York Mystery Plays

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Creating the venue in Museum Gardens

The Stage, 16 August 2012.  Article by Kevin Berry 
Backstage: The History Man
The venue for York Mystery Plays 2012 is the city's Museum Gardens. Kevin Berry speaks to event manager Ben Pugh about overcoming difficulties with building a theatre in the round on an archaeological site.

"On site there was nothing - other than a very beautiful setting," says Ben Pugh. "Everything had to come in from scratch and we have erected a state of the art, 1,400-seat venue on a sensitive historical site."  The site is York Museum Gardens and the venue he mentions will stage the York Mystery Plays throughout August. York Theatre Royal, Riding Lights Theatre Company and York Museums Trust are producing the plays with support from City of York Council.  The Theatre Royal production team has vast experience in working off site, with The Railway Children at the National Railway Museum, and is substantially reconfiguring its traditional auditorium to create a theatre in the round for summer seasons.
Pugh is the event manager for the Mystery Plays, charged with supervising the erection of what amounts to an actual theatre on a site governed by the severest constraints. No digging allowed - "We can't touch the monument" - and certainly no access for articulated trucks. Over 300 tons of scaffolding was off-loaded outside York and then shuttled in on smaller vehicles. York Museum Gardens is a public park used by 10,000 people every day during the summer, and Pugh and his team have had to close off a third of that space. In the garden's ten acres there is a protected English Heritage monument (the Benedictine St Mary's Abbey), a busy museum and botanical gardens.
The sheer enormity of the task faced by Pugh's team becomes apparent as he continues talking. It is difficult to take in. Getting the number of people involved, nearly 2,000 community players, and managing them, even in these days of mobile phones and emails, has been quite a challenge. The genial Pugh, who appears to take everything in his stride, suggests "thinking of the usual theatrical process and then times it by 2,000".
Have the vehicles been churning up the ground? After all, York has had its share of rain in recent weeks.
"We have a three metre-wide metal track way running from the road to the stage site," Pugh says. "The gateway is part of the scheduled monument and is three metres wide. We've had to be very steady, coordinated and careful. We needed the track to guard against the weather, and also there's a lot of buried archaeology just under the surface. While many events this year have been undone by the weather, we've been fine on this site."

In the theatre there is a one foot rise between each row of seats so everyone will have a good view, plus there is a roof over the audience. The theatre is already two metres off the ground so there is a substantial sub-stage area for actors and staff to come up through trap doors and use rising stairways. Pugh emphasises that his team has had to build an entire venue: dressing rooms, toilet blocks, putting in water pipes, indeed all of the infrastructure needed in the theatre. "We are presenting ourselves with a whole load of practical and logistical challenges to give ourselves that creative freedom in the space," says Pugh. "We have been keen to get the community involved and that has brought forth amazing creative energy."
He talks of a fusion of techniques and approaches and the sharing of them. Members of the community who may be painters and decorators coming in to paint the scenery, people who go to embroidery class once a week helping with costumes.  "We're working with Star Events Group and they're re-engineered their seating principles to enable us to have a fluid, flexible theatre space," Pugh explains. "They've never built on a site like this. We asked them for a whole load of things to make it a theatre - such as entrance ways and tunnels and things they wouldn't normally do."
Getting into the site and setting up has taken a month. Getting out will take three weeks, a time scale that Pugh has insisted on.  "I've been able to persuade English Heritage and York Museums Trust that giving us more time to do it, steadily and carefully, will reduce the chance of anything happening," he says, "The worst case scenario is people going in there mob-handed and trying too hard and doing things way too quickly."  That will not happen with Pugh in charge. A York resident for nearly 15 years he is aware of what the Mystery Plays mean to the people of his city. They are deeply embedded in the city's culture. 
We had been speaking in the week leading up to the premiere. "People on the site have been saying how relaxed I look," he said, smiling. "So it must be going well."
York Mystery Plays run until August 27. The plays will be streamed live over the internet via The Space, the digital arts media service, thanks to Pilot Theatre and ACE funding.
16 August 2012
Go back to 2012 cast list