The Book of Esther, the play

Every Purim in our community, one of our members kindly hosts a megilla reading in their house. This year, he suggested that we do it as a play, as he’d heard from friends that it worked well. It did.

This piece describes here how to run your own Esther reading as a play. At the end is a link to a Google Doc script that you can use if you want to put on your own play.

If you’re not into Purim, Jewish traditions, or innovation you can save yourself 5 minutes and stop reading now. If you’re intrigued by any of these topics and particularly the interplay between them, you might find this interesting. Running the reading as a play brings the story alive, gets more people involved and is very entertaining.

Some Background

If you’re not too familiar with Jewish tradition, Purim is a story about ancient Persia where Haman, the chief minister to the king (“Achashverosh”, possibly Xerxes, possibly not), plots to kill the Jews who were exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the 1st temple, as they keep their own traditions, don’t bow down to the king, and generally don’t roll on shabbos. We’re talking about ancient Persia rather than Babylonia as since the exile had started, Babylon was now under new ownership, having been defeated by the Persians (Cyrus the Great).

Bottom line: Esther the queen is urged by her uncle Mordechai to foil the plot. [Spoiler alert:] She does. It’s also one of few traditional texts with a female hero, has the first textual usage of the term “Yehudi” (Judah-ite) to describe the Jewish community and, for a story apparently about divine redemption, does not mention God’s name at all. People joke about it being “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”, and that’s a fair summary.

Apart from the reading of the book of Esther, there are other traditions such as getting riotously drunk, giving charity and giving food to friends. So it’s generally a merry time for junk food manufacturers and insulin makers, or more generally if you like alcohol, fancy dress and/or dumping junk food on your friends’ kids.

The Problem(s)

Traditionally, the book is a parchment scroll and is chanted by a skilled reader in front of an audience. But we want to dramatize this, how do we turn scripture into a script, turning a 2500 year old, unpunctuated, monoform text read in a scroll into something more alive? The other scripts I found seem to be adaptations or real theatrical plays, but as a community that wants to do a legit megilla reading (from a parchment scroll), how’s using a scroll going to work in terms of actual delivery? At a traditional reading it’s less of an issue as you have a single reader who is the narrator and does all the parts.

So, as we decided about 4 weeks before Purim this year (2017/ 5777) that we were going to make a go of doing the megilla reading as a play, one of our members spent the time mapping out the various actor parts. This was done by literally photographing a megilla with the start and end quotes written on by hand. This was a great start and also enabled breaking up the different characters, which was a good way to see how many parts we needed and where they need to come in.

On a whim, I put myself forward to take Esther’s part and now I find myself needing to learn my parts. Can you tell easily from the annotated text which part is Esther’s? Nope. Same for any character part; can you see where you need come in or how much you need to learn? Nope

The printed text above at least has punctuation and vowels, but the Megilla also has a special reading tune (“trop”) which also helps with the phrasing, so if you’re playing a role, you may want to stay true to that tune. Certainly for the main narrator part that is expected. So we have several problems we need to solve:

  1. Find readers for each chapter (there are 10, though people can do multiple or all chapters)
  2. Identify speaking parts (Roles)
  3. Locate the speaking parts in the text
  4. Find readers for the 9 roles
  5. Learn the parts
  6. Choreography (!) - this was an unexpected one

We did a rehearsal a few days prior and it became very obvious that we had an issue with physical space and the constraints it imposes. If you want to do the reading “properly”, you’ll need to do it from a hand-written scroll (megilla itself means “scroll”). Many people don’t have them, they only have an annotated printed version which you can’t read from for a proper reading. Here’s what you need for a proper reading:

Parchment scroll of Book of Esther. No vowels, no punctuation, no notes, nada.

Some of the sections switch quite rapidly between the roles, so having people jump in and out of the same spot on the floor and the text is going to be a logistical challenge, especially as you don’t have punctuation or any sort of real markings in the scroll, but you don’t want the audience to be kept waiting while you bumble around trying to find the place.

The experienced readers were also not used to having to stop for another character to chime in, so we saw we needed someone who was not reading or playing a role to play co-pilot (“gabbai”) to discreetly signal to the reader that they should pause. Again, all this needed to be seamless.

