A MOVING NEW PORTRAYAL OF the Nativity story

Montreal schoolchildren act out the drama of the birth and adoration of Christ as a 600-year-old mystery play becomes a colorful motion picture

Pierre Berton December 22 1956

A MOVING NEW PORTRAYAL OF the Nativity story

Montreal schoolchildren act out the drama of the birth and adoration of Christ as a 600-year-old mystery play becomes a colorful motion picture

Pierre Berton December 22 1956

A MOVING NEW PORTRAYAL OF the Nativity story

Montreal schoolchildren act out the drama of the birth and adoration of Christ as a 600-year-old mystery play becomes a colorful motion picture

Pierre Berton

The pictures on these and the following pages are from an astonishing new motion picture that retells the familiar story of the events leading up to the birth and adoration of Jesus. The tale, of course, is older than Christmas, and the dialogue, in this version, was written six centuries ago. But the forty-six actors are the youngest ever chosen to portray the characters in a mediaeval mystery play. Their average age is eight years; the oldest is twelve, the youngest just six weeks.

The half-hour film, which will be televised in black and white by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday, December 23, was made last summer in Mont-

real by the National Film Board. The children, recruited from Montreal schools, worked for more than two months, from eight to five daily, learning lines written in the archaic tongue of fourteenth-century Britain. Their only pay was a promise that they could eat all they wanted to in the NFB cafeteria, a concession that virtually cleaned out the toffee and peanut supplies. They also helped paint and design the scenery, and managed, in the midst of it all, to appear in a television version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Although children have for years been acting at Christmastime in such fairy tales as Jack and the Beanstalk and Sleeping Beauty, the idea of casting them in mediaeval mysteries is an original and slightly terrifying one. It was bred in the fertile mind of a young Englishman named Valentine Boss who came to Canada two years ago intent on visiting the Eskimos but, being broke, never got past Montreal. Boss ended up working as a drama specialist for Montreal’s Protestant School Board, producing plays with child actors. He did several Shakespearean plays and then decided to produce the Nativity cycle as a ninetyminute stage production last Christmas. It was then that he hit on the idea of turning the play into a film, using the same children.

Film opens with the story of creation

"Hail, Mary, full of grace and bliss! Of all women, blessed shalt thou be!”

"Unto you is born this day a saviour which is Christ"

"All this journey for a child? I never heard of such a thing! King of Judee? Nay, I am king, and none but I!"

"Tis said a bairn is born who shall be King and

Lord to comfort the forlorn... we shall haste to bring thee word — Truth of that Child, both seen and heard!”

"Hail! Fairest one the world ever will find. Hail! Thou art come to unbind all the fell bonds of sin which offend us!"

“I don’t like this game,” one moppet said, and walked off the set

Boss tried Walt Disney first, but got no reaction. Then he visited the National Film Board, where the idea of forty-six children running loose on a sound stage caused veteran producers to pale with horror. Finally, however, by (.lint of fast talking, he got Julian Biggs, producer of the Perspective TV series, to agree to tackle the project. Many of the board’s executives shook their heads over the project but. Biggs says, “I decided to go out on a limb and do the thing." Ihc final result, in spite of many headaches, is remarkably effective.

There's no doubt that Boss has a way with children. All who have worked with him agree about this, though not all could be called Boss boosters. As a newcomer to the film business. Boss often rubbed the professionals of the NEB the wrong way. (Occasionally, in the midst of a scene he would rush in front of the whirring cameras to correct some detail of stance or action, thus spoiling the take.) But even his detractors concede that through some alchemy of personality he is able to get untutored moppets to act out difficult roles with dignity and presence and without any of the cute-kid technique so often associated with children's theatre.

There is some disagreement as to how Boss does this. One member of the production team that made the Nativity film says flatly that Boss is “the Svengali type” and that he literally hypnotizes his charges into acting their parts. Others say he uses generally accepted teaching methods, but that he has incredible patience with children not always found in thespian circles.

