Video courtesy of USA Today
MANCHESTER, N.Y. -- Christian Hancey is a lawyer, not an actor.
But for the next week, the Pittsford, N.Y., father of four will don a wig and 1800s clothing to play the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, in the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant at one of the faith's most sacred places.
"It's exciting ... you get caught up in the moment and you're happy to do it," Hancey said.
But he's nervous. More than 700 people from all over the world, many of them with no formal acting or dance experience, have been cast in roles for the dramatic depiction of scenes from the Book of Mormon.
They are putting on a spectacular production this week on the hill in Manchester, where Smith is said to have received the faith's sacred texts from an angel.
The pageant started in the 1930s and is one of several major productions put on by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints around the country every year. The cast members are all volunteers, and over 30,000 spectators come out to see the show on a towering outdoor stage over seven performances between July 10 and 18.
Joseph Smith is one of the most indispensable characters in the story line, save for Jesus Christ himself.
"I feel a lot of pressure," said Hancey. "It does gives me a chance to reflect on the role of my faith in my life and Joseph Smith's contribution to that."
Hancey's casting took about 20 seconds. He was pulled from a group of men during the mass casting process, and pageant directors asked him to walk back and forth a few paces.
"Then they said, 'we'd love you to be Joseph,'" he said.
Hancey plays Smith in one of the production's last scenes, when the character is interacting with early Mormon believers in America. He got a crash course in theater production before Saturday's opening night,
"It has to be a very communal experience — we have to work cooperatively in order to pull off this production," he said. Once the spotlights shine, he's focusing on the message.
"I tell myself to relax and let myself get lost in the story," he said.
Behind the scenes of the production, however, hardly anyone is relaxing. Cast and staff members mend costumes, curl wigs, rehearse scenes and hold devotionals in permanent buildings or day tents on the Hill Cumorah grounds.
Cast members will go out into the community on several days this coming week to complete service projects as part of the pageant experience — everything from clearing brush at the Palmyra Community Library to moving furniture at Palmyra-Macedon Middle School.
The costume shops on both sides of the stage handle every stitch and bauble worn by cast members, including knee pads for dancers and flesh-colored tape to cover up wedding rings for the show, said costume staff member Matt Hoisington, of Cypress, Texas.
Sometimes the pace is grueling, but people stay cheerful — "they all want to be here … everyone pitches in, and it just happens," he said.
Pulling off the production in a few days is helped by divine intervention and a committed cast, said Hill Cumorah Pageant President Dwight Schwendiman.
"Every cast has a different character — this year there seems to be a unity of purpose that's beyond what we might have experienced at other times," he said.
Peter Garrow, 21, and Nelsen Campbell, 21, are familiar to pageant life –— both men have performed in the show for at least three years and could probably recite most of the show's narrative soundtrack in their sleep.
Campbell plays Laman, one of the descendants of the Jewish prophet Lehi, about 600 years before the birth of Christ. The role requires mock sword skills, a glued-on beard and a lot of speaking parts, for which Campbell will mouth lines spoken from the soundtrack.
"I was pretty excited … but this is I guess kind of demanding. They're having me rehearse a lot," he said.
Laman eventually loses a major battle against his shorter but more righteous brother Nephi — "The whole point of the story is the Lord will support the righteous and the wicked will not win, even with their own strength," he said.
Garrow, who's in his 10th pageant this year, stands front and center for a battle dance scene as a member of Nephi's army. After several years in the same role, his high-flying moves could rival those of a trained Broadway dancer.
"I remember the first time doing any of these dances, and I was like, 'I have no idea what I'm doing ... my body doesn't move in this way,' " he said. "You have to be confident in yourself that you're going to be able to just do it and that God's going to be able to help you."
Marc and Daniela Rauh almost missed the pageant's first few days due to an airline strike.
The family traveled to the U.S. from their home city of Basel, Switzerland — the strike was postponed at the last minute — to be a part of bringing their scriptures to life in western New York.
"I wanted to find the source of my beliefs ... to feel the spirit of the history that's taken place right here on the Hill Cumorah," said Marc Rauh.
The Rauhs and their four children all perform in the production — Marc Rauh plays an unbelieving crowd member, and Daniela Rauh plays an ancient Mormon prophet's convert.
"It's just exciting to experience everything that we read in the Book of Mormon," said Daniela Rauh. "It's like a different perspective to feel how this person felt."
(Taddeo reports for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in New York.)