Our editor Angela Ferguson was so moved and inspired by the positive impact that taking part in the Chester Mystery Plays had on her and her fellow cast and crew that she decided to write the following feature. It looks at just what a difference the arts and community theatre can make in terms of people’s mental and physical wellbeing. With huge thanks to all who have made the Chester Mystery Plays possible and who have shared their stories with us. Photos: Angela Ferguson, Nez Kendall and Mark Carline.
With Chester Mystery Plays 2018 now firmly a part of Chester’s history, the cast and crew have been left with a very special legacy – as a series of powerful testimonies bear witness here to the power of community theatre.
Long after the incredible staging and lighting at Chester Cathedral was taken down and the costumes stored away, some of those involved in the Plays have shared their stories of the positive – and even life-changing – impact that this epic production has had on them.
There have been new friendships forged, with talk of having made friends for life, and the experience has also had a positive impact on mental and even physical health.
The Plays, adapted by playwright and actor Deborah McAndrew and directed by Peter Leslie Wild, were staged at Chester Cathedral in June and July and prior to this there were months of rehearsals, with some six months of work all in all.
This led to a run of 19 shows, which were well received and even garnered four and five star reviews, including a four star review from influential theatrical publication The Stage.
As the Plays came together through these weekly rehearsals under the watchful eye of a talented production team, so too did a likeminded and supportive new community in Chester. And it was evident from working with the cast and crew that here was an excellent example of a supportive and caring community being founded.
Indeed, the cast and crew have even set up groups on Facebook and WhatsApp to facilitate regular meet ups and even potential collaborations in future – all evidencing the power of community theatre.
Here are a selection of incredibly powerful testimonies as to the impact of this production.
Life changing experience
“It really was, personally, a life changing experience. You just can’t put into words how magical it was.” Becca Gates-Patch
Becca Gates-Patch, a drama graduate and actor, who played Lucifer, spoke openly about how she had been dealing with mental health issues for half of her life.
She said: “When I decided to get involved in the Plays I’d just come through a really difficult time in my personal life. When I first started rehearsals I was reserved and quite anxious – I didn’t really speak to anyone, but the support and love of the other players and the directing team made me feel comfortable enough to bring my real self out, and to bring a bit of Lucifer’s confidence and pride into the rest of my life.
“It really was, personally, a life changing experience. You just can’t put into words how magical it was.”
“And it has completely changed my life and my wellbeing and opened up the world to me again.” Evelyn Bates
Fellow cast member Evelyn Bates, who is retired, said: “I can honestly say that, as I have been going through a very difficult time in my life, being part of the Chester Mystery Plays this year has been my saving grace. And it has completely changed my life and my wellbeing and opened up the world to me again.
“The community spirit of everyone was an absolute delight. We all became a huge wonderful family of lovely people.”
“But more than anything, I have gained my old self back.” Jo Meek
Jo Meek, a nurse, whose roles included being one of Mrs Noah’s gossips, said: “Having never done any performing before, I was quite surprised at myself going along to audition for CMP. I hadn’t even seen a Mystery Play before but felt drawn to attend.
“I had only just started to recover from a critical illness and following two days’ stay in intensive care, I could hardly walk any distance or stand for any length of time so I did wonder if I was physically able to get to rehearsals, let alone act or try to sing.”
Jo said that she went on to gain strength and to take on numerous roles as a gossip, believer and merchant. She noticed that she was becoming stronger, less exhausted and was able to stand for longer periods.
Jo added: “Community theatre really does feel like a family and I now have a new one. I have gained courage, confidence and strength – both physically and mentally, plus discovery of new talents and the ability to manage challenges. But more than anything, I have gained my old self back.”
Accepting and supportive
“I became part of the CMP family – part of a family in the way that no one tries to change you, but merely accepts you for who you are.” Fiona MacSween
Deputy head teacher of Highfield Primary School in Blacon, Fiona MacSween, who played Mrs Noah, amongst other roles, said: “On that first audition day, I entered the room as nervous as I’d ever been – not knowing what to expect at all. I didn’t know anyone and everyone seemed to have been a member of CMP in the past. If it hadn’t been for the cup of tea I’d already started, I would have walked out and watched from the audience, like previously. How glad I am that I stayed.
