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Trista Weibell
Cast members during a daytime run through of the pageant preparing for performance of the "Nauvoo Pageant: A Tribute to Joseph Smith" in July 2011.

NAUVOO, Ill. — Paul Walstad has a directing challenge and a sacred opportunity with the "Nauvoo Pageant: A Tribute to Joseph Smith" production.

Not only does he work each summer with a cast of 700, but the cast changes out during the 20-show run — a run twice as long as any of the other pageants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"There is a 'core cast' of 20 performers who are part of the pageant for the whole summer," Walstad said of the productions which start July 9. "There is also a five-family cast of 100-200 who rotate throughout the summer, one cast performing while the other runs the pre-show and rehearses to perform the next week."

Walstad said when families come out and participate it’s a unique opportunity for them to work hard, play hard, have uplifting experiences and do it together as a family.

"They aren’t out having separate experiences and then coming together at night, but instead they are going through it all together. It’s such an incredibly beautiful sight to see families enjoying each other’s company so much more at the end of their time, and I think it’s why so many families want to come back. They are partaking of something sacred and they are doing it together," he said.

President John L. Ricks, who has overseen the production since 2005, says the pageant is a triumph, both historically and as entertainment.

"I have heard it referred to as an 'EFY' (Especially for Youth) experience for families who participate," he said.

Created to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 2005, the pageant was the first pageant created, produced and directed by the LDS Church as a combined effort of the cultural arts, priesthood and missionary departments, designed to follow the "Preach My Gospel" missionary manual with 18 hymns woven into the background music.

Walstad said he tells those who come to Nauvoo that they really haven't come to do a pageant, but to do the real work of strengthening one another and serving.

"Everyone who comes is invited to grow," he adds. "I know it sounds cliché, but nobody leaves Nauvoo the same as when they arrived. The sacrifices of the early Saints here, the temple they built and then immediately left, all of this is part of the Nauvoo Pageant.

"The message of the pageant is that we are not pretending to be the Saints in Nauvoo, but that we are Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo. We portray many sacrifices of the early Saints on stage, but we are really here, in the heat, just feet from the Mississippi River, in the fields that they walked and worked in."

Walstad added, "We cannot be them — they already lived their lives — but we know what they knew, and we can stand where they stood and share our stories as they shared their lives."

Walstad said the "secret" to success with a show of the Nauvoo Pageant's magnitude is in prayer, "lots of prayer;" an enormous amount of preparation; and careful choices in staffing and casting followed by a large dose of ministry on his part.

"I have found my main role as a director is to minister. Staging, lighting, sound, costumes, etc., all of this is important, but it's ancillary to the most important job: the people. If I can minister to those on the directing and stage management teams, they will minister and care for the core cast who will take on the immense job of caring for our family cast members. The family cast then takes on the most important role of ministering to each and every audience member who comes."

"It’s an incredible labor of love and service by so many," he said.

Malia Morley, from Sandy, delayed her Mormon mission by a couple of months so she could be in the pageant as Leonora Taylor, the wife of John Taylor. The depth and reach of the pageant has surprised her.

"To me, it's what art is supposed to be, reaching out and changing lives. It's such a selfless project, a perfect combination of entertainment and story.

"It is so much bigger than a play. I was so amazed," Morley said.

To learn more, go to www.nauvoopageant.org.

If you go:

What: "Nauvoo Pageant: A Tribute to Joseph Smith"

When: July 9-Aug. 3, 8:30 p.m. (preceded by a Country Fair at 7 p.m.)

Where: Southwest of the Nauvoo Illinios Temple, 395 S. Hyde St., Nauvoo, Ill.

Website: nauvoopageant.org

Note: No tickets or reservations required

Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with more than 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.

Email: haddoc@deseretnews.com