Lastly, whilst some of the roles are multiple people (the king’s advisors) you can have only one voice reading at a time for a legit reading, so whilst we’d already given that role to two people for theatrical effect, they then had to coordinate who exactly would read which of the sub-parts. And even if you did learn your parts off-by-heart, for a legit reading, you have to actually read the words from the scroll.

Some (techie) Solutions

Sorting out the text

Working with the original marked-up pictures, it became really painful to figure out where I was. There are so many places where there is rapid interplay between the characters and everything looks too similar. It is a usability nightmare! That got me thinking out-of-the-scroll. Could we use some modern tools to help us?

Enter Google Docs

First stop was to put the photos into a Google Doc so at least I could scroll vertically through the book. This was a good start, but you can’t mark up the pictures very easily. Turns out that you can mark up the pictures if you re-import them as Google Drawings but the marking up is on the image itself, not in the text, so this soon turned out to not really address the usability issue and also covers up parts of the text giving you a problem as you need to know what comes before your part so you come in at the right place.

Google Drawing with annotation

Hello Text, my old friend

So, we needed some text. The first place I looked was Mechon Mamre, http://www.mechon-mamre.org/ which has loads of texts online. However:

  1. Their text is copywrited (not sure exactly how enforceable that is but really not prepared to waste time on legal minutiae), so I couldn’t share any derivative work publicly
  2. Their text did not contain the cantillation notes (trop), so using it still left me with a problem learning my part.

Enter Open Siddur

Not sure how I came across them, but these guys rock. Here’s the opening line from their site:

The Open Siddur is a libre open access digital humanities project developing an open-source web-to-print publishing tool for crafting print-ready prayer books from a growing archive of liturgy and ritual praxis, historic and contemporary, familiar and obscure, in every language that Jews pray or have ever prayed. Our project is non-denominational and non-prescriptive.

Libre open access? Digital humanities? Open source? Web-to-print? Crafting? Non-denominational? Non-prescriptive? Sign me up!

So, now we have a way to edit, present and share text, and the text itself with all cantillation notes, and we can get to work.

A Name

What do we call it, The Book of Esther? It’s a bit more than that. Let’s go for “The Book & Play of Esther”

Next, we need a term for the different parts to be played. Characters? Players? Actors? I settled on Roles, each role plays a character in the story.

I colour-coded them to make sure we can identify them more easily in the text later. If you are colour blind, or intend on printing this out with a black & white laser printer, you’ll see this still has some limitations.

Megillat Esther Roles, listed on first page

Now I’m in a Google Doc I can mark up the text itself, and add comments if I want to quickly eyeball down the page and can’t remember the colours. When you add a comment, Google Docs will highlight the selected text in a yellow which then messes with the colour-coding. The solution here was to add an arrow character, which works pretty well as it is serves to further isolate the starting point of the quote.

Part of the text marked up, with comments

At the end of the text I decided to split out my own individual parts onto a single page. And as Purim is a time for charitable behaviour I also split out the parts for the other players so we could hand them out.

Choreographing

  1. A fully marked up script text, allows the co-pilot to easily keep track of where to signal to the reader to pause.

2. 3 scrolls → 3 reading stations: the solution to keeping the reader relatively free from distraction but still to conduct a legit reading was to have 2 additional, separate stations. 1 for the King (who dressed as Elvis, of course) + Mordechai + Zeresh, and 1 for the other roles, where the 2 major roles in terms of number of parts are Esther and Haman.

This worked mostly quite well, though at the climactic feast scene where Esther accuses Haman, it gets a bit squashed. Maybe we’ll find a way to improve it in coming years.

End Result

I was pretty happy with the end result and saw that making the script in Google Doc would let me share it with the other participants so we’d all find it easier to keep in sync. And as Google Docs also lets you share links publicly so here it is

The reading was hugely gratifying. It worked really well in staying true to the text, animating the story, captivating the audience, and for those playing the roles, connecting with the characters. I have a new-found respect for Mordechai, who whilst he only has 1 speaking part, is a sales & marketing genius, he understood the power of visuals and the power of the spoken word to get people to do things they didn’t want to do.

Happy Purim.

Special thanks to Dvora and David.

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