Boss would take exception to both these assessments. He insists that his methods are unique: that first of all he treats children as equals rather than subordinates and. secondly, allows them to work out their own interpretation of the roles they are to play. Children, especially unsophisticated Canadian children, can do this, he says, because they have no preconceived notion about the roles. They approach both Shakespeare and the Nativity with fresh eyes and Boss gives them full rein, within limits. The interpretation that emerges isn’t an adult one, but it does mirror the personality ot the child himself.

When Boss started on the Nativity play he began by telling the children the story they were to act out so that they thoroughly understood it. He then made them memorize the lines in just four days. He tried to dovetail each child into a part that fitted his personality and this required some switching about of roles. When this was accomplished he began rehearsing the children singly and

in small groups, letting them use their imagination as freely as possible. Finally he welded all these performances into a single unit.

This can be an exhausting business and Boss, who once worked in a concrete factory in Sweden, says it’s the most tiring two months he’s ever put in in his life. In his mind he has what he calls an “enthusiasm chart" — a little graph that reminds him not only of the stages at which children's interest lags but also at what stages it gets to be overwhelming. Boss feels that one of his main tasks was to keep this mercurial enthusiasm at an even pitch so that his small actors got neither too stale nor too high-strung.

This wasn't always possible. In the middle of an afternoon's shooting on the film one four-year-old simply walked off the set. “Mr. Boss,” he said, "I don’t want to play this game anymore." Another scene was spoiled when a little girl raised her hand and asked to be excused. And then there was the day when a


I.abor-saving devices are fine,

I’m convinced before we try them. There's just this small misgiving of mine—

How hard I must work to buy them!


startled film-board employee came upon a five-year-old dressed only in fleshcolored pants and a fig leaf, wandering lost in the labyrinth of the new Montreal headquarters building and crying aloud for his mother.

In spite of such problems, the actual filming was completed in seven days at a cost of just fourteen thousand dollars. (Normally a three-reel color film is budgeted at sixty thousand.) Even more surprising was the fact that in all that time none of the forty-six young actors involved fluffed a line. Many scenes were shot perfectly the first time, and in some cases where a scene was reshot several times producer Biggs decided to use the original one because it was fresher, even though not technically perfect. There is one moment, outside the manger, when Joseph can be seen quite plainly to be eating peanuts. This shot has been retained in the film.

Canadians will be able to sec the production in black and white only when it goes out over C'BC-TV as part of the Perspective series. Later the color version will be shown on the film board’s regular movie-house circuit, and negotiations are now underway for a color show on U. S. television. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using most of the same children, was given an hour-long live production by the CBC late last September. It taught the children a good deal, including some mild Shakespearean oaths. One fouryear-old actor when chastised by his mother now mutters Bottom’s phrase: “bloody, blameful, blade!"

Boss himself acted in Shakespearean productions as a small boy attending St. Paul’s, an English public school that has produced such dissimilar figures as Field Marshal Montgomery and Lister Sinclair, the Canadian playwright. Boss didn’t

think much of St. Paul’s attempts at juvenile Shakespeare. British children, he points out, are so steeped in The Bard that when they act out a play they merely become small adults, parroting scenes they have read and watched many times. Boss, who is forthright about his own methods, has only disdain for this type of mimicry.

He comes of semi-theatrical stock, for his Haiti-born mother is a costume designer. who worked on such films as The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann. His father, a doctor, died when Boss was seven, of the very disease into which he was doing research. Boss spent a year or so in Germany trying to be an artist, won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he took honors in history, and then in 1954 headed for Canada to see the Arctic. He ran out of money and became a schoolteacher, instead, at Ste. Adèle, north of Montreal.

Boss’s approach to most things he tackles is unorthodox and this applied to his schoolteaching. He claims that he and his students found the curriculum so easy that they mastered it in three months and were then able to go on to “more interesting things.” They turned to drama, painting and carpentry and these skills resulted in a production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.

