying circumstances. The same is true of this collection. Some would have been performed by parishes as fundraisers for the fabric of the church or as part of the Easter celebrations, and some were performed by towns (Doncaster, Pontefract, and Wakefield all have financial records indicating that a play was sponsored by the town at least once). Others could have been played by amateur or professional travelling players. I have recently argued that the Second Shepherds’ Play was performed indoors for an aristocratic or monastic household by a travelling company during the Christmas season. I believe that the First Shepherds’ Play (part of the current production) had a similar performance history.
Q: Who would have seen them when they were first performed?
Dr. Alexandra Johnston: Since this collection is not a cycle that belonged to one city like York, we do not have evidence of any royals seeing the Towneley Plays. (There are many references to royalty seeing the York Plays – Richard II, Richard III, Henry VII, and there is a reference to his queen Margaret seeing the plays at Coventry.) However, it is perfectly possible that high-ranking members of the aristocracy or royalty could have seen some of these plays while visiting a noble or monastic house in the north at Christmas. The audience for other plays in this collection would have been townspeople and parishioners; they were also the individuals who, from long custom, put on the plays.
Q: Could one say that in many ways the current production shares similarities with the medieval experience because local amateurs are cast?
Kim Radmacher: Yes! I’m delighted that we were able to cast most of the roles from among the ranks of St. Thomas’s parishioners. We gathered to read from the play and to see who fit which roles most appropriately, and I was not at all surprised to find that there was plenty of talent to draw from right here at St Thomas’s. Many of the Christmas favourites will be included. Mary will be played by parishioner and U of T student Julia Meadows, and Joseph will be played by assistant priest Theo Ipema. There will also be the comedy thanks to the shepherds’ plays – and Herod of course!
Q: What is special about doing these joint parish/PLS productions?
Fr. Robert Mitchell: Because the actors come from within the parish and from the Toronto acting community, the plays are an excellent form of community building. We bond with each other over the challenges of memorizing lines and remembering stage directions. The plays have often proved to be spiritually enriching for those involved because the texts are full of theological discoveries. And they have been an opportunity for some excellent music making, drawing musicians from the parish and beyond who, under the direction of Bryan Martin, have brought back to life some rarely heard music. Others have contributed to the success of the performances behind the scenes, including our stage hands, front-of-house volunteers, and wardrobe helpers.
Q: What surprises have you yourself discovered?
Fr. Robert Mitchell: I am always pleasantly surprised by the hidden talent unearthed. Many inexperienced actors find themselves discovering new depths of talent. As a priest, it is particularly meaningful for me to be involved in these plays for their spiritual and historical richness. They have a remarkable ability to connect to modern audiences in the season of Advent, when even the least religious people are somewhat open to considering spiritual things.
Q: How do you go about selecting appropriate costumes?
Linda Phillips: Usually I can find whatever I need for a Christmas pageant in PLS’s large stock of medieval costumes. However, this year I am trying to evoke something that a 19th-century troupe might have done, inspired by a sort of pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. I am creating some new pieces, and also using costumes from University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.
Q: How many hours of rehearsal does it require to put together a show like this?
Kim Radmacher: In a professional setting, we would probably have three weeks of full-time rehearsal. But from a director’s perspective, there’s never enough rehearsal! I always want to keep tweaking plays I’m directing, which is why, I guess, we have the saying “The show must go on.” Typically, we rehearse A Medieval Christmas for about two months on a part-time basis, which is not a lot of time. The actors have to do an incredible amount of prep outside of rehearsal in order to pull off the quality we’ve been producing over the past few years. Again, I’m always impressed by the talent here.
Q: What are some of the challenges for the actors?
Kim Radmacher: Speaking in rhyming verse is rather odd and stylized for any modern performer. It’s a bit of a trick to sound “natural.” As Dr. Johnston explained, this particular text was prepared by David Parry, who had a performer’s ear when he translated from middle English to modern English. Also, the Towneley texts, I find, are typically more performer-friendly anyway. Interestingly, we also find ourselves wanting to use a preconceived heightened language where there is none, even in the original text. So we find characters saying (even in the middle-English original) things like “Thou has” or “thou shall,” and we’re all in the habit of saying “hast” and “shalt,” which, as it turns out, is inappropriate in this case. That’s just one small example of the fun little discoveries we make during the rehearsal process.
Q: What are the challenges and rewards for you when staging a play in the church?
Kim Radmacher: I absolutely love directing plays at St. Thomas’s, not just because I get to work with such a wonderful group of people, but also because I find the architecture in the sanctuary so beautiful and inspiring. That said, though, it’s a big challenge to “block” the play – that is, to decide when, where, and how the actors will move around the stage. I want to make sure that everyone who comes to see the production will be able to see everything happening. That’s not always possible, since we don’t have a stage per se. The pulpit is appropriately the best place to be seen, but we can’t do everything up there! I try to use the entire space so that no matter where you are sitting, you will have a front-row experience at some point or another during the performance. This architectural challenge, in fact, informs how we end up transforming the text into performance. This is what I love so much about this production every year. Our performances are entirely unique to St. Thomas’s.
See also our report on last year’s play at Poculi Ludique Societas shows how to perform a Christmas play, medieval style