Back to the roots of drama

By Sarah Wojcik

Oakland University’s department of music, theatre and dance’s much-anticipated pageant play has been in the works for nearly a year and involves over 200 Oakland University students and faculty.

On April 9 and 16, MTD will perform their own cycle of medieval English plays in various locations around Varner Hall from 2-10 p.m.

The play is unlike any MTD has undertaken before in that it recreates one of the oldest forms of drama: the pageant play.

The idea of the pageant originated in the churches of Europe where clergy would perform, in Latin, parts of the biblical story as an enhancement to their liturgy. Over time, the plays were taken over by the town’s craft guilds, performed in vernacular and became less serious in nature, according to the press release. Back in medieval times, scenes from the play would be staged on wagons, known as pageants, which would rove around the town.

MTD’s pageant play will unfold in three installments.

“Part one is the Old Testament. If the weather permits, it will begin outdoors and then come indoors,” said Michael Gillespie, artistic director. “Part two involves the birth and life of Christ, and that takes place in several venues in Varner Hall simultaneously so the audience moves around from one event to another. The third (part) is the Passion, and that takes place in the recital hall and then, weather permitting, moves outside for the last judgment.”

Coordinators of the play also collaborated with Chartwells to provide a genuine medieval feast available to the audience during the middle section of the pageant.

Informal performances during the feast encompass a wide variety of styles, including musical theater, medieval plays, African drumming, classical chorale, Croatian dancing, a small opera, farces and comedies, according to Gillespie.

“(It’s) a really unique event,” he said. “I think you rarely see the whole outline of Old Testament and New Testament performed together. What we’re doing is celebrating the artistic creativity of the Middle Ages.”

The costume design team of eight, led by Donna Buckley, is working seven days a week to supply the cast with costumes.

“It’s crazy, because it starts with the fall of Lucifer and goes all the way to contemporary times, so we literally are costuming for 6,000 years,” said Buckley, the costume shop supervisor.

The Old Testament stories will be performed in Old Testament clothing, the life of Jesus in Renaissance clothing and the Passion in contemporary clothing.

The costume design team is building things from design, pulling things from stock and purchasing items.

“Right now, the big favorite with everybody is Satan because I put him in a corset with a spine and ribs on it and he’s going to be really creepy,” Buckley said.

Everybody in the department was required to audition, according to Abigail Alexander, a junior majoring in acting.

“I play a character called the Mistress of the Revels and my job is sort of to guide the audience through the whole thing and make sure everybody knows where to go,” Alexander said. “In terms of the actual pageant play section, I play God.”

Alexander said the largest challenge for her was to insert a “human-like” dimension into her role.

Her favorite thing about her role is the heightened language — the actors will recite their lines in a medieval tongue.

“It’s unlike anything I think any of us have ever done,” Gillespie said. “It’s not like directing a traditional play where you sort of know the boundaries and end product. Here it’s going to be a celebration and it will deeply involve the audience and it will have a little bit of a improvisational spirit about it.”

For those unable to attend the full eight-hour experience, excerpts from the cycle will be performed on Wednesday through Friday, April 13-15 at 8 p.m. in the Varner Lab Theatre and on Wednesday, April 13 and Friday, April 15 in the Varner Studio Theatre.

General admission tickets for the full-cycle performances are $32 for adults, $24 for students and $28 for seniors and Oakland University employees. The ticket price includes the medieval buffet. Those planning to attend are encouraged to purchase their tickets in advance. Tickets for the weekday evening performances are $13 or $7 for students.

Tickets are available at OU’s Varner Box Office (open Tuesday through Saturday from 3-6 p.m.) and for one hour before each performance. They can also be purchased by calling 248-370-3013 or at with no service fee.

For more information, visit or call 248-370-2030.