The gospel of the great outdoors: Mormon pageants aren't the only ones looking for a moment

By Samantha Strong Murphey

for the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Aug. 17 2012 1:52 p.m. MDT

"We have every denomination represented at our service," Handley said. "Mormons, Baptists, Pentecostals. No one stands out above the other."

When he's not attending Body of Christ worship services, Handley attends a Pentecostal congregation back home in Cold Lake, Alberta. He said being a part of the Passion play has enriched the spiritual convictions he's always had.

Growing up in British Columbia, Handley knew what fisherman were like, but didn't associate the fisherman he knew with those who followed Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

"You forget that a fisherman is a fisherman," he said. "James, John, Andrew, they weren't just saints. They had real emotions, real lives. They bled. They had questions just like we have questions. The experience has taught me that biblical figures were human beings. It's made them real to me."

Another outdoor drama, "The Living Word," produced on an acutely historically accurate set on a Methodist couple's farm in Guernsey County, Ohio, resists the notion of the uncommitted spectator and aims for every audience member to experience some level of personal conversion like Handley. Before the performance starts, the directors invite any audience member who feels inclined to go backstage, be fitted in costume and participate in the show as an extra.

Annette Ellwood, who has been involved with the production since it started decades ago, remembers one man from years ago, a nonreligious bus driver getting a bite to eat at the concession stand while his passengers went to watch the performance.

"Someone asked him to come and be in the play," she remembered. "He was huge man, so big that we couldn't find sandals big enough for his feet. They asked him to carry the cross up the hill in the crucifixion scene."

After the play, he told her that with every strenuous step, he thought about the pain Christ suffered.

"Now he's a minister at one of the larger churches in Cleveland," she said. "God works in mysterious ways."

A family focus

The relaxed, communal nature of these outdoor amphitheaters draws people to attend the productions as families, said Michael Hardy, director of the North Carolina-based Institute of Outdoor Drama. The majority of ticket sales for religious dramas are for family groups — religious and nonreligious alike.

In fact, Neudorf has noticed a growing number of nonreligious parents bringing their children to see the Badlands play.

"They say that they're not regular churchgoers, but they still want their children to know who Jesus was and what he did, so they can decide for themselves about religion," he said.

The best way to get these children's attention is to make a splash, according to Linda Goldner, founder of the Picture in Scripture Amphitheater in Disney, Okla. In its production of "The Man Who Ran," the story of Jonah, a 20-foot mechanical whale emerges from an on-site pond to swallow the actor playing the biblical character. In another production, the actor playing Christ uses a mechanical apparatus in the pond to "walk on water." They also employ pyrotechnic effects for their "chariot of fire" and "fire from heaven" scenes.

"The audiences love it," said Goldner, who wrote the plays to help fund a home for troubled girls she ran with her husband, Bill, until 1996. "This is a sight-and-sound generation, and you really have to appeal more to the senses."

Power and Light Productions, located just outside Wauchula, Fla., includes more than 100 live animals in their production of "Story of Noah," another sure way to attract the attention of children. But the play is not about the animals, said Pastor Mike Graham, the playwright and founder. "It's really about the people. It's about Noah's family and the struggle they have building the ark."

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