ESSAY: The York Mystery Plays Conference 2015

This past weekend, the entire HIDden team attended the York Mystery Plays conference at the National Centre for Early Music, in part because we were also reviving our production of “The Baptism” for it, but also because we like to stay abreast of what is going on with the continuing life of the cycle.

The focus of the conference was on the future of the mystery plays. The waggons have been rolling through the streets on a quadrennial basis for 21 years; as more of the people who have made them possible are retiring from their longstanding roles and as York itself continues to evolve, there is definitely an awareness that the years ahead must be approached very consciously and deliberately.

One of the prevailing strands of discussion was that of tradition versus innovation. This is not a particularly new debate, but it’s one that inevitably renews when contemplating how the plays will be staged in the future. The simple act of defining what their “traditions” are is challenging: for example, the longer “tradition” in living memory is that of static, large-scale productions, like the 2012 version in St Mary’s Abbey ruins; the medieval and more recent “tradition” is that of waggons throughout the city streets. Both have an equally valid claim to a role in the heritage of historic drama in York (and now that both are happening in offset four-year cycles, hopefully they will complement one another, rather than be seen as competing for the title of ‘real’ mystery plays).

Likewise, within the waggon-production community, there is often discussion and debate about how “historical” the plays should look and feel, or how much performances should change from year to year. Some groups are relatively locked in to a particular staging, due to large investment in purpose-built waggons. Some start from scratch every four years and reinvent their play, or perform different plays from the York Cycle altogether. Others tend to find a way in between. Among these variations, there has generally been a balance of plays which owe much of their character to the Middle Ages, plays which are experiments with techniques of modern drama, and pays which are designed to add colour and spectacle without being tied down to any greater theory or concept. This variety makes for a vibrant cavalcade of theatre throughout the streets of York, but there is also an argument that, for audiences who are as mobile as the waggons, this variegation may make it difficult to follow the (already episodically disjointed) story, particularly as younger audiences are less grounded in biblical lore. The follow-up discussion arising from the debate about tradition goes to the role of the overall artistic director: should he or she impose a style or theme upon all of the plays in the interest of cohesiveness? Or should groups function autonomously? Is there even the need for an overseeing artistic director?

Another controversial change from 2014 was the addition of a chorus- newly written to frame the plays in a greater context, it was intended to act as a bridge in places where there was either a large time gap in the narrative story, or where some further elucidation was helpful. The addition of the chorus (which did not exist in the medieval cycle of York, although other cities set the precedent) was one of the most debated subjects last year, and was of course much discussed at the conference as well. The fact that it is new and not traditional makes in a focal point for the greater debate about the role of addition and adaptation in historic drama.

Jane Oakshott’s keynote speech was therefore quite heartening. As the person who brought the plays back to the waggons and the streets in 1994, she is a strong advocate for historically informed drama. She points out that this is not synonymous with attempting to recreate the past, but that any historic play will be most successful if the people staging and acting in it have a solid grounding in its greater historical context. We at HIDden heartily concur. The tension between the past and the present is what makes our work so interesting. While we would not want our own productions to turn into a reenactment exercise, we would argue that changes and adaptations should always be thoughtful and deliberate, in aid of the play itself, and not simply for their own sake.

Many of these conversations are familiar. They are issues that have been discussed within the mystery plays community in the past, but there seems to be more urgency in the question of how their torch will be carried forward to future generations. Coming up with answers, however, remains challenging, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for their future development. Whichever way the York Mystery Plays go, we here at HIDden hope to stay involved in some capacity. We will always be among their greatest cheerleaders for having given us our start and bringing us this far, and for all the wonderful memories and experiences the plays have imparted. We’re sure we’re not alone in this, so if you happen to be in York in a mystery plays year, keep an eye out for how you can be part of an amazing historical event. No matter what changes with them, we know from experience that being involved can indeed change you.



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:



If you’ve been following us on Twitter (you do that, right?), you may have noticed a lot of recent tweets about “IMC2015” and rather more academic comments on medieval drama. That’s because last week was the Leeds International Medieval Congress, one of the two major international conferences for medievalists. It’s one of the highlights of my year, because one does not often get the chance to spend several days thoroughly buried in one’s pet subject, among like-minded people.


Despite the fact that I’ve mentioned medieval drama, you’d be justified in wondering why I’d go on about this to you. I think of it like this: we go to conferences so you don’t have to.


