Two cast members of the Mystery Plays who share the same role talk to Charles Hutchinson
THE York Mystery Plays 2012 cast is divided into Carpenters and Potters teams, ensuring that around 500 community players are taking part.
Among the Mystery Plays first-timers alternating roles are Paula Clark and Jessica Fisher, York Theatre Royal education administrator and youth theatre freelance practitioner respectively.
They are each playing perhaps the most notoriously named character in the York Cycle of 48 Mystery Plays: The Woman Taken In Adultery. In this 2012 version, adapted by Mike Kenny and co-directed by Damian Cruden and Paul Burbridge, women are more prominent in the cast, not least becoming half of the disciples, and so Paula and Jessica are transformed from the Adulteress, saved by Jesus to become Apostle Thadeus.
“Or more commonly, Thadeus is known as Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and desperate cases,” notes Paula with a smile.
“Linking the Adulteress to Thadeus is a good spin on it; often she’s put together with Mary Magdalene, so it’s a new take on it,” says Jessica. “I think the new casting, with women playing disciples, shepherds and queens at the Bethlehem stable and one of the robbers on a cross, represents the modern world much more.”
Jessica had first wanted to participate in the York Mystery Plays in York Minster in 2000 when the four-year cycle was still ticking over before the unforeseen 12-year hiatus. “I was at the University of York studying English literature and I didn’t want to stay in York that summer. Well, I had a boyfriend in Manchester. The usual story,” she says.
“But I always felt I’d missed out on something of massive significance, so I was determined I didn’t miss out this time.
“I knew how massive it would be, and as I work at the Theatre Royal, not being in the Plays would have felt like a brilliant party I wasn’t at.”
The Museum Gardens production on Britain’s biggest theatre stage of 2012 is the first time that Jessica has been involved in a show of such an epic scale. “It’s so huge that before we performed on the stage, I still hadn’t grasped just how big this production is.
“Even in the last week of rehearsals, you’d see someone in the cast and think, ‘Gosh, I haven’t met you yet. Then add the choir, and it’s even bigger.”
Paula is performing in the 2012 Mystery Plays after finishing her Masters degree in performance and communication arts at York St John University . “I’ve been working freelance for about six years as a theatre practitioner in schools in York, Leeds and Bradford, but it’s been a long time since I did some acting on stage,” she says.
“I’m from North Wales originally but I’ve been in York for 15 years, and I thought ‘I must get involved with this great tradition of the Mystery Plays’.”
Working with children aged five to 16 made participating in a community project with people who “could be ten, 30 or 60” an appealing prospect for Paula. “There’s something about the inter-generational aspect of staging the Plays that really attracted me, and that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to do it,” she says.
Paula has plenty on her plate away from the Mystery Plays, such as conducting research for the Institute of Communication Studies and Leeds University on how young people express citizenship, for a new internet tool, youthamplified.com
She has a mother’s workload too, having two children, Holly, ten, and Huw, seven. “I knew that the Mystery Plays commitment would be massive, and I was torn if I could manage it but I took the leap and it has been challenging – but worth it.
“Even when I’ve been tired and been in a rehearsal for a long time I’ve still enjoyed it because it’s so overwhelming being in such a production, as everyone is in it together, all coming from different lives and working together.”
As with Paula, Jessica’s Mystery Plays commitments since April have made it “challenging to fit everything in”. “Especially as I’m writing two new plays: Ghost Town, which I’m working on with Pilot Theatre at the Theatre Royal, and a play called Grace Notes for Park Bench Poets, based in Hull. We’ll be doing a showcase in October at Hull Truck Theatre.”
Yet the experience of taking part in the Mystery Plays has been unquestionably rewarding, not only the pleasure of working with “such lovely people” and performing in a £1 million production, but also the chance to reflect on the message of the Mystery Plays.
Jessica became a practising Christian at 15 but her path took a different course in her mid-20s, ironically while working for Riding Lights, York’s Christian theatre company. “I wouldn’t call it losing faith but changing one’s view of the world,” she says. “Losing sounds like I’ve lost something and I wouldn’t say I have.
“But what’s been interesting has been finding your own meaning for the Plays’ stories – and for me they’re about human nature. There’s a lot of resonance in the stories of good versus evil, and in the defining debate at the end, a key question is asked: what have you done to help others?”
Jessica and Paula can both point to their youth theatre work as an affirmative answer.
• The York Mystery Plays 2012 run in the Museum Gardens, York, until August 27. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk