There was rain off-and-on through Friday with more forecasted. But with just seven days to turn an entire production around, the 750-member cast of the Hill Cumorah Pageant was warned that casting would take place rain or shine. There was no time.
“You get cast whether you are wet or dry,” President Neil Pitts joked.
But Pres. Pitts sent the cast to the grassy bowl of the Hill Cumorah asking them to give their hearts to the project they were about to undertake and to remember their prime mission above what role they received.
“We are here to present a testimony of Christ,” he said. “We are here to invite others to come unto Christ. Those others may be us.”
With just seven days to turn around this annual production and dusk approaching, the cast was sent out to audition. In one night, two hours really after a day of registration and orientation, every person was cast in one – or two, maybe three – of 1,300 roles.
Production Manager Michael McCurdy runs a theater company in Little Rock, Ark. He is no stranger to casting and play production. He and the other production staff are professionals but he admits, “this is unique. We are undertaking something that is really only done here.”
So, in the grassy bowl below the towering stage, with dark clouds threatening a downpour and mist sprinkling the crowd, they started to dance, walk, gesture. Children above age nine were given roles in various scenes. Off to one side, the wardrobe department waited eagerly for newly cast members to check in, register their roles and receive instruction from the ladies who will be in charge of dressing them. The Hill Cumorah Pageant is a master class in organization. With 150 staff members volunteering their time in the background, the entire production is pulled together in just one week, though many of those volunteers spent the bulk of the last year prepping for this.
With Katy Perry keeping the beat, hundreds of women began to follow directions and dance, step, touch, step, touch. Step, kick then slide. Over and over for an hour they danced as directors walked the crowd passing out roles.
Heidi Bee, of Seattle, Washington, viewed the scene of dancing women from the sidelines with a smile. She wasn’t dancing this round, she joked, because “there was a limitation at this move,” she laughed as she demonstrated a move she couldn’t do. She was fine letting the more limber dance and sway. She is here with her husband and three kids, and as a self-confessed organization freak, she stood back and admired the effort it took to cast everyone in one night. She appeared in pageant when she was 18 years old, and her future husband wrote her notes while she was in Palmyra. She longed for this experience for her kids for years, and her son forfeited a coveted internship with Boeing to be at Pageant.
“I know he’ll be blessed for it,” she said. And then the music changed and with it, the moves. Her eyes lit up ,and she headed back in, eager to try the dance again.
Coming out of the wardrobe department, Katelyn Jones’ blue eyes were bright. A trumpeter! Last year, she was serving as a missionary on these same grounds, showing people around pageant. The opening with the tall ladies in white was her favorite scene. And this year, pulled from a crowd of swaying women, she was cast. Next to her, Celeste Rickers of Lindon, Utah was also enjoying her first pageant role, surprised to be picked as another trumpeter. She and her husband brought the last two of their five children at home to experience pageant and she “thought if I get to be a tree, I would be thrilled.” But she and Katelyn will join others in the opening scene dressed in white.
With a sleeping baby strapped to her chest, Carrie Collier of Rupert, Idaho scanned the crowd for signs of her other five children. Her eldest just graduated and the family decided to take their first big family vacation to be in pageant.
“This has to be inspired,” she said. “I know the process that goes into a regular high school play. This is amazing.”
She started to talk about how she told her kids that it didn’t matter what part they would get, they needed to put their heart into it and do their best. Just then, her eldest, Kimberly bounded up with a huge smile on her face. It’s Kimberly’s first time in the East. First time experiencing humidity. First time dancing with hundreds of women for a part. She like so many girls loves to dance. When she was handed her cast card, the first word she saw was “dancer,” a harvest dancer to be precise.
“I have never been in a play with this many people. I was just trying to do my best. I was pleading with Heavenly Father to do my best,” Kimberly said. “I am still giddy with excitement. I can’t even explain how excited I am to start learning the dance.”
The cast was promised miracles for the week, and the storm seemed to oblige in a small one and curved away from the hill. As men lined up for their casting turn, the sky was turning darker, and newly cast children ran through the crowd from one parent to the other, holding up their casting cards proudly, family members giving each other hugs and high fives. It doesn’t seem to matter where anyone gets put in the pageant, they are just happy to be on stage.
But 11-year-old Matthew Thornton was all smiles as he ran to the wardrobe booth beside his dad. He received two roles. The Thornton family brought their four kids from Fort Collins, Colo. three years ago to see the pageant. The family loved it so much, they applied and came last year. Given the choice between a vacation cruise and a vacation to the pageant, the family chose the pageant again. Matthew’s dad, Gregory, was cast last year as the guard who burned the prophet Abinidi, but only after several rounds of walking in front of directors, gesturing and being sent back to the line. This year, after happily offering up the same dramatic gestures – “it’s not like I’ve had acting classes or anything” – he was cast as Joseph Smith.
“I’m really excited. He’s such a great man,” Gregory said. “It’s cool to play someone I respect so much. Everyone wants a part, and you have to trust the process. I am a lucky guy.”
And as the evening wore down, more groups formed, other people found and met their new cast mates.
And more than one felt they were lucky just to be at the Hill Cumorah. — by Amanda Lonsberry. Photos by Aaron Rowe
by Sarah Williams on 07/6/2016