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.


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.


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.

The Final Day, York Mystery Plays 2014

After two busy weekends of performance, the Mystery Plays for 2014 have come to an end. Our set has been dismantled, the costumes are back in storage, and the waggons have returned to their respective owners. It’s been a hectic period for the HIDden team, but were blessed with a most extraordinary cast and an incredibly dedicated crew, and we could not be more proud of “The Baptism”. A big thanks also to the people who organised the entire thing, and to the York Festival Trust for giving us this opportunity. HIDden began its life in York, on the heels of the last mystery play cycle in 2010, and it means everything to have been invited back. Thank you to the audiences who braved the inclement weather to experience this remarkable, unique-to-York experience, and we hope to see you again in the years ahead!

Week Two of York Mystery Plays 2014

We’ve now completed our second weekend with the York Mystery Plays, and we’re all rather sad to see it end. It’s been a whirlwind of preparation and performance; everyone’s hard work has really paid off. In fact, we can’t think of a single thing we’d want to change! This week’s performance sites were Dean’s Park, St William’s College, St Sampson Square, and the Museum Gardens. St Sampson’s was a particularly appropriate experience for a medieval drama: it has the hustle and bustle of cities both now and then, and is a real litmus test for actors. It was delightful to see how our cast rose to the occasion, and how passers-by stopped to watch them perform. We really could not be more proud of them, and would like to send everyone involved a very big round of applause.

Week One of York Mystery Plays 2014

Our first day of performance with the Mystery Plays began in rain and ended in sunshine, but the damp weather couldn’t dampen our excitement, especially as we began the day with a film crew featuring us on the BBC! We are so honoured to have been one of the two plays chosen for this project! After that, the morning kicked off in Dean’s Park, before moving on to performances at St William’s College, King’s Square, and King’s Manor. There is nothing more thrilling than performing throughout the historic city of York and reflecting on the people who, five hundred years ago, were walking through the same streets, performing versions of the same plays.