Every July, the small community of Nauvoo, Illinois, comes alive with visitors arriving to see the “Nauvoo Pageant-A Tribute to Joseph Smith.”As the sun goes down, the stage lights go on, and the audience becomes engrossed in the live outdoor musical drama depictingthe Prophet Joseph Smith and the early Saints who built a city and temple to their God. Authentic hymns, lively dances, and words and stories procured from journals and historic records invite the audience to feel the spirit of the early Saints as they built Nauvoo in the1840s. But what takes place behind the scenes before the lights officially go on in July and the Nauvoo Pageant begins?
For one thing, many staff members work year-round planning and organizing for the next year’s pageant. They receive applications and select participants for the five family casts and send them music and information packets. They select and prepare the Work Crew, Family Support, Costuming, Food Services, Security, and other volunteers. Staff members make costumes, repair and refurbish stage props, create items for the Frontier Country Fair, arrange for necessary services during pageant time, and coordinate with city officials. These staff members often work from their homes in many areas of the country.
Pageant Core Cast
The Nauvoo Pageant Core Cast consists of 20 lead actors who make a six-week commitment to Nauvoo, and they begin practicing several months before they arrive in Illinois. The Nauvoo Pageant is the only LDS pageant with live speaking actors, and during each performance the actors deliver their lines through small wireless microphones as they portray historical figures, such as Parley P. Pratt and Joseph and Emma Smith, or representational characters, such as Robert and Becky Laird.
The Core Cast is chosen through an arduous audition process that goes from January to April. According to Peggy Ricks, wife of the Nauvoo Pageant President, “the selection process is prayerful and deliberate. The most talented actors aren’t always selected. We look for those who are open to the Spirit’s direction and who put talents aside.” After the Core Cast is selected, the actors begin memorizing lines and becoming the characters they portray. During the month of May, Core Cast members rehearse in Utah for “Our Story Goes On,” a musical production celebrating life’s journey, which they will present in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. In June, the Core Cast spends an intense week and a half practicing the pageant script in Utah before coming to Nauvoo.
This year’s 2012 Pageant Core Cast arrived in Nauvoo on June 27, the day of the memorial service in Carthage, Illinois, for the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum Smith and the 10th anniversary of the dedication of the rebuilt Nauvoo Temple. The Core Cast polished pageant, vignette, and “Our Story Goes On” scripts during days of record-breaking temperatures with no rain. On the evening of July 7, the Core Cast rehearsed on the outdoor stage, and the local bank thermometer registered 104.
This year Jeff and Aurora Dickamore, who were married last year, portray Joseph and Emma Smith in the Pageant. Jeff has portrayed Joseph Smith since 2008 when he and his brother Matt played the roles of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Aurora was Becky Laird in the 2010 Pageant.
Darren Hill from West Yorkshire, England, auditioned via Skype for the part of Robert Laird in 2009 and was offered the part. In this year’s production, Meredith Rodgers is Becky Laird, the Scottish convert whose non-member husband accompanies her to Nauvoo and embarks on a spiritual journey to come unto Christ.
The Pageant Core Cast performs with Young Performing Missionaries and hundreds of supporting family cast members who practice the songs, dances, and scenes with a Zion attitude. They recognize the small Zion society they are building as they unite together through love, service, sacrifice, and hard work.
Young Performing Missionaries and Bagpipers/Drummers
After a rigorous audition process, 20 young stage and 18 band performers are selected and called to serve as Young Performing Missionaries in Nauvoo between May and August. Three technical support missionaries are also called to assist with sound, lighting, and stage and prop management. Young Performing Missionaries practice for five daily musical shows, the Nauvoo Pageant, and other events.
Bagpipers and drummers arrive the last week in June to prepare to perform in Nauvoo and surrounding communities. They practice Scottish pieces such as “Scotland the Brave,” also known as “Praise to the Man,” and the Highland Fling. Before the pageant’s opening night, band members march along Mulholland Street playing their pipes and drums. They also perform at the memorial program for the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum on June 27th.
The Nauvoo Pageant is divided into five family casts, with four casts performing on stage.
Each cast has approximately 120 members and a two-week commitment to Nauvoo. To participate in a family cast, individuals submit applications to nauvoopageant.org between September and Novemberand are notified by the first of theyear if they are selected. They then begin receiving e-mail messages, packets, and directions from Pageant directors and staff. Cast members fill out forms for costume sizes, and women and girls let their hair grow while men produce beards. Between January and July, families learn pageant music from CDs and printed words they receive in the mail. To prepare spiritually at home, they conduct family home evenings with topics suggested in their pageant guidebooks.