Boss was encouraged and then a little disturbed to find that one of his pupils, a nine-year-old girl named Valerie, could memorize a Shakespearean sonnet in an hour and produce real tears whenever called upon to do so. Valerie, who later played Mark Antony in a Boss production of Julius Caesar, wasn’t cast in the Nativity drama because she was too adult an actress. However, she does appear at the start of the program in an introductory prologue originally planned for an adult. Valerie wrote most of the prologue herself. “Child prodigies always make me feel a bit uncomfortable,” Boss says.

Boss’s work at Ste. Adèle caught the attention of Montreal’s Protestant School Board and he was asked to take a job working with gifted high-school students who might otherwise be bored with the curriculum. Characteristically, Boss molded the job to his own design. Instead of working in high schools, he worked in elementary schools; and he passed over the gifted students, choosing instead the run-of-the-mill. Not only that, but he began to enlist the aid of the children's small brothers and sisters who hadn’t even reached school age.

Soon he was producing Hamlet at Courtland Park School in Lachine, chosen. he says, because most of the children come from middle-class suburban families: the best material, he feels, for the kind of plays he produces. Rich children are too sophisticated: "They cease being kids and become small adults”; poor ones have so many problems at home they’re tough to work with.

Everybody thought the Hamlet production was terribly clever, but it disturbed Boss who realized that it was far too deep for children to understand. He decided “never again to show off kids just because they can learn lines.” It was then that he hit on the idea of producing a mediaeval mystery, first as a play, later as a film.

Nobody knows how these mystery plays came to be written. Like folk songs they were passed from mouth to mouth in rhymed couplets or unrhymed verse and acted out by wandering minstrels in the Middle Ages. They often departed radically from the Biblical story. The text vas primitive; the conception naïve and childlike. They are difficult for adults to play in successfully today because the lines tend to sound crude and ludicrous. But Boss discovered that children could read the couplets without making them sjund silly. As he says, “The old mysteries contain flashes of crude humor that only the mediaeval mind could conjecture and only a child's imagination could understand."

He adapted his version of the Nativity story largely from the York mysteries, a cycle of plays less well-known than most. His original stage production lasted for ninety minutes, but for the film he compressed six plays into the space of half an hour. As these plays form a sort of running serial story (beginning with Adam and Eve and running up past the birth of Christ) it wasn't difficult to weld them together.

The result is a very strange piece of business, indeed—weirdly beautiful, with a harsh and primitive beauty when seen in color. The children, piping out the archaic lines (“Thunders by thousands in thrall do I throw”) and acting with all the enthusiasm of a six-year-old playing ‘house,” give the film some of the gay unreality of an animated cartoon. The over-all effect, however, is neither comic nor cute, but surprisingly engaging and often quite moving.

Boss feels that four or five of the children in this picture will go on to become professional actors; indeed some have already been offered jobs on TV. But he is less interested in teaching children to act than he is in getting them to express themselves. A few of the children he works with come from broken or disturbed homes, and in these instances the therapy of the play itself has been immediate and obvious.

But in other cases whole families, parents and all. have entered into the spirit of the thing. Mr. and Mrs. Chris Mamen, for example, have supplied Boss with no fewer than six young actors, one of them only six weeks old. This youngest Mamen child played Jesus in the Nativity film and Mrs. Mamen, who took a great interest in proceedings, was invariably referred to as “Mrs. Jesus" by the rest of the cast.

The Mamen children and two hundredodd others with whom Boss has worked in Montreal are eager to do another play, TV program or film, but Boss himself has moved to Harvard where he has just completed his Master's degree in history and political science. He says offhandedly that he’ll go on to a doctorate but may switch subjects before he does. He doesn’t go near drama school and doesn’t intend to make a vocation of directing children. All the same he’s toying with the idea of doing The Tempest in Montreal, and. although the idea is scarcely in the embryo stage, it's good enough for the children. One twelve-year-old has already cast himself in the part of Ariel and is hard at work learning the lines.