Academic journal article Early Theatre

A Star Is Born: Staging Choices in the Nativity and the Shepherds

Academic journal article Early Theatre

A Star Is Born: Staging Choices in the Nativity and the Shepherds

Article excerpt

In June 1998 the Le Moyne College Theatre Program produced the York Tilethatchers' and Chandlers' plays, The Nativity and The Shepherds. (1) This was part of the full production of The York Plays led by the Poculi Ludique Societas (PLS) at The University of Toronto. The plays from the outset presented several challenges. First, they would be produced in tandem--that is, both plays would use the same actors and stable set for the Holy Family. This would test the theory that the originals were performed this way. Second, we were to use only one wagon, rather than two, as in the 1995 PLS production for the 8th Colloquium of the Societe Internationale pour l'etude du Theatre Medieval (SITM), held at Toronto. (2)

While we had fun working on these puzzles, a second pair emerged as even trickier: how does a baby get born on stage, and how does a star rise and shine in the heavens? How we made our choices is a story not only of the collaboration that is theatrical production, but also of out collaboration with medieval studies scholars through their publications, their productions, and their e-mail. Our thesis is this: If you watched these plays and thought your work was a basis for any of our decisions, you are doubtless right.

Although we have produced several early dramas over the years, our field is theatre rather than medieval theatre. (To illustrate, Le Moyne's 1998-9 Theatre Program productions were Thin Air, a new play by Lynne Alvarez about revolution in Central America, and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest) Our way into a show is a consequence of this. If you are a medieval specialist, we hope to give you an idea of how theatre practitioners use your work.

Our final staging results from clues we find in the script itself, scholarship on these and related plays, immersion in art of the time and place, descriptions of other productions, the availability of money, people, and materials, the constraints of the spaces where we will perform, the needs of our audiences, and our own invention. We also follow the style set out by the organizers.


We began our research by reading the script. We first had both the Bevington and the Beadle Middle English editions, as well as the Purvis translation, (3) but by fall 1997 Kim Yates had sent us her translation, which she had completed for the 1995 PLS production. (4) We also read about York, its cycle, and our guilds.


We decided to work from the theory that this Nativity play, in its simplicity, may have been based on the vision of Saint Bridget. (5) First, in the vision, no one but the Virgin is present at the birth. Second, the Virgin is clearly pregnant at first, and the baby suddenly appears lying on her robe without any apparent labour These visuals fit the script.

We also chose, both in costume and scenic design, to follow the Franciscan shift in iconography emphasizing the poverty of Jesus. (6) We especially looked at Durer's Nativities. Costume fabrics for the Holy Family and the shepherds were rough; the angels wore smooth fabrics in pastel green, salmon, yellow, and dun, wings of white turkey feathers (never again), and golden crowns with white roses and candles. (We tried for medieval wavy hair, but the sky drizzled on the angels' heads while they watched The Creation at 6:00 am.) We designed a falling-apart stable, matching Joseph's comment, 'The roof is rent above our heads, / The walls are down on every side' (ll.17-18), and a contrasting golden star. As in much period nativity art, the beams of the star would shine down into the stable. Somehow.

We also added ox and ass puppets, heads and necks only, looking into the stable as if from a stall. The script calls for them to warm Jesus with their breath. Suspended invisibly by black wire, their heads nodded at a slight touch from backstage.


Since no stage directions indicate when the baby is born and when the star appears, we had to choose the precise moments by finding a logical place in the lines. …

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