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Schools

Making a Nativity play: Behind the scenes with High School of Dundee

Show director Claire Proudfoot and her young cast reveal the work that goes into creating the festive shows. reports.
Cheryl Peebles
A touch of sparkle for the stage. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.
A touch of sparkle for the stage. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

Glitter is added to the faces of little angels by teachers turned make-up artists for the day.

In the next classroom, wise men, shepherds and other tinsel-clad children sit on the floor watching festive movie Arthur Christmas.

They’re about to go on stage for the High School of Dundee’s annual Nativity play and one of the staff rushing around making final preparations tells me that putting on a film maintains calm before the curtain rises.

High School of Dundee Nativity play 2023. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

She’s Claire Proudfoot, normally school deputy head but today show director.

And she’s spent the last few weeks preparing for this moment, the first performance of Children of the World by the school’s L1 to L3 (P1 to P3) pupils.

When we visit it’s a dress rehearsal in front of the rest of the school but on Wednesday and Thursday the audience will be mums and dads.

Ready to go on stage. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

How a Nativity play is created

For parents across the country Nativity shows are a treasured part of the festive season, but besides hearing their little ones practise songs or memorise lines at home few will be aware of the work that goes into such a production.

Claire has been responsible for the High School of Dundee’s Nativity play for nine years. It’s quite an undertaking to ensure up to 100 children, aged from four to seven, know their lines, songs and dances and where to be on stage.

Show director and deputy head teacher Claire Proudfoot. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

She starts planning in September, selecting the script, tweaking it to suit the school and collaborating with music teacher Elaine Stevenson on the songs.

She says: “When we come back after the October break there’s a very informal audition for the children.”

There’s a part for every child but the L3 pupils in principal roles need to be at ease in the limelight.

“I’m looking for children who have a bit of star quality, lots of confidence and who can become somebody else comfortably,” says Claire.

Star quality. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

“The best reader might not be the best actor.”

Then it’s time for children to learn their lines, songs and dances for rehearsals throughout November.

Claire says: “Every year I hand the script to the children and think, ‘oh, they’ve so much to learn’.

“It’s a huge ask of some of them, they get a lot of lines, but it’s amazing what they learn; they just soak it up.”

Gabriel and two of the other angels. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

And indeed the cast of angels at the centre of the story, led by a boy playing Gabriel, do a stellar job of delivering their lines as we watch the show open.

Claire’s biggest hope is that the children enjoy the experience, and are well-coached enough that they are comfortable in front of the audience.

“You’d be doing them a real injustice if they went on to the stage forgetting what to say or not knowing where to stand,” she says.

Shepherds do a dance. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

“It’s really important to me it’s great fun. It can be very stressful for me but I hope they never see that.

“The children with principal roles have mics, the lights go down and it’s a real theatre experience for them.”

There’s hilarity among angels dancing around the stage before the audience arrives as their microphones are turned on and their voices amplified.

As the High School of Dundee Nativity play begins

Claire’s voice breaks with emotion as she tells of the big day when parents stream into the school’s Trinity Hall.

“It’s very exciting for the children, they know their parents are coming.

“Parents of the L3 children, their hearts are in their mouths when they are watching.

“They know every line too and they’re mouthing them as they go along.

“For the L1 parents they don’t really know what they are coming to. They are just expecting to see their little one as Mary, or the star or a shepherd, and they’re blown away.”

And as the action begins, Claire is at the front of the audience ready to prompt anyone who forgets a line or is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Claire keeps her cast right throughout the show. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

“I know every single word, line, dance routine, they just need to watch me and I will help them all the way.”

Seeing it all come together in front of the proud and sometimes tearful parents is “very, very satisfying”, she says.

“The atmosphere is electric, it’s so much fun.”

And when things do go awry – as inevitably they will with young children – it can add to the occasion.

“When I say the show has to be good, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

A Nativity scene. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

“While I want them to know what they’re doing they sometimes forget or they say the wrong thing on stage and it can be funny.

“Last year one of the funniest moments was in the finale song, which was very upbeat, and little Mary took Jesus out of the manger and starting dancing with him.

“It was just such a funny, spontaneous moment.”

And when the curtain comes down, it’s time to pack away the costumes and the tinsel for next year.

The show may be over but the memories will last a life time.

A leap of faith. Image: Kenny Smith/DC Thomson.

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