From Bathrobes to Shakespeare: The Medieval Festival

In the spring of 1983, the Medieval Festival first took place. It was a hodgepodge of activities. With the king and queen dressed in bathrobes, students tried their hand at tilting at the quintain (made from pvc pipe), making stained glass windows using tissue paper and liquid lead, eating a dried bread/cake concoction taken from a medieval cookbook and firing a rope-driven catapult. Following the format of the Mexican Festival and the Japanese Festival, songs were sung and a few brief skits performed.
The second iteration of the Festival occurred several years later with the addition of John Fleagle, a versatile musician who had performed in The Christmas Revels for years. John and Donna Butler (the music teacher) made music integral to the Festival: street cries, “Sumer Is a Cumin In”, ”Ah Robyn”, and “L’Homme Armee” were just some of the songs thai were performed yearly. Instrumental performances by students accompanied by Donna and John also became part of the show. At this point there were a number of vignettes performed by the students in various venues throughout the school: Street cries in front of building facades hung on the “covered area” and a performance in front of the king in the Multi that included sword and Morris dances and juggling.
The third iteration coalesced all these elements into a coherent, or at least more coherent, play called “The Last Days of Henry II”. It was performed on the old wooden PIaySpace. It included all of the above, now with memorized spoken lines and a choreographed extended battle scene with wooden swords, maces, long bows and the ubiquitous horses that had been around since the early quintain tilting. Willy Black (art teacher) not only created the original horses and their offspring when the first generation needed to go out to pasture, but also along with Barbara Edsen created our costumes from material donated by the Profile Skiwear factory when it closed.

The next change, a major one, involved using a commercial play: “Beowulf: A Rock Musical.” Donna put in endless hours learning the score, teaching the songs and helping us choreograph it with John Fleagle’s help. We added another layer of music with Cam Cross (technology teacher) on electric guitar and synthesizer, and Eric von Ammon (third grade teacher) on drums. Students continued to perform on various instruments as well as sing solos and duets.

The last transformation came in the mid-1990s when Paula Ceranowicz (fifth grade teacher) and I went to the Ray School PTO and asked for money to purchase a class set of Shakespeare’s historical play “Richard II”, convinced that students could not only perform it, but understand and enjoy it as well. In subsequent years we added “Henry V” to our repertoire.

Throughout the later years we kept aspects of the early years: singing, action, dancing, storytelling. Always the desire was for the students to know another time and place, to know it not just as dates, events and people, but to know it viscerally, in cadences, rhythms, and emotions: to know that is to know part of our history, to better understand who we are. The bathrobes we let go of years ago; I hope there are former students, now young men and women, who can still hum “L’Homme Armee”.

Jack Wilde
Retired Grade 1 and Grade 5 Teacher
June, 2008