It’s often called, “The greatest story ever told,” and it’s taken straight from the Bible in an annual production with a stage and cast of near biblical proportions, as befitting the story. The Easter Pageant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is performed in the huge grassy bowl in front of the Visitor’s Center of the Mesa Arizona Temple, 525 East Main St. It never fails to be a moving, memorable and uplifting experience that brings people back year after year.
There are many fascinating behind-the-scenes stories and facts that are the natural outgrowth of a production of this size, as scenes from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are presented through drama, music and dance.
In 1928, 86 years ago, an Easter choir gathering was staged on two flatbed cotton trailers. Since that time, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have presented an Easter tribute each year, with the exception of a few years during World War II. Today, the pageant is presented on a four-story steel complex that provides 9,600 square feet of staging and requires a crane to assemble. It takes several weeks to erect the stage, which is taken down and stored as soon as the pageant is over.
The cast has grown over the years to 400, each of whom must audition, creating the most difficult part of each year’s production — selecting the participants from the 800 or 900 who try out. In addition to the cast, another 450 volunteers provide support with make-up, wigs, costumes, lighting and sound, etc. So the entire undertaking takes about a 1000 people. The cast would not be complete without some live animals. The use of a donkey, sheep, lambs, doves and small horses bring an air of believability to the experience.
There are several actors who portray Jesus Christ: an infant, a boy, and the adult. Because the audience is so close to the stage, the facial expressions and actions are seen quite clearly; therefore, the actors selected must have some acting experience as well as the depth of character to somehow accurately portray the “greatest Man who ever lived.” Interestingly, the most difficult roles are the villains in the mob scenes who are to condemn and abuse the Christ. Since all the actors are motivated to participate in the pageant due to their love of the Savior, to act as one who condemns and scorns Him becomes a very wrenching and emotionally unsettling experience.
Costuming the cast is nearly a year-long effort. The costume committee has gone to great lengths to make sure details such as fabrics, colors, and accessories accurately reflect clothing typical of that worn at the time of Christ. Each costume and accessory is numbered, cataloged and sized to fit each cast member. All the costume preparation is in anticipation of the herculean effort required to maintain an assembly line every night to apply beards, wigs and make-up to the 80 principle characters.
There are 10,000 chairs set up for each show and often there are nearly that many who bring their own chairs or blankets and occupy the slopes surrounding the “bowl.” Over the course of the two-weeks, there will be about 75,000 in attendance.
Acoustics and visibility
The lighting and sound systems further enhance the production. The light towers are 60 feet tall and equipped with 230 powerful state-of-the-art lighting instruments. The sound track is provided through a sound system that was created specifically for outdoor performances and is shipped by semi-trailer. The stage can easily be seen from almost any angle and seating position.
Thousands of volunteer hours result in an epic tribute to Jesus Christ’s great sacrifice for mankind. These dedicated men, women and children give up several weeks of their lives, sometimes year after year, because of their love of Jesus Christ and the satisfaction that comes with sharing His life with others.
Please join us for this year’s pageant, which presents 32 scenes moving rapidly through Old Testament as well New Testament history in only 65 minutes. The productions will be presented in English April 9-11 and again from April 15-19. There is a Spanish performance on Saturday, April 12. American Sign Language is also provided April 9-12. All performances start at 8 p.m. and admission is always free.
• Stephen Harms is a public affairs representative for the Mesa Temple.