Bryan Gentry is a writer whose work has appeared in university publications, magazines and newspapers for more than 20 years. Originally from North Carolina, he served a mission in Nevada and California before earning an English degree at Southern Virginia University. He enjoyed performing in plays and musicals in high school and college, and he wrote and directed two plays for a prior ward in Virginia. He now lives in South Carolina with his wife and their three children. He works as a college communications director and serves as a counselor in his elders quorum presidency.

Enter Bryan…

One night in December, 2013, a ragtag group of actors slumped into chairs in a cultural hall in Lynchburg, Virginia, after what felt like the worst Christmas play dress rehearsal ever. Everyone had missed lines, some actors had missed scenes, and someone probably had missed the entire rehearsal. The children representing sheep and the angelic hosts of heaven had been anything but sheepish and angelic. Most singing was hard to hear, some was hard to bear.

As their director, I sat on the edge of the stage and scanned a long list of problems I had noted.

We’d worked on this play for months, opening night was coming quickly, and it felt like everything was falling apart.

What happened next changed everything for that play, though.

I had a clear prompting that I should not go over my list of problems. Instead, I should ask the actors to help me name everything that went right.

Their compliments came slowly at first, and then quickly: A teenager had nailed her song. Someone had improvised well to help an actor who forgot a line. The brass band was great on “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The positive energy in the room grew.

Only after we had a substantial list of good things did I ask the actors to share the problems they had noticed, and we brainstormed solutions together.

Later that week, we had two nights of nearly flawless performances. At the end of the show, a Jewish colleague rushed up to congratulate me for the play. A young single adult approached me nearly in tears to thank me for including powerful music.

That whole experience convinced me that a resurgence of performing arts in local Church units can bless our families and our communities, and that effective leadership can make this happen.

The Rise and Fall of Church Theater

Theater has been a part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost from the beginning. Saints built theaters in Nauvoo and Salt Lake City and performed skits during the trek west. Brigham Young said,

“If I were placed on a cannibal island and given the task of civilizing its people, I should straightway build a theater.”

I’m sure the same applies for civilizing Sunbeams.

Church theater took a leap forward in the 1920s with the “road show” tradition, in which wards performed short plays, sometimes in competitions. On top of these homegrown, local productions, the Church had official theater including pageants at Hill Cumorah and other sites. By the early 1990s, the Church had an official, 140-page manual for theater productions.

As a kid in the 1980s, I watched a grainy tape recording of a road show and thought, I want to do that. I finally got my chance in junior high when my mom ran our ward’s road show. She cast me as the Ugly Duckling. (Thanks, Mom.)

The theater bug bit my dad even worse. He organized an over-the-top performance for a dinner my ward hosted for school teachers. He also convinced Michael McLean to let him produce our own version of a play based on The Forgotten Carols. He cast me as a police officer, which sure beat the Ugly Duckling. (Thanks, Dad!)

Neither of my parents had theatrical training. They just did the best they could to help people have fun and fellowship with a touch of the spirit. I learned from them that you don’t have to be a professional in order for God to work through you. I also learned that theater has a power to forge a sense of community and invite the spirit.

But Church theater has waned. Road shows are rare or forgotten in most regions. Many newer Church buildings do not have stages, and stages in existing buildings are often reduced to long- term storage and seating for basketball tournaments. In recent years, some pageants have been phased out as well as youth cultural celebrations around temple openings.

At a time when we are encouraged to simplify Church activity and keep it home-centered, Church-supported, it’s tempting to think the curtain has closed on Church theater.

Room for a Church Theater Encore

I don’t think the Church intended for the stage lights to go out forever, though. After all, the Church’s general handbook still lists “cultural arts” as one of the three kinds of activities that leaders should plan, the others being service and physical activities. It says:

“Cultural arts activities provide opportunities for members to develop and share their talents. These activities also nurture creativity, confidence, and cooperation. They could include arts and crafts displays, talent shows, or dance, music, and drama. They could also include celebrations of culture, holidays, or local or general Church history.”

In a recent General Conference address, Elder Gerrit W. Gong said,

“A few more ward activities, of course planned and implemented with gospel purpose, could knit us together with even greater belonging.”

That sounds like permission to do more!

In a 2021 fireside, Elder D. Todd Christofferson shared the following about the end of the Hill Cumorah Pageant:

“Going forward, different and equally compelling formative experiences will come for families and for the current and future rising generations. Those experiences will be tailored to their time and suited to their need.”

Considering all this, I think there can be an encore for Church theater, maybe even a resurgence focused at the local level where leaders can determine what kind of production would bless Church members and others in the community.

How Church Theater Can Bless Church Members

Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, 

“The play’s the thing.”

But in Church theater, the play isn’t the thing. It’s not the point. But a play can benefit everyone who participates.

