`Grand pageant' touches lives of visitors, actors

As the last rays of the setting sun fade into darkness on the western slopes of Hill Cumorah, cast and crew members take their places to present the story of ancient Book of Mormon prophets to thousands who have come to witness it at the base of the hill.

The pageant, "America's Witness for Christ," completed its 61st year July 18. An estimated 50,000 attended the seven nights of performances.A massive seven-level stage, 637 cast members dressed in colorful costumes, 125 behind-the-scenes workers, spectacular special effects and a lot of prayer and commitment are the key elements that make up the 75-minute production.

"It's a grand, grand pageant," said artistic director Rodger Sorenson. "It is told on the wings of the Spirit. No matter what we do, the Spirit tells the story. We work our hearts out and then stand back and let it go."

Atop the hill, located three miles southeast of Joseph Smith's family home and the Sacred Grove, a monument to the Angel Moroni, who led the Prophet to the ancient records buried here, seemingly stands watch over the preparation and presentation of the pageant.

In the final moments of the pageant, the statue is illuminated as a reminder that the area is indeed "sacred ground" and as a testimony that this heavenly messenger did actually appear to the young Joseph Smith.

In this setting, the Spirit not only touches those who come from around the world to see the pageant, but it also touches those who participate in the production.

Harold A. Wilson, of Springfield, Mass., was one of the cast members selected from more than 1,600 applications. As a recent convert, Brother Wilson said he wanted to be in the pageant because of his "desire to learn more about the gospel.

"I'm starting to understand much more how Lehi and his family came to the New World and what he and his descendants had to go through."

Brother Wilson, who played one of the 12 disciples chosen by Christ when He appeared to His "other sheep" in ancient America, said it was "wonderful to portray real people. You can feel the spirit of it," he said. "Portraying a disciple is a very humbling thing."

He said he prepared himself spiritually for the part by reading and rereading the account in 3rd Nephi of Christ's visit and by praying for the Spirit.

"I focused on that and prayed to do the best I could, not only by portraying one of His disciples in this pageant, but by being one of His disciples everyday," he said.

Mary Pfilf of Niagara Falls, Ontario, is also a recent convert and said she wanted to be involved in the pageant as "another step in my spiritual growth."

"When you're in it, you feel it," she said, "It's a wonderful experience."

She also paid tribute to Brother Sorenson. "He's a very kind, very loving man. People want to work hard for him."

Brother Sorenson, who has been with the pageant for 21 years, stepped into a new position this year as artistic director. Currently a BYU faculty member in the Department of Theater and Media Arts, Brother Sorenson has directed more than 70 operas and plays.

He had previously been involved as technical director and assistant director. "More than anything, this is where I gained my own testimony," Brother Sorenson said.

"I want us to tell the story of these people clearly. We use all of the elements - the lighting, the sound, the special effects, the performers - all of it to tell that story," he said.

"We also encourage each member of the cast to go on their own spiritual journey in relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ, to this land of the Restoration, and the Book of Mormon."

This encouragement includes personal study of the passages of scripture relating to their role, group devotionals three times daily and personal and group prayer.

"We want them to make their roles their own," Brother Sorenson said. "Then, when they're telling their stories, they can tell it from their own perspective and conviction.

"We are trying to transfer the spirit of the cast to the audience," said Pageant Pres. Wayne A. Lehman of Fairport, N.Y. "We want them to walk away feeling the Spirit."

Joshua Maisch, 22, of nearby Rochester, portrayed Christ this year. In one of the most breath-taking scenes of the pageant, Brother Maisch descends from the top of the hill to about 30 feet above the highest part of the stage.

As a recently returned missionary, Brother Maisch said he came home and applied to be in the pageant. "This is a new way for me to bear my testimony," he said. "It's also incredibly humbling. I hope that my example can live up to it."

Also in new positions this year were associate director Amelia Bahr and choreographer David Tinney. Sister Bahr is involved in community theater in Atlanta, Ga., where she teaches acting and voice. Brother Tinney, who grew up in nearby Rochester where he began his dancing career, works professionally in New York City.

Rick Josephsen concluded his 10th and final year as technical and special effects director for the pageant. Brother Josephsen, who oversees the special effects for the television shows, "Touched By An Angel" and "Promised Land" as well as for the movie, "Earthquake," is responsible for the "wonders of the pageant." The special effects include spewing volcanoes and fireballs, explosions, lightning, thundering earthquakes, and the prophet Abinadi being "burned at the stake."

Brother Josephsen had been with the production since the pageant underwent major changes in 1988. At that time LDS author Orson Scott Card revised the script and Crawford Gates composed the music. The sound track was recorded in the Salt Lake Tabernacle featuring the voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a 100-voice children's choir and music by the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

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