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Discussing religion, spirituality and values. Amy Umble is the religion reporter for The Free Lance-Star. You can email her at
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Preparing for a Pageant

The summer Hill Cumorah Pageant in upstate New York draws thousands of faithful Latter-Day Saints and others who want to see a visual production of The Book of Mormon. For many, the trip to Palmyra for the play is an annual pilgrimage. Religion News Service provided this behind-the-scenes look:

Long-running N.Y. pageant spreads the Mormon message

By Matthew Streib and Renee K. Gadoua


Rexanne Mattei of Fairport, N.Y., affixes a beard to the face of Craig Done from State College, Pa., before the final dress rehearsal of the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, N.Y. More than 700 people make up the cast for this year’s pageant, which is presented by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Long/The Post-Standard of Syracuse.

PALMYRA, N.Y. — Actors know that a career on stage takes dedication and sacrifice, but Mormons in the annual Hill Cumorah pageant take that to a whole new level.

With a discerning application process, just one week to prepare and an all-volunteer crew, Mormons create a high-tech dramatization of ancient events for thousands of pilgrims who travel here from all over the country.

Ever since 1937, the Hill Cumorah pageant has re-enacted stories from the Book of Mormon, which tells of Jesus’ interaction with ancient peoples in the Americas. The pageant is staged on the very hill where Mormon prophet Joseph Smith is said to have found golden plates with the peoples’ history inscribed on them.

Beyond being great theater, the pageant unites Mormons and spreads the faith, especially in a year when Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and a (non-Mormon) polygamous sect in Texas dominated headlines.

Matthew Thomas, 55, spent thousands of dollars to travel from St. Louis with his family of four to act in the nine-day pageant. All participants must pay their own way, so the family is staying in an RV on Hill Cumorah property.

"There really isn’t a better family vacation," he said. "We’ve done pageants before in Nauvoo, Ill., but this is much larger, much more intense."

Intense indeed. Thousands of Mormons apply to be a part of the pageant, but only 716 were chosen this year in a process that involves praying over one-page application forms. Cast members arrive in New York only a week before the pageant begins, and must be assigned roles, learn choreography, memorize their lines, and figure out how to put on their period-specific costumes.

The pageant begins in 600 B.C., where the prophet Lehi receives divine knowledge about the impending destruction of Jerusalem and enslavement of the Israelites. Unable to save their people, the families of Lehi and another righteous man set out on the Atlantic to the New World, referred to as the "promised land."

"It’s one thing to read about Lehi and his family crossing the ocean in a wooden boat," said Marc Clay, a Mormon leader in central New York who first saw the show as a teenager and later joined the church.

"When you read that it has one meaning. When you see the storm and the lightning and the thunder and the mast breaks and the sail falls down, you get the feeling of despair in their plight in the ocean."

Once established in the Americas, the followers of the righteous sons of Lehi, called the Nephites, constantly battle against the Lamanites, the followers of the disobedient ones. After Jesus dies in Jerusalem, he appears to the peoples of the New World, and there is tentative peace. But eventually, the Nephites, who stray from righteousness, are destroyed. Moroni, son of Mormon, hides the plates at Hill Cumorah where Joseph Smith would discover them centuries later.

About five weeks before the pageant starts, a couple dozen teenage boys piece together what the pageant is perhaps most famous for: special effects. With a deluge battering the ship at sea, bursts of flame destroying Jerusalem, and Jesus descending from three stories above the ground, the pageant is a Broadway-style spectacle.

In fact, the effects had been so immense that organizers had to tone them down after the 9/11 attacks because the amount of explosives posed a possible security threat.

Most importantly, the cast members must overcome their stage fright in front of the 39,000 pilgrims who attend each year. As much as 25 percent of the audience is non-Mormon, according to church statistics, and cast members spend hours discussing their faith with audience members before each performance. In typically organized Mormon fashion, the impromptu missionaries are armed with tiny stickers to mark those who they’ve talked to, so that no one is overlooked.

Toi Clawson, a spokeswoman for the pageant, said that the play is a great way to engage non-Mormons. "Even people who are not of our faith feel that connection of what it would be like to greet the savior when he comes down, and it’s quite moving," she said.

But the pageant also helps strengthen the faith of a far-flung Mormon flock by creating an ad-hoc community of participants from around the globe, participants say.

"Someone once said that theater is the suspension of disbelief, and for me and my family, this experience is the demonstration or the realization of belief," Thomas said.

"When the savior comes in the final scenes, it’s very touching, because it’s my faith, my knowledge that that day will come, and it will be a beautiful time to see him and thank him for what he’s done."