UPDATE DEC 10: This just in — We have just learned from George Ivanoff (leader of Foundation Studies Encounter in Guelph) that there is a production of the Oberufer Shepherds’ Play being put on at Fourfold Farm near Guelph Ontario. See poster below for details. Perhaps there are other productions of this play around and about that we don’t know of.
Origins of the Plays
Since the beginning it has been traditional for Waldorf teachers to perform a cycle of Christmas plays which were collected by the teacher of Rudolf Steiner, Karl Julius Schroer, from the island of Oberufer in the Danube river near the boundary of Austria and Hungary. Because this island was culturally isolated, these plays were preserved more or less intact from an earlier time. The plays were performed annually by the simple peasants of the island. Parts were hereditary within families.
In Toronto, performances of the Oberufer plays predate the Waldorf school and were first performed in the 1950s at the Christian Community. Rumor has it that Gerhard Rudolph first noticed his future wife, Helga, when she played the part of an angel in one of these early performances. Neither Gerhard nor Helga were Waldorf teachers at that time, but both went on to help build and teach at the Toronto Waldorf School.
English Nativity Plays
My own first exposure to nativity plays was at Emerson College in England in 1975. Because the nearby Michael Hall Steiner School in Forest Row performed the Oberufer plays every year, the students at Emerson College instead performed plays from a cycle of English medieval Christmas plays.
We didn’t go to see the Oberufer plays at Michael Hall but some of us did go to Michael Hall to hear a fascinating lecture from long-time Waldorf teacher William Mann on the subject of the two Jesus children. This was the first I’d heard of the idea. I later read all about it in Steiner’s lecture cycle From Jesus to Christ.
Apparently this is why there are two such different nativity stories, in the Luke and Matthew gospels, and it’s also why there is a Shepherd’s Play and a King’s Play in both the Oberufer cycle of plays and also in the cycle of English medieval plays that were performed at Emerson College. It’s only in more modern versions of the nativity story that the two stories are mashed up together.
The Plays in Toronto and Ottawa
It might have been 1976 or 77 when I saw my first Oberufer Shepherds’ Play at Toronto Waldorf School. I remember then-music-teacher Eleanor Fruchtman singing beautifully as Mary in that performance. A year or two later I got to play the role of the shepherd Muckle in an Ottawa production of the play led by Hartmut Junge.
Also in the cast were Becky McMillan and Winnie Paul. Becky went on to help found and teach at a Waldorf school in Ottawa. Winnie had attended a Waldorf school in England as a child, and much later taught at the Edinborough Waldorf School in Scotland. Taking part in the rehearsals and the play was a wonderful experience. After all the rehearsals we had, I knew practically the whole play by heart.
After that, I made a point of coming to see the play or plays at the Toronto Waldorf School every year even though I often lived several hours away. Sometimes the school would present both the Paradise Play with Adam and Eve as well as the Shepherds’ Play, but it was only in the late 1990s that the Kings’ Play was also performed for a few years at TWS thanks to the initiative of board member Michael Koch. He even inspired several of his fellow board members to act in the play!
While the original idea of the plays at Waldorf schools was that teachers would perform them for the children, it evolved more and more that the plays were put on in the evening and attendance at the plays by children depended on whether their parents brought them to those evening performances.
In recent decades it was a parent at the Toronto Waldorf School, Paul Hodgkins, who carried the annual Shepherds’ play production. Paul passed away a few years ago after a long career of teaching at the Waldorf school in Ottawa, and leading Foundation Studies at RSCT (now RSCC). Back in 2018 he led the full-time teacher education students in a production of the Oberufer Paradise Play at RSCT.
After Paul stopped doing the play at TWS, eurythmist Jonathan Snow carried it for a few years, but then we had two years of Covid restrictions. If any of the Oberufer plays are being performed locally in the Toronto area post-Covid, we haven’t heard about them.
But this year there is at least a Shepherds’ Play singalong at the Christian Community on Friday Dec. 15th at 7 pm. That’s at 901 Rutherford Rd. just a few blocks west of Bathurst St in Thornhill. See poster below featuring artwork by Thomas Dannenberg, who is the son of Gerhard and Helga Rudolph, who were mentioned earlier.