“I became part of the CMP family – part of a family in the way that no one tries to change you, but merely accepts you for who you are.
“I am someone with no acting or performance training, just someone with a love for theatre – who is easily intimidated, so working with some amazing talent was something I wasn’t looking forward to initially.
“However, the more I attended rehearsals, the more I realised that no one was was any more or less important in both the cast or crew – and that we were merely part of a large machine. It didn’t matter whether you were a bigger cog or a little wing nut – all were essential to the amazing piece of theatre.
“I totally appreciated the guidance and expertise of a professional team – they were like the WD-40 who got the machine running at its very best.
“Looking back, I think the biggest things about the experience were that I learned so much about my faith and my skill set. I realised that it was okay to be the clown of the group, or sit back and enjoy quiet contemplation. Both of these roles I enjoyed. I was accepted just as I was.
“There was no theatrical hierarchy or bitchiness – just genuine love and admiration for my fellow cast and crew.
“I have spent six months of my life with a range of people from all walks of life, who I probably would never have encountered had I not been part of this experience. And for that, I thank CMP more than they will ever know.”
Sense of camaraderie
“I do believe there was a real sense of love for each other that was even greater than I had experienced last time.” Mark Lloyd
Mark Lloyd, a self-employed TV engineer who played Joseph, said: “I did the last CMP in 2013 as someone who had never been involved with acting before. I was very impressed by the way I was welcomed, encouraged and challenged by the community that grew as the production developed. And then, to top it all, I loved the sense of camaraderie that grew when it came to the thrill of performing as a group and so I decided that I would definitely get involved in 2018.
“This time it was different – it was like 2013 but so much more – with knobs, bells and whistles on. I do believe there was a real sense of love for each other that was even greater than I had experienced last time. And I know there were people involved with whom I will be friends for many years to come.
“It has given us opportunities that at our age we would not have thought possible.” Jackie Alley
For Jackie Alley, a self-employed hairdresser, and her close friend Amanda Fletcher, this was their second Chester Mystery Plays experience, playing two of Mrs Noah’s gossips as well as being in the chorus.
Jackie said: “Amanda and I were fortunate to meet Matt Baker (musical director) six years ago and he introduced us to CMP in 2013. It has given us opportunities that at our age we would not have thought possible – meeting new friends from all walks of life, creating life-long friendships, plus opening doors to other activities.”
Feel good factor
And a final note from our editor Angela Ferguson:
“I’d like to add my thoughts on the impact of community theatre. I, too, have had mental health issues from time to time, facing the challenges of living with anxiety and depression which are exacerbated by personal circumstances.
“One of the things that has really helped me is getting involved in the arts in Chester, both through this online magazine, presenting on Flipside Radio and latterly through CMP.
“I am a firm believer in the power of the arts as a form of therapy – helping to bring the feel good factor back into my life while also giving my confidence a much-needed boost.
“I can honestly say that being involved in the Chester Mystery Plays has been one of the best experiences I have ever had. I’ve pushed myself way out of my comfort zone, learning a lot about myself in the process and making so many lovely new friends – for life.
“It’s like having a whole gang of cheerleaders, keeping each other afloat and seemingly knowing just when a kind word or gesture will make a huge difference.
“I’ve surprised myself by getting the acting bug and have even signed up for acting classes in September – it’s so much fun and a great way to meet lovely people and exercise those creative muscles.
“I’ve learnt the hard way that if I don’t exercise these creative muscles by giving them a good work out from time to time then I’m in danger of sliding back into the all-consuming fog that is depression, along with my other old adversary, pesky anxiety.
“So from the bottom of my heart, and with a great deal of gratitude, I’d like to say a humungous thank you to all of those who have made CMP such a life-affirming and life-changing experience and to all those who have very kindly shared their stories here.
“I will never forget CMP and its powerful legacy goes on for so many of us as we continue to support each other as one big CMP family. It’s one blooming powerful testimony for community theatre and arts and culture as therapy. Here’s to community theatre and the wider world of arts and culture – long may it continue to do its stuff.”