Tonight was one of those awesome nights we all hope to have in December.
Eight years ago, Dad shared an idea with me. What if we had a theatre in December where people could come and hear about the birth of Christ? Sounds great. But here's the catch: Let's have it outside! People can come and drive their cars through the church grounds and meet the different characters of the Bible!
Our church is blessed with great grounds. It was the first building in the area, and has still held on to a fair amount of property. We have a great church yard and a huge parking lot. Not long after we moved to Toronto, Dad had this vision of creating an outdoor theatre experience on the grounds. And what better story than the Christmas story?
He wrote a script entitled "The REAL Christmas Story - A Walk Through", gave it to me for consideration, and I added in my two cents. (We decided that walking-through would provide a nicer experience than driving-through.) He formed a committee of church members to produce the play in 1998. We were blessed with awesome volunteers, including Warren Hughes, a retired professional costume and set designer. Warren build eight stages throughout the church yard, and graced each stage with a painted backdrop. I was the director for the first three years, and I have performed in the show almost every year since. I felt most honoured when Dad included me as co-writer of the script. I still can't believe we got it off the ground that first year, but we did, and people loved it. In the following two years, we made a few changes to the script, and did some re-organizing of our tech set-up. It is now a well-oiled machine, run completely by volunteers. One year, we even had a team come in and make a documentary of the show. The documentary was released as a video and got played on Vision TV.
So, tonight was our eighth production. For those of you who missed it, let me take you through a little descriptive version of The REAL Christmas Story:
First, you park your car, and join in the line up. You have dressed very warmly because, after all, it is winter in Toronto. Oh, and it's night. We start just as it gets dark. As you stand in line, you are entertained by the singing and impromptu comedy of one of our many tour guides. (I don't think they all sing, but this year, Gerald start doing Christmas carols, and I think he's been asked to do it again next year!) The tour guides are all dressed in "Bethlehem" costumes. They each carry a lantern with a lighted candle inside. You are given a program of the show. If you are lovely, you make a donation to support the production. (Admission is free.) If you're not lovely, you complain about the cold and ask if you can jump the line so that you can make it to your cocktail party before the caviar gets warm. But you are lovely, so on we go...
You and your friends are made into groups of a dozen or so people. You are lead by your tour guide, through the church gate, and to the first stage. Here you will hear the prologue. (I like to call this actor the Prologuer. I've pretty much convinced myself that this is a real word.) This character invites you to travel back through time to experience the REAL Christmas story.
You walk a little, and a light goes up on the next stage. Here you meet the prophet, Isaiah, and his assistant, Zachariah. (Yes, a little creative freedom on the assistant. He likes to be called "Zach".) They tell you of Isaiah's predictions on the coming of Christ.
On the next stage, you meet Jeremiah and his sister, Huldah. (Again, creative freedom. The first year, Huldah was Jeremiah's wife, til we found out that Jeremiah was never married! So, we gave him a sister.) Jeremiah also tells us of his predictions of the coming of Christ.
The next stage is the angels. Warren did something different on this stage - The painted drop is at the front, and it's painted with three glorious angels, but there are holes cut out for the faces. The actors wear blond curly wigs and poke their faces out of the holes. People love it! They are practicing their song for the birth of Christ. They sing "Good Christian Folk (Men) Rejoice". Legend has it that this song was given to us by the angels. I don't know if that's true, but I thought it was a good enough reason to add it in. The angels sing a Gloria Deo, which is my original music contribution to the show. Of course, I haven't seen any royalties yet...
Next, you start to walk to a stage, but you are stopped on the path by a Roman herald. He orders you to return to your home-towns to participate in a census. But oh no! There's a guy running through the crowd! His name is Joseph and he can't travel cause his wife is pregnant. But the herald has no sympathy and tells him he's got to travel. The herald walks off into the night, while Joseph runs off to get his wife. We then see Mary and Joseph on the stage, and they're on their way to Bethlehem. They talk of their angelic visitations, and their fears about the coming days. But most importantly, they talk about their trust in God. As Mary's baby has a little kick, you leave them to meet...
Three confused dudes wandering around in the snow. They are dressed in great robes, and seem lost. In our play, the "wise men" are called Astrologers to emphasize their knowledge of the celestial world. They tell you about their visit to Herod, and how he was kind to them, yet there's something about him they just don't trust. They show you the gifts they have for the new king. Then, they spot the star! It's just over Bethlehem, they leave the stage and we follow them to...
The shepherds. The lowest of the low. Sitting on a hillside where nothing ever happens. Suddenly, an angel - well, a puppet-angel - pops out above the painted drop to announce the coming of the new king. (And the angel sings my song! Again, royalties?) The shepherds, too, get very excited and leave the stage.
You are reaching the end of the churchyard and are now approaching the front entrance of the church. Suddenly, you see two Bethlehemites talking in very excited voices. They are surprised that the shepherds have left their sheep. And why is everyone heading to that stable? They join in your crowd, asking you if you've seen the star in the sky? Together, you approach the crowd gathered at the front of the stable. And there you see it - a baby. A gorgeous, tiny, real baby. Held by his (or her!) mother and father. A citizen of Bethlehem announces that this is wonderful day for us who live here in Bethlehem. As the citizen talks, the crowd starts to sing the first lines of Silent Night. And then, our citizen says the line that gets me every time,
"Our God has been born as a human being, and dwells here among us. Let us celebrate this holiest of miracles."
That's it. That's the climax. What else needs to be said? What else do we need to hear?
The crowd sings a few more carols, and then the "mayor of Bethlehem" invites you round the corner for hot chocolate and candy canes. Another group is waiting to see the final scene, so you must move forward, please.
This year, we had perfect weather, which has always been a blessing for us. We do have a God-forbid-it-rains plan, and we pray we never have to use it. Tonight, we ran our play 29 times, one time for each group that went through. In a professional theatre run, that would be equivalent to an almost-four-week run. We had 400 audience members. Due to the weather, the actors are all double cast. You go out, do your scene for 30 minutes, and then another group of actors comes out to relieve you for 30 minutes while you go inside and warm up. That means we need 50 actors and singers to cast this show, plus several sets of babies. Each baby is out for two 30-minute sets, and must be accompanied by both parents, who play silent Mary and Joseph. We also need approximately 50 volunteers for tour guides, costumes, sets, feeding the actors,etc. It takes weeks of rehearsal and several days to set up and strike the stages.
Why do so much work for a one night show?
This year, I was the "mayor of Bethlehem". Because I was near the final scene, I would join in the singing. I got to see people's faces when they realized the whole crowd was singing. I got to hear them add their voices to the song. Then, I got to talk to them after they had seen the show. Some people were there for the first time. They brought whole families composed of several generations. The children loved the angels and the real baby. And I got to meet people who've been coming for several years. It's become a part of their Christmas tradition. I even met people who've been coming for all eight years. How awesome is that?
I don't have all the numbers in front of me, but over the last eight years, we have told this story, this Gospel story, to thousands of people. If you add in our television coverage, you can make that tens of thousands.
That's why we do it. It's so much fun, and we all love doing it. And each year, we get to tell hundreds of people:
"God has become a human being and dwells among us. Let us celebrate this holiest of miracles."