Here are a few ways, starting with those mentioned in the handbook:

  • A chance to share talents – Theater can involve almost any talent that ward members possess—public speaking, singing, sewing, painting, writing…depending on what kind of production you do, many skills come in handy.
  • Creativity – Elder Richard G. Scott said, “Creativity can engender a spirit of gratitude for life and for what the Lord has woven into your being” (quoted by Gerrit W. Gong). A play nurtures creativity in planning, performance and problem solving.
  • Confidence – Acting in front of a supportive audience can help people become more confident in ministering or speaking assignments.
  • Cooperation and community – People who perform in a play together form a strong bond. Teenagers and families especially benefit from the time together.
  • A missionary opportunity – Friends, neighbors, school teachers and others will come see the play to support cast members whom they know. For many, it may be their first time inside the Church.
  • Real-life experience – Practicing for a play gets us to set aside social media and video games to really spend time with others.
  • Spiritual experience – Whether the play is bringing scripture stories to life or relating a modern story with faith-affirming themes, it can invite the spirit and touch hearts. (See Converted on a Cross for one example.)
  • Involvement – “You need involvement,” Peanuts’ Lucy says to Charlie Brown when she recruits him to direct a Christmas play. Church theater can entice many people to get involved who might otherwise sit on the sidelines.

A Tale of Two Christmas Plays

I saw many of those blessings realized in two Christmas plays I directed at church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In 2013, a few sisters in my ward asked me to help write the script for a tri-ward Christmas play they had been asked to organize. But when family situations required each of them to step back, I ended up being director, too.

My dad’s penchant for over-the-top had rubbed off. The play portrayed a modern-day family reading scriptures on Christmas Eve, but we also had Isaiah and Ahaz, Nephi and Samuel, Mary and Gabriel, sheep, shepherds, angels, and a small brass band. Even before that difficult dress rehearsal I shared earlier, we had numerous challenges. One ward scheduled an activity at the same time as our opening night. Some members were frustrated by how frequently we needed the cultural hall for rehearsals. The play didn’t have enough speaking parts for many of the young women who auditioned. Some of my communications (including rehearsal changes) came too last-minute.

A few years later, I felt prompted to work on another Christmas play that would solve these challenges.

I contacted my bishop that spring, and he helped me get the support of the other wards and the stake. I wrote a script about a group of people stuck in an airport on Christmas Eve, inspired by a talk by President Thomas S. Monson.

We held auditions in September and by the end of the month, I had a final rehearsal schedule. I modified the script to make additional speaking roles suited to those who had auditioned.

For two months, we spent several hours rehearsing each Saturday morning.

The performances went well enough that several people said, “I look forward to next year!” But the play was more than just a fun show. The actors, especially the youth, formed a strong bond.

A young man who seemed reluctant at first was energized by the end. Years later, a Primary child (by then a youth) still talked about the play as a positive experience for him. I watched many of the youth involved go on missions.

One thing these two plays taught me was the importance of good leadership.

After the first play, I learned a lot about communicating, planning, and collaborating that prepared me to lead more effectively and to create a better experience for everyone in the cast and the audience.

So you want to direct a ward play?

I cannot write a comprehensive guide to staging a ward play. There are many resources online that you can search for and find helpful tips. But I do want to offer a few lessons specifically related to the leadership aspects involved.

  1. Start Early and Plan – Planning is perhaps the most important leadership task in directing a ward play. Everyone involved, from the bishop who sanctions the play to the parents who will drive primary children to rehearsals, needs a clear vision of what to expect and what to do. I recommend that you start planning the play at least four to six months ahead of time. Create a complete rehearsal schedule as soon as possible after casting the play so families can plan ahead.  Try keeping the rehearsal schedule predictable rather than using a different schedule each week. For my second play, we only rehearsed on Saturday mornings, making it easy for actors to plan and easy to schedule the building.
  2. KISS: Keep it Simple, Saints! – Let simplicity guide your decisions. Whether you do a two-act play with songs or a series of short skits performed by families depends on the interests and talents of your ward. A reader’s theater, radio play, or a group of songs connected by narration are worth considering, too. If people are eager to sew custom costumes and build a set with intricate scenery, that’s great. But if not, consider a play with a minimalist set and with costumes from actors’ own wardrobes (or perhaps someone’s box of Halloween costumes).
  3. Recruit Help – Ideally, you would have an enthusiastic committee helping with the play. You can be in charge of directing actors, or the scenery, or the music, or the costumes—but not all of that.
  4. Find or Write a Play – I wrote the scripts for my two plays because I love writing and I wanted to customize the plays for the wards. But there are many plays already out there. The Church website lists plays for children. The script and score for Savior of the World is available, too. If you’re writing the play, make a clear connection to the gospel. Bring a scripture story to life, perhaps in a modern retelling. Or base it on the history of the Church in your area, conversion stories or mission stories from people in your ward…something that can testify of or rejoice in the savior. Include everyone possible—especially youth Try to provide a role for everyone who is interested in being on stage. This is easiest if you’re writing your own play, or if you have a play with many roles that can be played by someone regardless of gender or age.
  5. Remember Principles of Gospel Leadership – To paraphrase Doctrine and Covenants 121, “no power or influences can or ought to be maintained by virtue” of you being a play director. Persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love and kindness are just as important in this endeavor as in any other calling.

Break a Leg

This is far from a comprehensive guide to Church theater. Remember, at one time the Church had a 140-page handbook for it. But I hope my experiences inspire at least a few Latter-day Saints to revive theater traditions in ways that work for their wards, using these activities to share the gospel and create faith- affirming experiences for actors and the audiences.

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