Creating props for this summer’s York Mystery Plays

Beckie May at work

Beckie May at work - Credit: Archant

A Yorkshire theatrical prop-maker is helping to bring York’s historic Mystery Plays to vivid life. Andrew Vine reports. Photographs by Duncan Lomax

Beckie has created a menagerie of animals including this elephant

Beckie has created a menagerie of animals including this elephant - Credit: Archant

TWO-BY-TWO, the animals will march into Noah’s Ark within the majestic surroundings of York Minster – and it’s all thanks to Beckie May. She is the props supervisor of York’s Mystery Plays and her stunningly creative vision of the animals that play a key part in the biblical story are set to entrance audiences.

From her workshop in Scarborough, Beckie has designed and created a menagerie of prop animals that play a central role in the scenes dealing with Creation and the Ark. Cane and fabric have been transformed into creatures as diverse as fishes, sheep and a whale that will give the plays – and their expected record audiences – an unforgettable visual element.

It has been a mammoth task, the biggest of Beckie’s career, which has taken in the country’s leading theatres and prestige television productions.

And her contribution to the 14th century plays comes in a very special year for them – only the second time they have been staged in York Minster, where the nave is being transformed into a 1,000-seat auditorium for five weeks of performances beginning on May 26th.

Cane and fabric are used to create animals including sheep and a whale

Cane and fabric are used to create animals including sheep and a whale - Credit: Archant

The anticipated audiences of more than 40,000 will see 72 prop animals, some life-size, which will be carried or operated as puppets by the cast of 150 people drawn from across Yorkshire.

Beckie, 46, said: ‘The Ark has about 30 pairs of animals, and we’ve got all the fish for the creation scene as well. Besides that, we’ve made a whale, and the angel haloes and wings. We’ve got some people wearing the animals, some are puppets and some of them are life-size, which we hope will make a real visual impact.

‘There’s a theme of luggage, like with the sheep, which are part sheep, part suitcase, so it’s a little nod to packing your stuff up and getting on the Ark, so some of the animals are carrying their own suitcases, which are made of the same sort of fabric.’

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In keeping with the tradition of the plays, which are performed and staged by ordinary people working with theatre professionals, Beckie has been helped by a group of about 30 volunteers. Among them are artists, teachers, basket-makers and the staff and students of York College’s fine art and 3D-design departments.

By the time of the first performances, about six months’ work will have gone into the animals, from drawing board to building them. ‘Because of the scale of it, they’re being made in York and I’m going to have to have a lot of help. I’m not making all the 72 myself, because that would probably take me about a year to do,’ added Beckie

In her theatre and television work, Beckie creates props from a range of materials including fibreglass, plastics and resin. But for the Mystery Plays, she decided on materials more in keeping with their history, and the setting of the 600 year-old Minster.

‘We’re working a lot with cane, which is light and natural and easy to work with and to make into a 3D sculpture,’ said Beckie. ‘And then we’re using hessian and other fabrics for the animal skins, and we’ve also been given some fleeces.’

Beckie’s creativity has taken her to theatres and television studios around the country, before she moved back to her native Scarborough about 10 years ago. She trained in fine art before specialising in theatre design at the University of Central England. Her career then took her to the Berlin State Opera House and Donmar Warehouse in London, along with the English Shakespeare Company.

Work followed with the New Vic Theatre, London’s Regent’s Park and Soho Theatres, Birmingham Stage Company and Pilot Theatre Company, along with the BBC and English Touring Opera.

Yorkshire audiences have seen her work at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, York Theatre Royal, Hull Truck Theatre and Northern Broadsides, as well as in the hugely popular staging of The Railway Children first performed at the National Railway Museum in 2008.

And Yorkshire has called her home. Beckie said: ‘I left Scarborough and I said, “I never want to come back”, and I worked in all the cities and came back about 10 years ago. I can still travel to London and work on shows.’

Her first involvement with the Mystery Plays was in 2012, when she made some of the props used in that year’s staging at York Theatre Royal. But this year will be altogether different, because of the majestic setting of York Minster, which is very different from any of the theatres in which she usually works.

‘It’s just the scale of the Minster,’ said Beckie. ‘You walk in and it’s so huge and beautiful and amazing, that anything you make is going to seem tiny. You don’t want to distract from the beauty, yet still have something that’s designed that people can see.’