On & Off Campus Blog

Learning about history through Mary Poppins
Learning about history through Mary Poppins
Simru Sonmez-Erbil '20

As rehearsals for Mary Poppins continue, the cast has truly entered the world and time period of the musical.  
Mr. MacDonald sent the entire cast links to photos and videos from the Edwardian period—the era in which Mary Poppins is set. The images showed dapper gents in waistcoats and ascots, and elegant women in corsets and embellished dresses, all with excellent posture. We were encouraged to compare those images to the figures we saw milling about in the videos—people of all different classes and backgrounds.

Our observations were integrated into our acting during the rehearsals. During our exercises, we imagined how someone from that time period might walk, which class they might be, and how that would affect their stride. Soon, we fully embodied the personas of Edwardian men and women strolling through the park.

We also made some exciting progress on one of our songs, “Jolly Holiday.” The setup transitioned from all of us singing each line of the song while standing in a semicircle, to each character singing their respective part and working with Mr. Horning, as we all simultaneously went “for a jaunty saunter” around the Chorale Room! 

Though “Jolly Holiday” is a light, cheery song, we were encouraged to think about the meaning behind it. We—students in this country, in 2020, attending BB&N—often take for granted how much time off we get; we have a long summer holiday, winter holiday, spring holiday, etc. However, Mr. MacDonald reminded us that in the setting of Mary Poppins, holidays were few and far between, and to have a holiday was a momentous and special occasion. We sang with a lot more joy and excitement when we imagined that this was the only holiday we got all year.

We also began to develop the dance element of the production. During the first few rehearsals, our resident Scottish dance expert Mr. MacDonald led us through some traditional dances that will be performed during the musical; including the Eightsome Reel, Gay Gordons, and Strip The Willow.

During our sauntering and dancing, Mr. MacDonald instructed us to keep in mind the meaning of the play; Mary Poppins is about family, but also about London and changing times in London. The Edwardian period saw the transition from the Victorian era to the Art Nouveau movement, as well as the women’s suffrage and labor movements. These traditional dances represent the maintenance of long-established customs in such an era of unrest—these dances stayed constant when little else was.

The effort to immerse ourselves in the Edwardian time period was quite an interesting experience. I can’t imagine anywhere else where I would get the opportunity to embody a proper Edwardian lady or step into a lively Scottish dance. We study history at BB&N, but in the production of Mary Poppins we get to live history, which brings the time period to life for me in a way that classwork never could.