How can the main action be acted?
First, a bit of practical advice; when actors have finished their parts, they need to make sure they are not obstructing the view of the audience to the rest of the play. Often, actors will form a line or semicircle at the back of the performance space, and they will step in and out of the line as required. Even forming a circle round the performing area may work, as with the famous Marshfield Mummers, provided there is plenty of space between the actors for people to be able to see the play. In busy pubs, however, it may be difficult to do any of these, so it may be necessary to leave the room at the end of the part, or to retire to any space that is out of the way until the end of the play.
Conventional stage plays have a plot that develops during the performance. With British and Irish folk plays, the plots are frankly simple, if not difficult to identify. This is illustrated by the following tongue-in-cheek limerick:
Father Christmas he opens the door,
And Saint George knocks the Turk to the floor,
But with elecampane,
The Quack cures him again,
And there's really not very much more.
One reason for the lack of plot is that the plays are usually very short - typically of 10 to 15 minutes duration - which does leave much room for the development of a story.
Another point of view is that the plays are primarily a sequence of independent personages and stereotypes, saying their piece, with the dialogue merely serving to link them together. There is some evidence to support this idea. In many plays, most lines are spoken by the character that most recently entered, or where there is dialogue, it is spoken between the two most recent characters. This approach has been taken to its extreme in the modern plays of the Wexford Mummers, where there is virtually no dialogue. If you agree with this interpretation, then you might wish to concentrate more on building up the individual characters rather than working on the interplay between them, or to treat the play as a series of vignettes. This may be particularly appropriate for Recruiting Sergeant plays.
Yet another point of view is that the key character is the Doctor, and that the main purpose of the foregoing action it to provide him with a patient to revive. Certainly, the Doctor appears to be the one universal character in all the versions of these plays, with a varied menu of heroes and enemies available for the dispute that leads up to one of them being knocked to the ground.
In the hero-combat plays, much play can be made of the sword fight, and the braggadocio that precedes it. There is an opportunity here to get the audience to take sides and cheer on the disputant they favour, and to boo their enemy, with more cheers and boos when one is victorious.
After the fight, it is common for someone to mourn the loss of their loved one, and often this character is a woman - or more usually a man dressed as a woman. Such characters present another opportunity for humour. There seem to be two approaches. The first is to make the man appear as feminine as possible. I have seen wives and girlfriends set to work avidly on dressing and making up the most macho man in the group, metamorphosing him into a very convincing woman. Alternatively, characterisation may go the other way, portraying the woman as a pantomime dame - a grotesque parody of a woman, often played by a man with a full beard. Recently, there has also been a trend to emulate the 'ladies' from the 'Little Britain' television show. It remains to be seen how long-lasting this will be.
Whichever portrayal is chosen, there is plenty of scope for comic interaction between the man-woman and the audience, perhaps flirting with the men or comparing female attributes with the women.
At has to be said, however, that the Doctor probably provides the best opportunities for humour. The classic portrayal is of the old-style Harley Street doctor in morning coat and top hat, but recently there has been much more variation - a hospital doctor in a lab coat, an Australian flying doctor, Dr. Who, and so forth - possibly even a PhD. However, whichever approach is used, he is usually acted as a quack doctor (although those following the 'mystical' route may portray him more as a wizard).
To make the most of this part, the doctor often needs to be the best actor in the group. The doctor is typically asked about his travels and his cures, makes a diagnosis, and of course performs the cure. Sticking to the script may be funny enough, but topical ad libs and improvisation may add to the humour. For instance, the Doctor usually carries his doctor's bag, and any number of strange objects and contraptions may be brought out of it to amuse the audience.
How do folk plays finish?
The main action of most mummers' and guisers' plays finishes when the Doctor has performed his cure, but many plays do not end immediately. Instead, the conclusion is drawn out by the entry of one or more extra characters, which academics often refer to as supernumeraries. They normally have little or nothing to do with the preceding action, but their usual role is to ask for money or hospitality from the audience. This also happens with plays that are not Quack Doctor plays.
There are many different extra characters and they vary from region to region. Northern England and Ulster, for instance, have Beelzebub and Little Devil Doubt, who have the potential to try and scare the audience. In southern England, but also elsewhere, the supernumeraries may represent deserving people in need of a reward, notably Little Johnn Jack, with his wife and family at his back.
In a long standing group, it is quite common for the newer members to start out with one of these cameo parts. They only have a few lines to learn at first, and then as they take part in more performances they gradually pick up the rest of the play. Playing these parts can therefore be rather like serving an apprenticeship.
Any musicians with the group may also be given these parts in order to bring them into the performance. As they are not meant to be actors, it is appropriate that they only have few lines to learn.
This nicely brings us to the actual end of the play. Almost any of the extra characters' requests for money and hospitality can be the final speech of the plays, but with no stage curtain to close, something more is required. As with stage practice, there is tendency for all the actors to line up and bow while (hopefully) the audience applauds. However, in a lot of cases, the group sing a final song. This may simply be a popular Christmas carol, but in some cases there is a special song - such as with Pace-Egging plays and Plough Monday plays. This very clearly signals the end of the play.
The requests of the extra characters during the conclusion are fine if you intend to make a collection. (Many folk play groups nowadays collect money for charities.) However, there may be contexts where this is not appropriate - for instance, a performance spot at an event where people have paid for entry. This can be a tricky situation, and it is difficult to give any specific advice, because each case needs to be considered individually. It is something you need to think about before you perform.