Jill Cochrane, deputy headteacher of pre-prep at St Catherine’s Preparatory School in Surrey, on the drama of girls’ first stage role
At primary schools throughout the country, the nativity play is one of the major events of the school year. Despite the traditions that surround it, things have moved on considerably from the old dressing gown and frayed tea towel, charming though they were.
These days, you are more likely to see custom-made, designer costumes, a light and sound desk, and a script that bears little resemblance to the traditional story.
Finding parts for a hundred or more children takes imagination. To avoid a herd of 80 sheep or a host of 50 angels, it is inevitable some obscure characters sneak on to the stage. The lobster in the film Love Actually comes to mind. Proud parents have enthusiastically applauded adventurous chickens, bad-tempered sheep and, I recall, a most memorable walking, talking jam tart.
Although every child on the stage has an important part to play, is it possible to run a nativity in which everyone is equal? Can we avoid the dilemmas surround the decision about who plays Mary? This is still the dream role, there can be only one Mary.
Confident, articulate speakers and even budding actresses may be passed over for the stalwart individual who can carry out a solo without succumbing to chicken pox or tonsillitis. It is, perhaps, even more important the part goes to the girl steely enough to carry the stress of a high-profile role and still be able to rejoin the lesser mortals come January when the dizzy heights of fame come to an end.
For some girls, the disappointment will be the first of its kind when they hear that they have not been chosen to be “her”. They may also have to manage the disappointment of their parents whose expectations can weigh heavily on their young shoulders. Accepting and overcoming the feeling of being overlooked, and even those of jealousy towards the chosen one, is a normal and it’s an important lesson we all have to face at some point in our lives.
[pull_quote_center] If the casting is deftly handled, every girl will have a part they can fulfil and enjoy even if it means a bit of a jolt out of their comfort zone. [/pull_quote_center]
There may, of course, be other girls desperately hoping they will not be chosen. Regardless of their parents’ wishes, there are some girls for whom being Mary might be their worst nightmare. Some will flatly refuse to play the part or have tell-tale tummy aches as initial rehearsals take place. However, if the casting is deftly handled, every girl will have a part they can fulfil and enjoy even if it means a bit of a jolt out of their comfort zone.
Despite the pitfalls and hazards of tired and over-excited children, the Nativity play has a great deal going for it. It offers girls the opportunity to gain confidence. Parents often comment that they hardly recognise the self-assured girl on the stage as their timid daughter.
It also allows girls to learn to work as a team, take direction, understand timing and have their first experiences of performing for an audience. Lines have to be learnt, and being ready for a cue requires patience and self-control. Recognising the talents and gifts of your fellow classmates is invaluable and often those who may not shine in the classroom are inspired. They are the ones who surprise everyone with an x-factor performance. When things go wrong, which can be the most fun for those watching, girls are encouraged by staff to maintain poise, and this develops maturity in young girls.
Even Reception and Nursery children need to summon a significant about of concentration as they sit still and follow the story. It’s these little ones at the front whose joy, excitement and wriggling we cannot help but watch.
Teachers who have been providing this kind of entertainment for years know the Nativity play presents an early opportunity for a great life experience, as well as a tear-jerking moment for mums and dads. An enormous amount of hard work goes into these shows. Emotions can run high as the big day approaches, but the biggest benefit of any Nativity play is the sheer fun it provides for the girls, staff and parents. Not everyone can be Mary, but there should be something for everyone.