A Community Mysteries

I know that Ray Spencer was as disappointed as I was when the Bard in the Park series came to a premature end, thanks to the funding cuts inflicted by the DCMS under the philistine rule of Jeremy Hunt. It looked like the days of large casts in general and not just Shakespeare plays were over for the Customs House, and there was nothing we could do about it.

And then I thought, “what’s the biggest cost involved in putting on a large-scale show?” and the answer was blindingly obvious: wages. If we wanted to do a large-scale show—and by that I mean a show with a cast of more than three!—it couldn’t be a professional show.

Obviously, we would prefer to use professional actors—and obviously the Customs House would continue to do so in its programme of new writing—but if we were to give the people of South Tyneside the widest experience of theatre possible, including large-scale, site-specific theatre, the only way forward was to blend amateur and professional—a professional creative team with amateur actors—and we had a perfect example of what could be achieved just down the A19 in York, The York Mystery Plays, which are held every four years, and have been since 1951, although they originally began in the 14th century and were suppressed in 1569.

I’d written a version of The Mysteries, a combination of all the extant Cycles (York, Chester, Wakefield / Townley, N-Town), so I passed the script on to Ray. He read it and said, “let’s do it” and so we set a date in June 2012 and preparations began.

The first consideration was where the performance should be. Tim Flood, the Customs House’s Programming and Marketing Manager, was the first to suggest that the perfect setting would be Arbeia, the Roman Fort in South Shields. He was so right; it was absolutely perfect! The fort’s main gate had been reconstructed and that would be the perfect place to perform. God could appear right on the top battlements and there was so much space that we could even have the audience surround Jesus as he was crucified.

The first production in 1975 had featured medieval carols such as "Adam lay y-bounden", "The Angel Gabriel" and "The Cherry Tree Carol", while the Massacre of the Innocents was mimed to "The Coventry Carol", and I decided that this production should do the same, so we needed singers. What we got was a ready-made choir, a choir based at the Customs House who said they would love to take part and so were welcomed with open arms!

I made the decision that we should advertise for cast members and anyone who wanted could join, whether professional actor, experienced or limited experienced amateur, or even those with no experience at all. Everyone would have a part to play and, although we were holding auditions workshops, they were to determine what parts each could play, not whether they would be offered a part because everyone was.

We ended up with a number of professional actors and a few who had no experience at all, but the majority were amateurs with some—or, in some cases, a lot—of experience.

What was unexpected was an e-mail from someone looking to gain experience as assistant director. This was Helen F Dobson who had achieved a First in Contemporary Directing at Newcastle Performance Academy and was doing an MA in Arts, Business and Creativity at Newcastle University. We met and I was impressed, so she became Assistant Director of The Mysteries. We went on to do four more shows together with Helen eventually co-directing with me.

It should have been hard work trying to weld together so many people (actually, we had a cast of 24 playing over 50 parts) of very varied experience with more than 50 years' difference in age between the oldest and youngest, but surprisingly it wasn’t. They were so keen, so determined to make the show work and to expand their experience that they weren’t just easy but an absolute pleasure to work with.

In fact, everyone—the cast and the Customs House crew, the choir (11 of them!), the Arbeia staff and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums—pulled out all the stops and we were only let down by one thing: the weather!

It was June, so obviously it was going to be cold and damp but on the last day it looked like we should have been doing Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo. It was dreadful! The heavens opened and the matinée had to be abandoned. At one point, as she was rescuing a bit of tech equipment, the water was slopping over the top of Helen’s wellies!

We moved the evening performance into the (rebuilt) Commander’s house, where it was a real squeeze, and crucified Jesus in the Colonnade, which was open to the elements on one side. But it worked!