"You could not imagine what happened," Pinegar said. "There were 12-year-old boys walking down the rows of the audience asking to share a scripture from the Book of Mormon with them. It was one of the most glorious experiences."
The most incredible part, Pinegar said, was the result.
"From there, we had a feast. Over 5,000 referrals were received in 2008," he said. "The year before there had been about 600. The cast was bold, but not overbearing."
Because of the improved training, Schwendiman said pageant participants have returned home to their own wards, implementing the skills they learned and have overall become better missionaries.
But it’s not the pre-show efforts of the cast that leave an impression. In the 1990s, the pageant presidency and the artistic team, then headed up by Argetsinger, recognized a greater need for spirituality among the cast.
The pageant leadership implemented methods that focused not just on the artistic components of the performance, but on the participants' experience as well.
“As the spiritual quality of the experience was enhanced, both the aesthetic quality of the show and the quantity and quality of missionary referrals increased,” Argetsinger wrote.
Argetsinger, along with other leaders, found that taking time for the participants’ spiritual growth was more effective than long, arduous rehearsals.
“Almost 3,000 referrals were generated in 1997, 10 times greater than the 250 referrals gathered in 1988. The positive response to missionary contacts was also significantly higher,” Argetsinger wrote.
And since its trial in the '90s, the heavy emphasis on the casts’ spirituality has remained as a crucial part of the pageant experience.
A cast of approximately 730 members arrives on a Friday and is selected for parts that evening. Saturday marks the first day of intense rehearsal. But on Sunday, they take a break.
“On Sunday, rather than doing rehearsal, the directors take the cast members for an hour or so and the directors go through the stories on a scriptural basis. They say, ‘Here is what we are trying to do spiritually,’” Schwendiman said.
It’s because of exercises like this, he said, that the audience is able to feel the testimony of those performing.
And it's making a difference.
Schwendiman told the story of a Boston-area minister who visited the pageant a few years back. She later wrote an op-ed that was published in London, explaining what mainline Christians can learn from the Mormons.
"She talked about the fervency of the testimonies and the friendliness without overbearance," Schwendiman said. "She feared they would have tried to proselyte and baptize her the minute she walked on the ground."
Whether it’s the testimony of the cast, the historical ties of the location or the message from the production itself, those involved say there is something special about the pageant.
“I’d say it’s impossible to track the number of individuals who join the church as a result of seeing this pageant or any of the pageants,” said Schwendiman. “We will never know (a number), but there were lives touched.”
Seventeen-year-old Casey Reichhart, a native of Hamlin, N.Y., located near the Hill Cumorah, attended the pageant in July 2011. She said going changed her life.
“The biggest impression I had gotten that day was that this was the first time in a really long time I remember truly feeling happy,” Reichhart said.
While at the pageant, Reichhart filled out a card for a copy of the Book of Mormon. Missionaries later showed up at her front door, and she was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 29, 2011.
Schwendiman recalled a particular performance several summers ago that stands out from the rest.
“Usually, as soon as the show is done and the lights go up, people rush to their cars. That night, the show ended and the audience didn’t move,” he said. “You could tell on that particular night that something special had happened. It doesn’t happen all the time, but on that night, it did.”
Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @emmiliebuchanan
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