By Cecily Markland with Cindy Williams and Evelyn Hendrix
Since the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints— even during times of great trial as the pioneers crossed the plains—music and the arts have provided a way for Church members to grow closer to the Spirit, learn principles of the gospel, increase in faith and, especially, to share their testimonies.
Recently, two massive productions provided Arizonans with opportunities to experience these blessings—one, the Gilbert temple cultural celebration, included 12,000 young people sharing their commitment to be “True to the Faith. The other, the Mesa Easter Pageant, involved a cast of 484 and a volunteer crew of nearly 400 more who worked behind the scenes to portray the life and mission of Jesus Christ to audiences of approximately 10,000 at each of the 10 performances during the two weeks before Easter.
President Thomas S. Monson referred to the cultural celebration during his opening remarks of April’s General Conference. He said, despite the rain that fell during the entire production, “The dancing, singing and musical performances were outstanding.” He said the messages were “portrayed magnificently” and said it was a “faith-filled, inspiring experience.”
Roseanne Tidwell, celebration chairperson, believes the participants were spiritually uplifted, even as the rain poured down.
During the months of rehearsals leading up to the celebration, Sister Tidwell received many letters from parents saying they had seen changes in their child, and “some from youth said ‘my whole family has changed.’”
David Wilson, 17, of Gilbert Third Ward, Gilbert Highland West Stake, played the role of Shadrach.
“I can’t imagine feeling that heat and not dying,” he said. “[Shadrach] was true to his faith and it strengthened my testimony to choose the right.”
Caitlin Marble, 17, of the Lakeside Ward, Gilbert Val Vista Stake, recalls how she felt when she heard a temple would be built in her hometown.
“I was hoping to somehow show my excitement and when I heard about the celebration, I wanted to be part of it,” she says. Caitlin wore a pioneer dress and played her violin in the hoedown scene.
In one segment of the production, more than 300 youth played ukuleles and sang, “How Can I Be?”
The youth were dressed in bright-colored t-shirts and jeans—and were quickly soaked through. Drops of water flicked off their ukulele strings as they strummed. Yet, says 13-year-old Chase Williams of the Gilbert Greenfield Stake, “The rain hardly bothered us. It was so much fun playing and singing for President Monson and President Eyring.”
Nelson Schnepf, 14, of the Gilbert Arizona Greenfield Stake says, “I think [that] was probably the best part of the whole night. I was making music for the prophet, which was like bearing my testimony.”
His 12-year-old brother, Hunter, added, “It was phenomenal.”
Victoria Rowan, 15, of the Gilbert Greenfield Stake, agrees, saying, “It was an interesting, unique opportunity. It was lots of fun to see the prophet. I wrote about it in my journal.”
“The youth were amazing. They sang their hearts out without any complaints. The weather had no hold over their testimonies,” says “Captain of Ten,” Jeff Williams of the Gilbert Arizona Greenfield Stake.
The event not only strengthened the participants, but it also touched those who watched the depiction of heroes through music and dance.
“I had nonmember teachers from school who watched it,” says David. “They said it was really cool and thanked me for inviting them.”
“I have had so many missionary experiences. Not only does this new temple affect me, but it will affect my kids,” Caitlin says.
Sister Tidwell says working with these hundreds of youth only increased her belief in the power of music to teach and testify of truth.
Jenee Wright Prince, who has served as the director of the Mesa Easter Pageant for the past three years, says she has similar feelings.
“For me, I feel lucky that I’ve always been able to bear testimony through song,” she says. “On my mission, for the first eight or nine months especially, I sang to various groups all over Denmark,” Sister Prince says. “I was able to give voice to my testimony through song.”
Those experiences, then, later, singing with various other choirs, including performances for Rob Gardner’s Spire Music, helped her see, “The arts open up a way for the spirit to be felt.”
She says the song, dance and dramatic interpretations of Easter Pageant, help the audience feel the spirit. At the same time, cast members can have a type of spiritual awakening and a very tangible experience, she says.
“Some may feel uncomfortable on stage at first. Not everyone in the cast is a professional musician or experienced performer,” she says.
As they learn the mechanics, where to stand and how to move, participants are also instructed to read their scriptures and to study “Preach My Gospel.”
“This helps them to get ready, to get in the right mindset,” Jenee says. The directors encourage cast members to consider how they would feel in the situations they are portraying, “so they are not putting on a show, but are having a real experience and reacting to the scenarios presented on the stage.”
Then, she says, “When they join their voices with 484 other cast members to sing ‘I Know He Lives,’ it becomes very real, very personal.”
Tyler and Linsey Maxson, of the Westwood Ward, Maricopa Stake, have seen this in their lives.
“The Easter Pageant feels as real as it could possible feel,” Linsey says. “We have done so many other shows and, a lot of times, you are performing for the audience. Being in the Easter Pageant is an experience for ourselves and our family.”
She says they were hesitant when Tyler first tried out and as he took on the role of Christ.
“At first we thought, no way; we don’t do the Easter Pageant.” Now, five years later for Tyler and three years since Linsey and their four children started participating, “We can’t see giving it up.”
“For months after, our kids talk about it. They love it. We have to wrap up in towels or other quick-fix costumes and reenact all the scenes from the pageant,” Linsey says.
“It’s all about testimony building,” she adds.
Robert Allen, his wife, Norine, and their four children participated in the Easter Pageant 10 years, and six of those Robert portrayed the role of Christ. The Allens also participated in the Nauvoo Pageant. Robert appeared in the film, “Joseph Smith, The Prophet of the Restoration” and has been the model for photographs and fine art pictures of Christ.
“I’ve learned that the Lord will reach out to his children in whatever ways they can be touched,” Robert says. “The hymns, music and the arts can open the doorway to the soul, can open the window to the heart and can invite the spirit.”
“In my experience, portraying historical events has only served to strengthen my testimony,” he says. “The arts help us to imagine what historical events must have been like and make them real to us. They help us remember … help us observe anew. And, because we remember, we’re blessed. Because we remember, our children can be blessed, our grandchildren can be blessed.”