The Hill Cumorah Pageant, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is enhanced by a tight-knit community atmosphere and an attention to detail.
Already, Route 21 in Manchester is swarming, as about 35,000 people travel from all around the country to take in the Hill Cumorah pageant. The popular spectacle is an annual production of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) set at the foot of the historic Hill Cumorah.
The 735-person cast, and hundreds of volunteers, have the place to themselves for now, with only a few cars in the parking lot belonging to people stopping to watch the preparations take place.
Fresh off a scene rehearsal that involved a majority of the cast on the 10-level stage, with the show's director shouting out choreography over the stage’s speakers, the cast took a quick break. Some cast members headed off to lounge under a tree or tent, while others huddled around a set of water jugs to take a drink and cool off from the 80-degree heat. About 10 feet from the water cooler, a group of teenagers laughed while holding impromptu battles with their prop swords.
It's moments like this, the cast says, that make the seven days of 10-hour practices in sweltering heat and rain worth it: times when the rehearsals feel less like preparations for a major production and more like a gathering for a tight-knit community.
A ‘vacation’ experience
The pageant, a dramatization of the story of the faith's founder Joseph Smith's encounter with golden plates that would be translated into the Book of Mormon, will open on Friday with a 9 p.m. show and feature six additional 9 p.m. performances through July 20. The production is known for its massive scale and elaborate, brightly colored costumes.
Clad in street clothes — a blend of T-shirts and cargo shorts — as they rehearse, actors prepared to don the robes and wigs that will brighten up the stage this week and next. This past Tuesday afternoon, the rehearsals looked more like a large summer camp than the massive spectacle they will become at showtime. Scenes were rehearsed while other cast members used their downtime from rehearsing to help set up the 7,000 chairs that will soon be filled with spectators.
“It's a lot of work,” said Tim Whitcomb, fresh off hauling a stack of chairs. “We put in a ton of hours, but we believe in what we're doing and the message of the story we are telling, so it makes it easy.”
Whitcomb, a Victor resident who has volunteered at the pageant several times since his first time in 1999, said his teenage kids, Tyler and Natali, are a big factor in his decision to volunteer.
Page 2 of 4 - “It's a great environment for them to be in,” Whitcomb said. “They get to be around kids their age who have similar values, and they make great friends.”
Toi Clawson, a spokeswoman for the pageant, said they try to group children and teenagers with others their age to give them a chance to bond.
“People come in families, and we love to have the kids involved,” Clawson said. “But what to do while they're not in rehearsal — that's the trick.”
A large part of that trick is keeping the kids in the pageant as active and busy as possible when not going over scenes. Clawson said they plan various bonding activities and assign jobs that help prepare the site for the pageant — like setting up the thousands of chairs.
“When we first came here, my kids fought me the entire way,” said Eddie Gist, who is volunteering in the cast with his wife and four children, ages 8 to 19. “But after being here for a few days, they never wanted to leave.”
The Gist children's initial apprehension is understandable, as two weeks of camping out in the middle of summer may not appeal to all teenagers. But Gist, who was raised Southern Baptist but converted to the Mormon faith after moving to the Rochester area and then on to Midvale, Utah, said it is now something they all look forward to and view as a family vacation.
“When we first discussed going, I thought 'I have three weeks of vacation, I'm not sure I want to use them all here,'” said Dee Henderson, who along with his wife, Tammy, has traveled from his home in Payson, Utah to volunteer several times since their first pageant in 1989.
“I actually hate acting, I never really go to plays or anything like that,” Henderson said. “But we do it for the family atmosphere and the people we've got to know.”
The Hendersons, who with their six children are one of many families at the event who camp out for two weeks at the “Zion's Camp” near the hill, have a special memory tied to the event: Dee proposed to Tammy on the way to their first pageant 24 years ago.
“I still have people who come up to me after all these years and say, 'I remember you and your big, shiny ring,'” Tammy Henderson said. “We really see so many of the same people and build these great relationships, and with Facebook now it's much easier to keep in touch.”
Focus on the details
Dee Henderson, for his role as General Mormon, is one of many volunteers walking around the grounds with a prop sword. While using the sword to lean against the ground, he is reminded by a passer-by not to let the sword grind into the ground, as it could bend the edge.
Page 3 of 4 - While such a concern may seem trivial when considering that the prop will blend in among a pageant with 1,200 different roles, the small details are what the pageant prides itself on. The music and lines are all pre-recorded, so volunteers are assigned their roles based on which character they resemble most. Clawson explained that the pageant uses more than 1,200 different costumes, which include detailed wigs and fake beards, to get exactly the right look for each role.
“I've been clean-shaven most of my life, but I figured a beard would work for most roles,” Dee Henderson, sporting a full beard, said. “But now they're saying it might not be thick enough, so I may end up wearing a fake one anyway.”
Along with the detailed costumes, the show uses a digital sound system and large speakers around the stage to pump in noise and bring the pageant to life, as well as multiple banks of lights that are run by a team of 26 volunteers for special effects.
“When the show gets going, people in the rows can sometimes feel their seats rumble,” said Steve Vaisey, the pageant's public affairs director.
To keep the 735 volunteers playing 1,200 different roles in order, the show uses nine different directors. Brent Hanson, the artistic director who oversees the eight other directors, said the scale of the show provides a remarkable amount of energy, but also a challenge in keeping everyone organized.
“The soundtrack acts as the stage manager; it helps guide people to where they should be,” Hanson said. “But it still takes a team, and a lot of practice hours, to keep track of everything involved.”
Between the 2012 presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney and the popularity of the satirical “Book of Mormon” Broadway show, many volunteers agree that the LDS has been elevated into the public's consciousness in recent years. Many Mormon volunteers contend, however, that their religion has also become more known thanks to efforts of their own, such as missionary work and expanding the church into new areas.
“Having the presidential candidacy has helped,” Gist said. “But we are also building thousands of churches a year and trying to spread our message to new areas.”
However it may come, the increased visibility of the religion has its downsides as well, as an increasing amount of protesters objecting to the Mormon faith have lined Route 21 during the pageant, sparking the interest of national media sources.
“Of course we notice them,” Whitcomb said. “They say hurtful things that aren't nice to hear. But we have to focus on what we came to do, which is spread a message of love. I feel bad for them, because they're saying things that are hateful, while we are saying 'We love you.''' Whitcomb said he instead focuses on the pageant and enjoying the time with his family and other volunteers. He said this is an especially exciting pageant for his son, Tyler, who has been cast in a role where he battles with his cousin during the show and kills him, something Whitcomb said his son has been looking forward to.
Page 4 of 4 - “Later this week my son will kill my nephew,” Whitcomb said, smiling. “And we couldn't be happier.”