This is one of the ways we get the “information” that makes our plays “historically informed”. Although some of the issues discussed at a conference like this may seem highly abstruse, and you might never be able to point to a specific moment in a play and say, “There. That is how they used it”, everything that gets learned at a conference- or, maybe even better, every issue that is raised but remains unresolved- goes into the way that I think about the plays that I direct. Dramaturgy and academia are awfully similar, and any responsible director does their homework before tackling a new dramatic project. Of course, this is even more important in our case, because we couldn’t do a very good job of bringing history to the stage if we didn’t know what it was!


The other thing that I love about conferences like Leeds is the fact that they’re a chance to talk over ideas about historic drama with others who work on it, many of whom literally wrote the books on which this field is based. It is an absolutely lovely, incredibly supportive community, full of truly brilliant people. I don’t think I’ve ever left a conversation with any of them without having new insight, new questions, and above all a renewed ethusiasm for historic drama.


One of the issues which came up briefly that I want to explore more is the difference between ‘re-enactment’, ‘reconstruction’ and ‘revival’ in terms of staging medieval (or any historic) drama. The terms get used somewhat interchangeably, but I think they’re all very different. At HIDden, I think we live mostly in “revival” camp. We’re not necessarily trying to show you how things were (or may have been) in any of the time periods of our plays. And while we may be asking our own questions about what the demands of the text are, what staging options might work compared to what we know of the techniques and spaces available in the play’s original period, or how various styles of acting may have changed an audience’s understanding and engagement with the play, our ultimate goal is to give our audience something they can enjoy and appreciate. We want them to be able to find echoes of our stories in their own lives and experiences. HIDden always hopes to bring a play to life for the people who are seeing it, which invariably means making some compromises between the times and experiences of the play’s history and its situation in today’s world of performance and reception.


Another topic of discussion, which has been repeatedly cropping up at medieval drama gatherings lately, is what the future of the academic discipline might be. I’ll be talking about this again in the future, but to put on my hat of prognostication, I think that one of the ways forward will be more people looking at these plays who aren’t from the traditional disciplines of history and literature, and who might be from outside the formal academic community altogether. Performances that are divorced from academic institutions seem to be on the rise- like ours! The importance of the audience and its experience, both in academic study and in actual production, will continue to become more and more important. And modern- dare I say ‘revival’- productions will become an increasing focus of study in their own right. Those are just my guesses; we’ll have to wait and see if they come true.


One more “future” prediction which came up was that of interntional dialogue about the medieval dramas beyond Britain. Of course, those on the Continent are- and long have been- quite aware that they have extensive traditions of medieval performance. We here in Britain haven’t always paid as much attention to that, and I admit to being guilty of this myself; being monolingual is very limiting. While I’m not going to turn into a multilinguist, fortunately more and more of these European plays are being translated, and opening up these plays for those of us who are hobbled by language limitations. This makes these plays, many of which sound immensely interesting, potentially playable for British audiences, and I hope that someday we’ll have the chance to produce a few.


Now that the Leeds conference is over, of course, the immediate future, for me at least, is work and study. I’ll be returning to “The Vital Spark” and the Victorians, but I’ll be keeping these thoughts from the conference in my mind for the next medieval project.


A Report From The Field: Medieval Drama at The Kalamazoo Conference

I’ve recently returned from my annual pilgrimage to the international medieval conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan: four days of talking shop with medieval drama scholars from various countries and different specialities. Medieval drama tends to be a pretty small field, so there’s always a certain element of reunion with friends to the conference.

One of the themes which seemed to keep popping to the surface this year was that of performance. The central question was, why is medieval drama so overlooked? As someone said, the ancient Greek dramas often make it to the stage, not to mention the obvious revivals of Shakespeare that proliferate across Britain (and everywhere else). But medieval plays have remained the province of small church groups or within academic halls. Why… and how do we find a way to break this paradigm?

The issues discussed would sound like a depressingly challenging, almost insurmountable litany, but it was actually very positive. There seems to be a subtle groundswell in favour of more productions, especially those that aren’t tied to a university course or department. This is where companies like HIDden come in. It’s always exciting to find that we are, in fact, part of a bigger movement, and in a position to really work toward a larger goal. We’ve always believed that historic plays should be seen, and can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than might be supposed. It was very encouraging to be among others who are thinking along the same lines.

Of course this is all regarding medieval drama specifically, which is just one era of many. But if one rather small corner of the historic drama picture is potentially moving out of the shadows, it means there is scope for other neglected gems from the past to come into the limelight. In short, it means that, in a wider context, we’re on the right track.

We’re living in exciting times with historic drama, and I for one feel quite lucky to be part of it all.