Serving as a director of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, N.Y., was not the first time Jim Christian has been in the spotlight.
But Christian, director of musical theater studies at Weber State University, said his experience in New York last month was the first event of such spiritual magnitude for him.
He was involved, from start to finish, for 11 days.
“If you’re a good director, by the time opening night hits, you’re obsolete,” Christian said.
And if organizing a 761-member cast and staging a 90-minute production on seven interconnected levels with 25 stages in that amount of time sounds rushed, you’re right.
“It’s massive,” Christian said. “The whole thing gets put together in about five days.”
He said cast members stay in Palmyra for more than two weeks each year to prepare for and perform in the pageant, which annually attracts 8,000 or more spectators for eight straight nights.
Located on the site where LDS Church founder Joseph Smith is said to have received the Golden Plates, from which he translated the Book of Mormon, the pageant tells many of the stories found in the book.
Members of the church use the Book of Mormon as a companion text to the Bible.
Christian said in 75 years, the process of putting on the pageant has become so fine-tuned and streamlined that he doesn’t believe there’s any way the eight members of the directing staff could pull it off without help from heavenly forces.
“You’re so being helped through the process to make everything happen so quickly,” he said. “There are those kinds of things where you feel guided in so much of what happens.”
Christian said any involvement in the pageant is filled with opportunities for spiritual growth.
“I had an amazing experience. I’ve had a lot of wonderful opportunities throughout my life. This one was like no other.”
He said cast members are divided into 20-person groups of like ages and interests.
When they are not on stage practicing during the day, they are participating with their groups in various spirituality-building and friendship-building activities.
“For them, it’s their favorite part — getting to know people, what brought them to the pageant,” Christian said. “It’s what they take away.”
And he said he took away plenty from his experience.
“There is just so much camaraderie, so much common purpose, that everyone comes away from it with so many experiences. There are things that happen that really build your testimony.”
Top of Utah residents interested in participating in future pageants are invited to apply at hillcumorah.org.
Christian said only about one-third of the cast is allowed to return each year, so most people in each year’s cast are first-timers.
“They like to bring new people so others can have the experience.”
And growth both for those who see the pageant and perform in it is what the event is all about.
“Some of these people are just completely inexperienced,” he said. “Ideally, you get turned into (an actor or an actress) by the time you are done.”
Christian said one highlight for him was working with cast members with special needs. Another growth experience was picking a woman out of a crowd of hundreds of people for a particular part, then realizing he knew her from when he lived in San Diego.
He also said he heard many conversion stories, especially from people in the Rochester and Palmyra areas, that trace back to the pageant.
Christian said he was recruited for his role two years ago by Brent Hanson from Dixie State University. Hanson serves as artistic director of the pageant each year.
But Christian had obligations the last two years, so he couldn’t go until this year. Because he was so impressed with the event, he’s hoping to keep his schedule clear from now on during pageant season.
He said the only paid staff member of the pageant is a night security guard.
The script for the Hill Cumorah Pageant was written by award-winning author Orson Scott Card.
The music score was written by renowned composer Crawford Gates, who also directed the recording by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Salt Lake City Symphony and a 100-voice children’s choir.
Christian said there is much about the pageant that keeps him in awe.
He said the huge cast came together quickly, just like a family, to create a professional performance of which he was very proud.