My name is Roger Lee, I am chair of York Festival Trust, and working with York’s seven Guilds and Companies we are the organisation which has been staging productions of the Plays on the City streets since 1998. July 2014 will be our 5th quadrennial production.
York Mystery Plays are of huge importance, not only in our city, but nationally and internationally. Without question, the Mystery Plays are integral to our culture and of great historic significance in the City of York, and in today’s commercial climate festivals like these bring economic benefits to the city whilst at the same time providing high quality drama, spectacle and entertainment for local and visitor alike.
So what are York Mystery Plays?
They are 50 medieval plays which tell the whole Bible story from the creation of the world to the last judgement of mankind. They were performed in York almost every year from the late 1300s to the late 1500s. They were originated and performed by the medieval trade and craft guilds and each guild had a play appropriate to its craft
In medieval times the plays were enacted on pageant waggons, which were drawn by hand through city streets. The waggons stopped at 12 places for the actors to perform their play. The Guilds of York were responsible for the original medieval productions. Since 1998 the present Guilds have resumed responsibility for them, on a 4 yearly basis. The York Guilds and Companies provide a present day link to the medieval origins of these Plays, and whilst no one ‘owns’ the Plays, the Guilds have the greatest claim to be their guardians. Our productions are truer in spirit to both the medieval originals and to the revivals of the early 1950s. The York Festival Trust has been active in the facilitation of the local community’s engagement with this unique Cycle of Mystery Plays for many years.
Drawing on this heritage, the modern day Guilds have a created a new tradition of waggon plays for the community of the 21st century. Over the past 14 years, the Trust has amassed a great deal of experience in this style of production and we have created a flexible and sustainable production model. Our large scale productions of the plays on waggons performed at various locations throughout the City have met with popular, academic and critical acclaim, and involve around 600 people from a wide cross-section of the community. Our performances are seen by around 4000 people on each performance day and attract a large number of visitors to the City specifically to see the Plays.
Performing the Plays on pageant wagons adds an extra dimension. By moving the Plays to stations throughout the City we reach a wide audience; we have ticketed stands at usually 3 locations and members of the public and visitors can come across the plays as they walk around the City. At all locations the Plays are free to view.
The involvement of the community is an essential part of York Festival Trust’s method of working and the educational elements of the project equally important. We believe it is possible to help York understand its present through its past and we are committed to giving ordinary people the chance to do something extraordinary.
Between productions the Trust has worked with academics in the field to arrange international conferences. We bring together academics and practitioners, and the work of the 2007 conference was published in 2011 -‘The York Mystery Plays – Performance in the City”. This has received excellent reviews and has formed the basis for future links with young academics which we plan to build on in 2015 with another conference.
In 2012 we founded a National Network of UK towns and cities who perform medieval drama in one form or another. Successful links were created between York, Lincoln, Gloucester, Coventry, Lichfield and Chester.
Again in 2012, we were invited to take a waggon play to a festival in Italy which, with the assistance of the City, we achieved and which was a memorable experience for all who took part. This created new challenges of language and interpretation from which we learnt a great deal. UK audiences will benefit in 2014 when hopefully Italian actors perform in York.
Also in 2012 we were invited to a European workshop in Budapest hosted, by the Central European University, on reinventions of medieval drama in modern communities and localities. This is recognition of our expertise in the area and we are now Founder Members of an international group which will provide opportunity for cultural and artistic exchange.
But looking ahead to July next year we will again work with partners across the City, not least the wide variety of performing groups who create the individual plays. The City Arts service is hugely supportive both financially and practically, City of York education services help to produce an education pack for schools, University of York TV and Theatre department has created a digital sound project, University of York St John’s Centre for Creativity is a long term partner. And of course we will be linking to local businesses through Visit York to ensure financial benefit to the City.
Building on the work of our 2010 Co-Directors Paul Toy and Lesley Wilkinson we will address the 2014 production in a manner which will increase the overall quality of the event in the keys areas of creativity, interpretation, civic and volunteer engagement and we very much look forward to sharing our production with locals and visitors alike.