Hill Cumorah Pageant holds history of missionary work

Published: Thursday, July 11 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

"It was shortened to be more in tune with the attention span for the modern audience of the time," Schwendiman said.

Author Orson Scott Card was commissioned to write the script for the pageant.

"Orson Scott Card was instructed not to watch the earlier pageant, but to write a new one," Schwendiman said. "He delved into the Book of Mormon and selected stories that he felt could move these stories along, leading to the appearance of the resurrected Christ at Bountiful, that being a high point."

Schwendiman said the depiction of the Savior’s appearance is a high point — and always has been — and always will be a part of the pageant.

"Overwhelmingly, the main message I found was the good news of Jesus Christ — that he would come to Earth, atone for our sins, provide for our resurrection, and leave us with the path we must follow to return to our Father in heaven," Card said.

He added that although he wasn't always consciously aware of it, many life experiences helped prepare him for the task of writing a new script.

"The Book of Mormon fascinated me from the moment I learned how to read. I read it over and over; the music of the language was imbued in me, the stories became a part of my memory," Card said. "In college and later, I wrote plays based on stories from the Book of Mormon: Alma and the sons of Mosiah; Abinadi; Gideon; even some fictional characters living in that culture."

If professional experience was any indication, it was clear that Card was the man for the job.

"My experience in script-writing, in theater direction and production, and in reading and studying the Book of Mormon in great depth and for many purposes, all prepared me to be able to write what I was asked to write: a script that would communicate clearly to nonmembers the message and content of the Book of Mormon, in a dramatic and entertaining way," he said.

And because the pageant is centered in the doctrine of the LDS Church, it allows participants, who are strictly volunteers, to connect with its missionary roots.

In fact, missionary-mindedness is a key part of participant training leading up to the seven-day run of the pageant.

“We train (the cast) in three one-hour sessions,” Schwendiman said. “We teach: How do you greet people? How do you bear simple testimony? We teach them to say, ‘I know you’ll enjoy the show tonight because ... ’ or ‘I feel something ... ’ or ‘I know the Book of Mormon is true because ... ’”

With the help of prompts like these, the cast interacts with the audience each night before the performance. It's Schwendiman's hope that as they bear testimony to those who attend, the audience members will feel something special.

"We don't try to teach the doctrine. Through the greeting process, we try to touch the hearts of people so that they might be interested to learn more," he said.

And just like the pageant itself, the missionary approach has received some revamping over the years.

In 2007, former Missionary Training Center President Ed Pinegar and his wife, Pat, served as site missionaries in upstate New York and were involved with the pageant.

Pinegar helped revise participant missionary training, aligning it closely with elements from the scriptures and the Preach My Gospel manual, Schwendiman said.

Part of Pinegar's responsibilities included teaching participants to overcome their fears of opening their mouths to share the message of the gospel. He taught the cast promises from the Lord found in scripture and encouraged them to radiate love.

And it worked.

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