Over the last 34 years, most of the 350,000 audience members who have witnessed the powerful Pageant of Our Lord at Easter time, have little idea of the labor involved.
But more than 350 volunteers at a Rolling Hills Estates church certainly do.
Their numbers include greeters, cashiers, meal handlers, make-up artists and sponge washers, models, stage hands, choir members, musicians, stage directors and actors.
The Rolling Hills Covenant Church's annual production, running through April 14, consists of live models coated in layers of body paint who climb into 14 living artworks to recreate scenes of the life of Jesus Christ.
The living artwork is accompanied by a choir, an orchestra and hosts/narrators who tie the scenes together.
The extraordinary combination of art, music and drama winds up wowing not only the audience, but has a lasting spiritual and communal impact on the volunteers behind the scenes.
The concept of placing live models in the world’s most renowned works of art finds its roots in Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters.
Rolling Hills Covenant Church has presented the Gospel of Christ in this impactful way since 1986. And each year is sui generis—one of a kind.
Music Director David Halverson, Art Director Brad Hicks and director and playwright Guy Forest have introduced, respectively, additional musical arrangements, two brand new pieces of art and a fresh script to this year’s presentation.
“About six years ago, we decided to have themes like love, truth, or like this year’s theme: peace, and use them to tie all the art pieces together,” Forest said. “By September or October we know what the theme is going to be, we know what art we are using and hosts are able to percolate ideas for the presentation and see it through.”
Forest, an accomplished screenwriter, said he is always amazed at the talent pool he can draw from within the church and community.
This year, two teams of alternating hosts narrate the action on stage and guide the audience through the highly charged creative and spiritual atmosphere.
Jeannie Halverson and Les Wilson and Jennifer Werfelmann and Don MacKenzie bring their unique personalities to the Pageant of Our Lord stage after months of fine tuning their performances.
“We are really there to set up the art and give some background to the scene represented, keep the program progressing smoothly and link the art together with the theme,” said Jeannie Halverson.
Halverson added, at the conclusion of Pageant, the hosts try to tie everything together and “present the ultimate message and share the good news of what God offers through His son Jesus.”
Wilson and Halverson agree that hosting a two-hour presentation is a labor of love inspired by their faith. They have been memorizing Forest’s script and rehearsing twice a week for more than three months.
The hosts, who wear formal evening attire on stage to add dignity to the performances, might also turn a page on a 15-foot high, intricately built Bible or introduce themselves to the audience members after the performance.
“One of the most enjoyable things for me is having a conversation with the audience after the pageant," said Wilson. "... it gives us the chance to see how the Pageant has affected them. Sometimes people come out crying, and we want to be approachable.”
This year script writer Forest said two child actors and vocalists Kalie MacKenzie and Makayla Oke will add dimension to the pageant. The two have lengthy monologues and, he said, they are able to professionally incorporate his direction into their scenes.
Still Forest says one of the big challenges is understanding an audience whose range of experience goes from those who have never been inside a church to those who grew up with Christian theology.
“As a Christian artist it's really important to raise the bar to not accept mediocrity, whether it’s the writing or narration,” Forest said.
“When you are doing art for the Lord, you need to look at how Michelangelo and Da Vinci did it—and their art was to glorify God. Our hosts are no different. We are not motivated by pride, but motivated by commitment.”