Memories From The Baptism

 

We’re very sentimental about York’s Mystery Plays- after all, it’s where HIDden began. The quadrennial event remains close to our collective heart, not just because of our history with it, or even because YMP really stands for a lot of the same things we do, but because we just had such a wonderful time working on that production.

Among the reasons we’re so excited to be revisiting the production for the upcoming YMP conference is that it gives us a chance to get our cast back together. We were extremely fortunate to have such a talented, dedicated, and personally lovely group of actors for The Baptism, and we’re equally lucky to welcome them back. We expect that our rehearsals will be full of fond memories from last year, and we asked the cast and crew to share some of their favourites before the event.

Charles Hunt (God) sent this photo. Taken in the Minster Gardens before our first performance, the joke was that it was a “family portait” of God (Charles), his son Jesus (Ehren Mierau), and the Holy Ghost as embodied by a dove.

Trinity

Kate Thomas (Angel) remembers the downpour that had us all trapped in the waggon works when the area around it flooded. We’d just finished a rehearsal and put the waggon away for the night when it started to rain heavily, and the puddle that formed at the gate to the waggon works rose quickly to take over the entire driveway. A couple people from another group were stuck in a corner on a high bit of ground, also surrounded by water. Eventually someone opened up a blocked drain, and the water went down right away. We reflected later, though, that perhaps we should have taken advantage of the situation and put our waggon in the enormous puddle: wooden waggon wheels are challenging to keep damp, but it’s the best way to keep their metal rims from falling off.

Rain was also a problem the first day of performance. After the waggons had come into town, while we were waiting to film for the BBC’s broadcast, the skies opened up and poured down on us. We weren’t sure if it would pass in time for the filming, and had quite a waffling around with whether or not the angels should wear their easily damaged feathered wings if it didn’t. We spent the time waiting in the seating, one of the only dry places available. At one point someone pulled out a pin, a nod to the old question of how many angels could dance on its head- all three actors managed to get a finger on it, but it wasn’t quite a dance!

Ian Murphy (producer) and Nathan Bargate (production manager) both recalled with a laugh an incident from the building of the set. There was a question of whether the throne seat was safely secured and Nathan tested it by jumping on it rather enthusiastically. It wasn’t, and he fell into the throne. While he was stuck there, a crew member asked if he could offer an idea. “May I suggest… a cushion?” was his idea- not exactly useful at that moment, but amusing to all present.

Laura Elizabeth Rice (artistic director) recalls the performance in St Sampson’s Square as a favourite moment, because it was such a challenging location, with lots of noise, footfall and traffic. The cast handled it brilliantly, adjusting to these circumstances without missing a beat. At the end, one audience member who had been passing through was heard to remark, “If I’d known the plays were all like that, I’d’ve come out to see more!”- one of the nicer compliments for being unintentional, and especially in a space generally considered to be difficult.

We could probably go on at some length- there are an awful lot of “favourite moments” from last summer- but of course right now we’re looking forward to creating new memories among the company and for the audience. If you haven’t registered for the conference, do consider it. The mystery plays, in any form, usually find a way to be memorable.

DIRECTOR’S NOTES: REVIVING “THE BAPTISM”

In most cases, a revival production doesn’t mean putting on an identical performance to an earlier one. It’s a chance to reconsider things, to make changes and what those producting it would probably consider “improvements”. After all, almost every show is a series of adjustments and compromises, many for very practical reasons, which hopefully do end up strengthening the finished product… but sometimes you do wonder what else a production could have been.

The Baptism is a rare exception. As we’ve been gearing up to put it on again, looking over old notes, photographs, and film, I’ve been reminded of how unusual that show was. No matter how I look at it, I keep coming back to the same thought: I would not change a thing. Of course there are infinite other ways you could stage it, some of which would work equally well. What made it ‘perfect’ in my eyes was the fact that it came out exactly the way it was intended. There were no compromises. It all just fell into place exactly as hoped, and those intentions were ones which worked.

The most important thing which went right in that production was, of course, our cast. While one tries very hard not to mentally pre-cast a show, I think every director has some idea of what their ideal would be, or at least what qualities they most want their cast to emobdy. Most importantly for The Baptism, I wanted actors who could make Jesus and John real. Medieval dramas are written to be extremely human, not at all the superhuman “plaster saints” that often characterize modern perception of Biblical characters. Moreover, only by making these characters emotionally real can the stories be compelling to audiences who aren’t present for spiritual reasons.

Jesus can be tricky to portray, since we tend to equate ‘holiness’ with ‘stillness’, and static acting makes for dull theatre. John the Baptist vacillates between anger, humility, and sanctity, all of which has to be played without going too far in any direction. Having worked with both Mark and Ehren before, I was thrilled when they were both available for the production, as I knew they would be completely capable of capturing these two characters as real people. Additionally, they have a great dynamic on stage together, which works so nicely for cousins Jesus and John.

The angels get to be a bit more formal and otherworldly, but they also need to be musical. It was so exciting to hear James, Kate, and Stephanie sing together- we realised right away that they would make a beautiful trio, and I don’t think, even after all the rehearsals and performances, I ever got tired of hearing them together. Stephanie, unfortunately, can’t be with us for the revival due to other commitments; she will be very missed! In what is probably the biggest change for this performance, we’re reworking the trio into a duet.

God doesn’t actually appear in the original version of The Baptism– it was the biggest liberty we took with the production. I’ve always liked the idea of using God as a constant character in the plays, even if he doesn’t speak or interact with the rest of the action, as a way of connecting the separate plays. His presence also has the ability to illustrate theological concepts that don’t really translate their meaning easily, which is why we decided to include him in our production. Charles might not have had lots to do during the play, but he was able to create a lovely paternal connection between God and Jesus as his son.

I thought from the beginning that the play didn’t want a lot of ‘showiness’ larded on to it- it should be simple, elegant, and dignified. The set and costumes had a medieval basis but I didn’t want it to be aggressive in its periodisation, and I think it managed to avoid that. Even the River Jordan, which was by far the most time-consuming piece to make, came out with the crazy-quilt effect intended.

If you had the chance to see us perform last year, the performance in August won’t be a big surprise. This is one occasion where it’s not about “how could we do it better”, but about revisiting something well-loved exactly the way it is. It’s nice to create a show with not regrets, and I hope that that affection we have for it is something, beyond the proverbial footlights, that we can share with the audience.

Our Next Production: Revisiting The Baptism

 We have exciting news! To our great delight, we’ve been asked to revive last summer’s production of The Baptism for the York Mystery Plays Conference on 1 August.

HIDden has always had a special connection with the Mystery Plays- it gave us our start. York’s plays are a unique event with a very long history, and it’s always an honour to be part of the community that continues to create new chapters of that story.

We’re also looking forward to reassembling the majority of our very talented cast! Mark Burghagen and Ehren Mierau will be reprising their roles as John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively. Our angels, James Wright and Kate Thomas, are returning. And our God, Charles Hunt, will be back in his heaven- all should be right with our world!

We can’t wait to get back on the waggon!

For more information on the conference, or to register, please visit: http://www.yorkmysteryplays.co.uk/2015-conference-1st-august-book/