A far cry from its early beginnings, the Mesa Arizona Easter Pageant is the largest annual outdoor Easter pageant in the world. Sixty-years running, it was first performed in 1928 from a cotton wagon, and has been held every Easter since then, except during the World War II years
Some 150,000 people are expected to view this year’s 10 performances of “Jesus the Christ.” Located on the north lawn of the Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors’ Center is the four-story, multi-level stage that is assembled in only three weeks.
This state-of-the-art stage is erected every year for this pageant of music, dance and drama that tells the events of the Savior’s life and mission and testifies that he lives. It holds the 400 volunteer cast, crew, plus live donkeys, sheep and other animals.
Out of 1200 volunteers that audition, three to four hundred cast members are chosen, many as families. These are then costumed by a 10-woman costume committee led by costume designer Barbara Layton.
Hundreds of hours of research have produced stunningly authentic costumes reflecting Biblical times, including Assyrian merchants, Roman slaves and Jerusalem temple guards. In addition costumes are constantly being improved and redesigned. This year Roman soldier costumes, including new tribune and centurion apparel, have been redone. Costumers are busy year round to keep the company costumed and this production truly authentic.
Tens of thousands of hours are freely given by all who are involved–cast, directors, crew, costumers, makeup artists, and parking attendants all working closely together not only to perform wonderfully on stage, but also to cheerfully greet, serve, and share their testimonies with the audience, the media, and each other.
Each production member is called on a short-term mission to testify in word and deed of the mission of Jesus Christ. They attend inspiring devotionals before each of the performances and have an opportunity to hear testimony in word and song. They are asked to pray and read their scriptures in personal preparation, particularly the gospel of Mark from which much of the pageant is taken. Before the first performance the cast has crammed into a few weeks an unbelievable amount of rehearsals.
Those playing the roles of Christ, Mary Magdalene, dancers and others have consecrated even more time for additional rehearsals.
Most of the cast gets involved in the current year’s pageant on Super Saturday, two to three Saturdays before the first performance. The huge cast and crew gather on the front lawn of the temple grounds for a day-long blocking and cueing rehearsal. New cast members are welcomed every year but a small percentage of experienced cast members are also selected. This helps the hundreds of new cast members to quickly learn the ropes.
Jaynie Payne, Administrative Director of the pageant for the past 34 Years explains: “Most of our cast members have no acting experience, so it is amazing to watch the evolution from rehearsals to performances. The performers give such a heart-felt effort, and it shows.”
Teenagers and toddlers rarely enjoy the same events, but the Easter Pageant is an exception to that rule. The Cowley Family, eleven of which are in this year’s pageant, including father Tim, mother Kristen and children, ranging in ages from two to 15 are all sold on the benefits of being in the pageant as a family.
“Our children are going outside their own little worlds to give others knowledge of Jesus Christ’s life,” Kristen said. “Not many other opportunities allow them to participate in the community in such a way.”
The Cowleys first took part in the Easter Pageant two years ago. Although it was Kristen’s idea initially, they enjoyed performing so much they decided to join the Easter Pageant again this year.
Oldest child Dallyn, 15, estimates the family spends at least 40 hours rehearsing for the production. She thinks all of the practice really pays off in providing memories and strengthening testimonies.
You know that rehearsals are becoming technical and performances are just around the corner when you drive by the temple and see the blankets and umbrellas of cast members on the north lawn of the Visitors Center replaced by ten thousand chairs and bleachers for the audience.
Audience members may also bring blankets to sit on and line the outer edges of the audience area. “Our audience has grown each year to the point that it is getting difficult to accommodate all guests who attend on the weekends,” said Don Hobbs, producer of the pageant. “Therefore, to encourage more attendance during the week, we’ve decided to open the dress rehearsal to the public, which offers an additional Spanish language performance. We hope this enables more people to come to see this truly magnificent event.There are generally few people that attend the dress rehearsal, which alleviates the need to arrive hours in advance to get a good seat. Parking is also readily available during the dress rehearsal evenings.”
“The spirit is so strong,” states Dorothy Fairbanks former cast member and Mesa resident, “whether you are on stage during The Triumphal Entry or sitting with a neighbor or friend in the audience during The Last Supper.
One friend turned to me with tears in her eyes after the Finale, I Know He Lives, and said,” All Christians should see this pageant every year.”
Each year the Easter Pageant stirs many to investigate the church. This year one of the cast members who plays one of the twelve apostles was not a member of the church last year when he saw the pageant and was touched by its message. Three to four hundred cast members usually translate in three to four hundred convert baptisms. And this is in addition to the testimony building of the cast and crew, some of whom receive mission calls, or determine to go on full time missions, while rehearsing for the pageant.
The Easter Pageant is a perfect tool for sharing the gospel with our neighbors. Visitors can learn lot about our beliefs as well as the scope of our commitment and all in the shadows of the temple with the Visitor Center and fulltime missionaries’ right at hand.
As Easter approaches each year and you prepare for your family celebrations think of the cast and crew of the Mesa Arizona Easter Pageant welcoming you to join them in proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ.
Fri. April 9th and Sat. April 10th at 8:00 PM