On July 2, 2012, the Red Cast, the first family cast, met at Nauvoo Junior High to register, receive information packets, and have pictures taken for pageant badges.Red Cast members were fitted for costumes, and they participated in dance, orientation, missionary, and district meetings. Pageant directors welcomed them and told them that they were not selected based on acting resumes. The family cast is a supporting cast, and a testimony of the gospel is their greatest asset.
During the first week before the Pageant lights go on, Red Cast members attend morning dance and cast rehearsals on the outdoor stage-this year in record-breaking heat. Directors inform cast members that they did not come to put on a production, but to invite all to come unto Christ. No one comes to Nauvoo by accident. The directors often stop rehearsals to discuss what performers are feeling or what doctrine is being taught in a particular scene. Directors use a scriptural base and positive affirmations for what takes place on stage.
The Red Cast also meets in the Grove near the stage for daily district meetings. Each family joins a pre-assigned district led by a Core Cast member, who helps participants learn their roles and scenes on stage as Nauvoo citizens or British immigrants. After a hymn, prayer, and spiritual thought, district members share scriptures, testimonies, and experiences.
In the afternoon, the Red Cast rehearses in the school gym and returns to the pageant stage in the evening. During the first week, the Red Cast is immersed in rehearsals with little or no free time. Rehearsals begin at 8 a.m. and continue until late at night. Cast members dance, sing, and sweat together on stage. By Sunday, this family cast is ready for a day of rest and church meetings in an air conditioned building.
Volunteer Support Teams
Pageant guests often do not recognize those who are behind the scenes preparing for opening night. Volunteer teams include costuming, family support, food services, security, medical, work crew, and office help. Without these dedicated volunteers, the pageant could not go on.
The Pageant’s costuming team keeps track of over 10,000 pieces of clothing. Two weeks before opening night, sewing volunteers alter, mend, sort, label, categorize, and prepare to assign hundreds of hats, shirts, vests, bonnets, dresses, aprons, pantaloons, and petticoats. Volunteers fit and alter costumes for every cast member–approximately 200 people every week for five weeks.
The Pageant’s family support team serves Primary-age children during practices, meetings, and performances. These volunteers provide daily planned activities and opportunities to connect gospel principles with what children are learning as they participate on stage. Family support volunteers assist parents in nurturing a safe environment by helping with their children during long practices and little sleep.
The Pageant work crew is another essential support team that literally turns the Pageant’s lights on. This team consists of 20 young single men between the ages 17 and 25 who serve as site workers and technical support. They assist with the stage, props, lighting, and the Frontier County Fair.
Pageant Lights Are On
The Pageant lights now are on, and thousands of visitors are coming to Nauvoo between July 10 and August 4, 2012, to experience the eighth annual Nauvoo Pageant. Tour buses roll into Nauvoo each day and unload passengers to watch the Tuesday through Saturday performances. Pre-pageant preparations are over, and the musical drama unfolds on the outdoor stage with audiences eager to hear the story of 1840s Nauvoo. Thank you, leaders, directors, staff, performers, and support teams.
In the future, several British directors and actors of the 2012 Nauvoo Pageant will not be present. Darren Hill (Robert Laird), Alex Mackenzie Johns (artistic director), Peter Johns (John Taylor), and Charly Jones (assistant stage manager) and her husband will be preparing for an LDS pageant at the Preston England Temple site. Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have approved this first official LDS pageant outside of North America.
The script will tell the story of the early Saints in the British Isles and their faith in the unfolding drama of the Restoration.
Elder Stephen Kerr, Area Seventy from Scotland, is spearheading this endeavor. John Thompson, director of operations for the new pageant, said that Elder Kerr has dreamed of LDS families participating in a Church pageant in Britain. Writers are now working closely with the Missionary Department and Church leaders in Salt Lake City. According to a Glasgow, Scotland, Stake newsletter, “We want as many young people-Youth and YSA-from all parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland as is practical and possible to take part in the Pageant. We will need a cast of many hundreds and a support crew in all kinds of areas of activity to match.”
Nauvoo Pageant preparations have paid off for directors and performers from Great Britain. In August of 2013, Chorley, England, will come alive with visitors arriving to see the Preston, England, LDS pageant. Similar preparations and rehearsals will take place behind the scenes before the lights go on and a new pageant begins.
Rosemary Palmer is Nauvoo, Illinois, correspondent for Meridian Magazine.