It is an unspoken ecumenical truth that all Christmas pageants suck. That’s why, for many years, I avoided any involvement in the pageant at the Methodist church we attend in our small Kansas town. I can pinpoint the exact moment when that changed. It was when a bathrobed third-grader recited the worst line in the history of theater.
Five years ago, during a particularly uninspired pageant, we reached the scene in which the Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, announcing, “Greetings! I bring you tidings of good news!”
In response, a shepherd replied, “Good news? You want some good news? My dad just saved money on his car insurance!”
The offense did not end there. To make matters worse, the congregation laughed. The third-grade shepherd grinned a sly grin and stuck that good feeling in his back pocket. Now, for the rest of his sweet life, he would never know the difference between a cheap laugh and a real one. It would have been unethical of me not to take action.
I’m a playwright. Not a famous one, but a working one, with productions in theaters around the country. When I try to explain my career to people in town, they usually think I’m making it up—the idea of someone working in professional theater seems as unlikely as voting for a Democrat. So it hasn’t been difficult to hide my bona fides from the school- and church-theater contingent who will eat your time like piranhas if you hint at any experience hanging lights. It’s hard enough to hustle up paid work in the theater; the last thing I wanted to do was give it away for free. But this car-insurance quip crossed a line for me. Clearly, I had a moral duty to teach the children of my town how to cross stage left, speak into a microphone, and land a joke that wouldn’t make them feel dirty in the morning.
The next December, I took full responsibility for the Christmas play: writing, direction, and design. First, I threw out the script. I kept the main players—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—but axed the shepherds and wise men. Little boys and girls dressed as shepherds look ridiculous, and while the wise men do have an interesting story, the subplot about Herod murdering all the babies in Bethlehem would entail too much bloodwork for my first year.
I also nixed the “Biblical times” costumes the church stores in the basement. I know the women who made these costumes in the 1970s spent a lot of time on them, but I wanted an aesthetic that was a little more symbolic—Godspell, not Jesus Christ Superstar. Mary would look like a modern preteen with patched-up jeans and Taylor Swift T-shirt, someone wholly unprepared to give birth. I wanted Joseph to look like a drummer in a band, a little stoned but accepting of the unexpected, like Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s.
I kept the story simple yet tried to make it feel a little surprising: The kids would try to retell the story of the birth of Jesus but would keep getting the details wrong and have to go back to the beginning. They’d argue the finer points and re-enact the story as they went along—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets A Charlie Brown Christmas. Postmodern, but orthodox.
Creative differences emerged immediately. The director of children’s ministry had this notion that we should cast children based on age and participation rather than talent. Given that most of the kids couldn’t sing, dance, act, project, or enunciate, it was imperative that we showcase those who possessed one (or, dare I hope, more?) of these skills. Our biggest fight occurred over the preschoolers. As soon as one peed his pants at the first rehearsal, I wanted to fire them en masse. Mrs. Children’s Ministry insisted they were too cute to fire. I told her that I, as auteur, had final veto power. That’s how it works in professional theater! Mrs. Children’s Ministry informed me things work differently in church.
I rewrote the play so the preschoolers only appeared in the first scene.
Staging was difficult, as each one of the under-rehearsed and hyperactive kids had to deliver her lines into one of four standing microphones because a local radio station broadcasts our church’s services for the infirm, the elderly, and truck drivers passing through on I-70. Precious rehearsal time was spent on these mikes: getting them to work, adjusting them for actor height, and, most of all, instructing the kids never to lick them under any circumstances. It didn’t help that the experienced broadcaster who ran the soundboard for the church could no longer hear very well.
We didn’t have much rehearsal time to spare, because none of the actors could ever find an hour free in their busy schedules. What happened to all the stage mothers? Aren’t there still women who want to vicariously luxuriate in the limelight through their children? Give me Mama Rose any day of the week! These parents just didn’t care. They excused their children from rehearsal for visiting grandparents, for a worrisome cough—but mainly for sports. We had six rehearsals. Six! For a play meant to be an offering to God, the creator of the universe! And you want Jalen to miss dress rehearsal for basketball practice?
Practice. Not even a game.
On the day of the show, the kids, giddy with excitement, blew their entrance. They ran to the altar in one big jumble. They settled down after “Rudolph”—which has no place in a Christmas pageant but was one of the few songs all the kids knew—and once the dialogue kicked in, they really found their groove. My child’s lines went over like gangbusters—giving your kid the biggest laughs is the best perk of the job—and I was starting to feel pretty smug about professionalizing this little community venture. Until Molly took her turn at the microphone.
Dressed to the nines as an angel, pigtailed, chubby-cheeked Molly stepped forward, shaking with a bad case of stage fright. Her face flushed, her chest heaved, and with tears streaming down her face, she quickly muttered her line: “For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a savior who will be Christ the Lord.” Then she let out a huge sigh of relief into the microphone, like a balloon slowly deflating but loudly amplified throughout the sanctuary by the hard-of-hearing sound engineer.
And in that moment, my inner Corky St. Clair melted away and gratitude rushed in: gratitude for Molly and how she rose to the occasion; for all the parents who schlepped their kids to play practice; even for the director of children’s ministry who put the kids and their needs first. And yes, for theater—because even when it’s bad, it can be so good for those doing it.
Since then, we’ve told the story of the Nativity from the perspective of the wise men and the stars in the sky over Bethlehem. I’ve dressed my kid in drag to play King Herod; I’ve even put the third-graders back into the shepherds’ bathrobes as a nod to pageants past. This year, the pageant’s central character was the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away. I highlighted this moment in the story to explore how we treat immigrants and refugees, people who don’t look like us or talk like us, but whom Jesus tells us to welcome anyway.
Every one of the 46 kids got a moment to shine, and they all truly understood the play’s message. Maybe some members of the congregation did, too.