Russian ‘Vertep’ Nativity Theatres

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Russia has it’s own version of the nativity plays, created in home theatres, and performed during ‘Svyatki’, which is celebrated between Orthodox Christmas (January the 7th) and the Epiphany (January the 19th). Russian children have been helping to create these home productions here since the 18th century, however traditions were lost in the 20th century, and are only now being rediscovered by a few Russian families. I visited one such family just before Russian Christmas, who treated me to a truly amazing home production. I wanted to know how this production came about:

How did you make the ‘Vertep’?

Liza: “Well, somewhere in the middle of July, mummy had an idea to make a Vertep, we found a big suitcase in grandma’s room full of threads, materials, we dug into the suitcase and found many other things like beads. Then we found a book about how to make puppets, but the original templates were very large, so we made them smaller. We started with the shepherds. We found an old box and started to work to scale with what would look good with that size of box.”

How did you design the costumes?

Kolya; “We got the inspiration for the costumes from the book, but mummy found some special material for our costumes, and we made them like Russian folk costumes.”

The word ‘vertep’ in Old Slavic word means ‘cave’ or ‘secret place’ and so is directly related to the cave where Jesus was born. Vertep now means a folk Christmas performance, performed in a special box with the help of rod puppets and accompanied with songs and dialogues. Anya explained: “This is a traditional Russian folk show which wandering artists put on. They took a big box, which served as puppet theatre on their travels. They performed in villages, towns, at markets, wherever there was an audience, both before the Christmas period, and during ‘svyatki’, when it is possible to be entertained and be merry (according to the Russian orthodox Calendar). Usually the boxes were two-storey, but we couldn’t make such a large box because we don’t actually have anywhere to store it, but we found a way round this problem, by making it possible to move the figures from above, rather than from underneath.”

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