Why you might want to come out
to see the Shepherds Play
by David Barham, High School Humanities Teacher
Let me start at the beginning with a short, personal anecdote.
Many years ago, when I was doing my Waldorf teacher training at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire, our teachers tried to get us to perform The Shepherds Play as part of our studies. My class was known as a rebellious class and we actually refused to take up the play because we felt our teacher’s could not fully explain how this Medieval drama was something more than a Christian tale for Christian families. Our pressing questions went unanswered. So instead, my fellow students and I pulled together a Revels style celebration with elements from pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations (including a spiral of greens with candles), the Jewish traditions of Chanukah, and aspects of Christmas as well. The celebration was meaningful and satisfying and I imagined I would have little to do with the Shepherds Play as I moved into my Waldorf teaching.
A few years later, I was involved in a study of the Christmas season and the Shepherds Play and what Rudolf Steiner had to say about both. Consciously opening myself up to the play and its relation to this special season made it possible for me to accept a role in my school’s production. The amazing thing was this: I actually loved doing the play and the calm and centered feeling it gave me at a very hectic time of the year.
Since that time, I have acted in the play many many times, each time as one of the shepherds- Gallus, Huckle, Muckle or Crispin. It got to the point where the season just didn’t feel right without the simple, warm heartedness of the play. For me, it is a real antidote to the insanity of modern American Christmas and a portal to something richer and more meaningful.
I was raised in a reform Jewish household. We celebrated the Jewish festivals more out of a cultural, rather than spiritual direction. I enjoyed them, but was looking for more depth and meaning my entire life.
Yes, it is true that the images of The Shepherds Play are directly out of the New Testament. On the literal level, it is the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the baby Jesus, and the honoring of the Christ child by the humble shepherds of Good Will who learn of the miracle birth in their dreams through the Angel. At this level, it is a celebration of an important story, one that has deep significance for Christian families throughout the world. Personally, I love the notion that the main characters in this archetypal Christian story are all Jewish!
And yet, The Shepherds Play, as performed in Waldorf schools all over the world is different from what Christian families can expect to see in their churches. It is a matter of intention.
Our Shepherds Play is really a universal celebration of the essential qualities found in this story. Joseph’s care for his pregnant wife. Mary’s maternal warmth for her newborn infant. The selfless giving of the goofy shepherds. The possibility for redemption and a new beginning- even for the simplest of folk. The idea that every human family is the Holy Family and every new child is the Light of the World. As Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn says, “There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes. Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.”
I have performed in the play for a number of years on the stage in our Community Hall and each year have wished that more of the adults in the community could have been there. My great hope is that the play can become part of the good part of your family’s holiday season. Part of the inner preparation to receive the Light that humanity has always recognized as needing to grow within at this darkening time of year. We hope that as many of you as possible can join us this year. The hope is that the images in the play, presented as lovingly and humbly as possible, will speak to each of us regardless of our religious and cultural background.
As a Waldorf community, we are committed to working together to protect and preserve the endangered kingdom of childhood. That is what The Shepherds Play is really about.
A letter from the Director to his Shepherds, 2014:
Dearest Gallus, Huckle, Muckle & Crispin~
As your Director, there is much I can do to help you bring to life a wondrous, funny, warm and profound performance as the Shepherds. I can help you with the singing and the blocking and a more effective way to say your lines. I can help you find your character in the way you move your feet, or the way you sit on the bench or the way you listen when others speak. But there is one profound thing I can not do for you and this one profound thing will make all the difference in the world on Friday, December 19. I want to try to explain that one thing:
You three Shepherds represent something very profound. This deceptively simple script actually is speaking to the greatest of all Mysteries - and it is given to the Shepherds to communicate to the audience the profundity of that Mystery.
The first part of the Shepherds interactions are meant to warm up the audience to you. You are funny, you are goofy, you are warm. You bicker with one another like old friends which is actually endearing. But then…
But then the Shepherds have a revelation. You can say an Angel comes to them in their sleep if you want. But do you know what that really means? It means that these simple, uneducated people of the Earth are among the first to understand the true meaning of being Human.
You Shepherds, as "Men of Good Will" are the true teachers and leaders of humanity. And what are you leading us toward? Love. Kindness. Seeing the true worth of all people despite their station in life. Fulfillment of all one holds dearest and deepest and more profound. The secret you don't even dare utter to yourself about what you truly hope life to be and to become.
Substitute a Child in the manger for a world free of lies and deceptions and all that separates one from another. A world that is True and Free and Noble. A world where you love and are loved- no holding back. The feeling you should all have at the crib should just about bring tears to your eyes. In fact, tears would be fine. The audience already loves you and will follow you as you reveal the True Meaning of Life: Everything is Possible! We don't need to protect ourselves from a cruel and cynical world. It is Love from Top to Bottom!
When you are working to transform yourselves into Shepherds, these are the thoughts and feelings you must hold nearest and dearest so they flow through you and the specific words you speak. The true meaning of Advent, Christmas, Chanukah, the Winter Solstice and Life Itself is that We Descend into the Darkness AND We Ascend into the Light at the same time and we are never again the same!
Your real job as Shepherds is to communicate all this profundity to an audience of all ages. They all want to be moved and filled with hope. Your job is to give them that. You can only provide that for the audience if it first becomes real for you. This is your real work over these next weeks. Not just learning your lines (though that would be important!), but inner transformation. When you peer into that cradle and SEE (truly see- even though there is no baby there), we need to see/feel/sense that in your entire bodies and beings. In that baby's eyes, you need to see the world as it ought to be, as it could be, as it needs to be- no longer as it is. You are to be transformed and changed. Made new and whole. And then you can offer that as a true gift of measureless worth to your audience.
Only these Shepherds, whom the audience has already loved and laughed at/with, can offer forth such a gift.
If you do this inner work over these next weeks, you will communicate this to the audience and We will have done something priceless for the world.
I will accompany you every step of the way, but you have to go deep. I am laying down the glove here - are you up for the challenge?
Circus Smirkus at Merriconeag:
Monday, August 3 & Tuesday, August 4, 1:00 & 6:00 pm,
Grade School Campus, 57 Desert Rd, Freeport.
THE BIG TOP TOUR IS COMING TO TOWN
with our own high school student, Sarah Norden,
as part of the amazing cast!
TICKETS ON SALE AT ROYAL RIVER NATURAL FOODS BEGINNING JUNE 10TH!