Theatre Festival Hopes To Draw Public To Annual Medieval Congress

May 4, 2017

Becky Staple dances at rehearsal for Early Music Michigan's performance of the works of Hildegard von Bingen at the Mostly Medieval Theatre Festival.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Around this time of year, Western Michigan University students leave campus for the summer - and about three thousand medieval scholars move in. The annual International Congress on Medieval Studies is popular with academics, but this year Western is trying something new to get regular folks involved.


The Mostly Medieval Theatre Festival will feature plays and music from the Middle Ages with a modern twist. It will take place May 11-14 at the Gilmore Theatre Complex on Western Michigan University's campus. You can find tickets here.

From the Middle Dutch play 'Esmoreit'
Credit Brett Schaberg

Lofty Durham is the artistic producer of the festival. He says everyone can enjoy medieval plays, not just scholars.

“This isn’t about doing it just like it was done then. It’s not about oh, you have to know secret things about the Middle Ages before you understand," he says.

"It’s 'mostly' medieval - which means anybody can come in and feel entertained and get something out of what we’re doing.”

So what should we expect from a medieval play? Durham says for one thing, a lot of actors talking directly to the audience. He says today, actors rarely do this.

“If you break the fourth wall that’s seen as innovative, where actually in the Middle Ages we are still 500 years away from inventing the fourth wall and so nobody thinks anything about involving the audience,” says Durham.

Don’t expect to get into the character’s heads, though. Durham says medieval audiences weren’t interested in that: 

“Be we are trying to work out what should people do when they’re members of a community? What kinds of behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate? What kinds of things are ok to want and what kinds of things are not ok to want? So you have a much more community focused set of interests.”

The festival will have bawdy comedies, romances, and even an adaptation of a short J.R.R. Tolkien fairy tale. There will also be a performance by Early Music Michigan - a Kalamazoo group that focuses on pre-19th century music.

It’ll feature the work of Hildegard von Bingen, who was a German Catholic abbess and a mystic. She’s known for breaking out of the conventional music styles of the time and liked to improvise.

For this performance, Early Music Michigan will combine Medieval-style instruments with modern dance. The dance was choreographed by Becky Straple - a trained dancer and Western PhD student in English. She says Bingen’s music can be hard to dance to, but creating a medieval style dance would be even harder:

“Obviously there’s no film from that time. There are sometimes woodcuts or illustrations of people dancing. We know that carols - which were dances done in circles - were very popular. Dances with people weaving in and out, holding hands, that kind of thing. But unfortunately there’s just not a whole ton of information about dance at that time.”

Lofty Durham says the Middle Ages spanned about a thousand years - yet we know so little about this formative time in human history. Anne Marie Boyle - one of the artistic directors for Early Music Michigan -says the new festival is a good way to show regular folks what medievalists are working on.

“I think there’s a lot of people in Kalamazoo that still don’t know what the Medieval Congress is, what’s going on there," she says. "This could be kind of a foot in the door for the public.”

The Mostly Medieval Theatre Festival takes place Wednesday through Saturday of next week at Western Michigan University’s Gilmore Theatre Complex.