Every year Prestonwood Baptist Church near Dallas puts on a Christmas pageant. Like many church productions, Prestonwood depicts the Christmas story using angels, actors, and a choir, and congregation members dutifully come to see the show. Unlike most productions this far from Broadway, Prestonwood's angels fly, the choir is 450 voices strong, the cast includes 500 actors and an ark full of animals, and the show was seen by 40,000 people over the course of eight performances. As one of Prestonwood's ministers, John Grable explains, “It's the greatest story ever told, and it should be told with epic proportions.”
Those epic proportions include a stage three times larger than Radio City Music Hall, a 75-piece orchestra, 50 dancers, and six sheep, three camels, two horses, and two donkeys, not to mention an array of equipment that would be right at home in a Broadway house.
Last year the pageant took place in the church's Worship Center for the first time. Opened in May of 99, the space holds 7,500 congregants and boasts a 15,000-sq.-ft. stage. To create a production that would not be overwhelmed in this new space, Prestonwood's technical director, Cyndi Nine, brought together Larry Danforth and Cameron Yeary to light the show, Peter Wolf to handle the sets, Paul Rubin of ZFX to give the angels their wings, and Randy Adams and Doug Leake to design and run the show's audio. Aiding the designers were more than 100 backstage volunteers, running everything from angel flight control to pyrotechnics.
Nine says, “The main challenge was trying to get everything to fall into place at the right time.” Scheduling load-in time, cast rehearsals, programming sessions, and flying practice in between church services and activities proved especially difficult when the set delivery was slightly delayed. Nine says, “It's a domino effect; you schedule and if something happens and one thing falls through you have to reschedule everything.” (The resulting time crunch caused one crucial cast member to be inadequately prepared on opening night: the lead camel forgot his blocking and refused to kush, forcing the actor riding him to slide inelegantly to the stage. But by the second performance the camel was comfortable in character and everything went off without a hitch.)
For the designers on the show, another challenge was finding looks that would work for each of the three very different acts. The first act consists of a holiday-themed variety show, with a slightly Vegas feel to it, complete with flashy lights and costumes, and featuring a range of pop acts including an 'N Sync spoof. The second act showcases the Prestonwood choir with a mixture of Christmas hymns and carols, and the third act is a theatrical presentation of the story of Jesus, called Behold the Lamb.
Lighting designer Danforth and his co-designer and chief electrician Yeary found their diverse backgrounds covered the range of looks required. Yeary describes the partnership this way: “I'm more of the rock-and-roll guy who grew up with moving lights, and Larry has more of a Broadway background, very tasteful — he knows when to stop.” Yeary was able to cut loose in the first act, but Danforth kept the biblical scenes atmospheric yet understated. Danforth has designed the Prestonwood Christmas pageant for the last three years, and also works in sales for Gemini Stage Lighting. Yeary contributed his expertise by programming MA Lighting's grandMA console, which the church had recently purchased. Because of delays in the production, he spent several nights sleeping at the church, squeezing in programming sessions between rehearsals and regular church activities, but the inconvenience didn't dampen his enthusiasm for the console.
He and Danforth are big fans of the grandMA, which the church uses year round when not employed for the pageant. For this production, the 4,096-channel grandMa, purchased from Texas Scenic, was used in conjunction with the grandMA Light, acquired from Christie Lites Dallas. Yeary says, “We ran the show completely via ethernet, running the DMX through Artistic Licence Uplink and Downlink DMX to ethernet converters so the two consoles constantly updated each other.”
This meant that during focusing Yeary could take the grandMA Light onstage or up to the catwalks above the stage and plug it into the ethernet port on the stage. He was able to set looks as he worked without having to walk 300' front of house to the main console, press a button, and walk back. Yeary says he also liked the peace of mind the backup console gave him: “If the big console had gone down during the show, then all I'd have to do is roll my little chair over and hit play on the small one and it picks right back up,” he says. Yeary started programming the grandMA with version 3.0 software and updated to 3.1 by the end of rehearsals. He also notes that AC Lighting, the exclusive US distributor for both MA Lighting and Artistic Licence (Christie Lites and Texas Scenic serve as subvendors of MA through AC, while Gemini is a subvendor of Artistic Licence through AC), was very responsive in helping him through the transition. “AC provided me with great support,” Yeary notes, “because a lot of the things we were doing in the show had not been tried on this scale yet.”
The designer also found the grandMA's flexibility to be a boon during unpredictable moments in the show. “I ran the entire show off two faders, one for intensity and one for rate, so that every time I played a cue, I could control the rate live,” he explains. This made it easier to stay in synch with Jesus during his ascension, and with actors walking from front of house onto the stage.
The lighting rig featured 300 PAR 64s, 142 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, 120 Wybron scrollers, and 60 Wybron Forerunners with PAR-64 plates. High End fixtures included five Cyberlights SV, 23 StudioColor 250s, 16 StudioSpot CMYs, and 23 of the new x Spots. High End Systems also supplied four F100 fog machines used in conjunction with a Le Maitre Low Smoke Generators, two Reel EFX DF-50 diffusion hazers, and three CITC Little Blizzard snow machines. Front of house and above stage, Danforth and Yeary used four Lycian 1275 Super Stars and four Lycian 1290 XLTs. The pair used 20 L&E Mini MR-16 Strips and 12 Double-Hung Mini MR-16 Strips. Prestonwood owns most of its lighting equipment but rented some fixtures, including the x.Spots, from Gemini Stage Lighting, with whom they have a longstanding relationship. Nine says the church hopes to own everything they need for their Christmas productions soon to cut down on rental costs.
During the first act, Danforth achieved a flashy, Vegas-style look by using chaselights and automated fixtures. For the carol concert in Act II, the lighting team employed pastel colors to highlight set designer Peter Wolf's painted background of a traditional New England village. For the biblical scenes in Act III, they were able to incorporate moving lights to add atmosphere to otherworldly scenes, including Jesus' miracles and the flying angels. To add depth to the Holy Land sets Danforth says, “We used lots of rich color, lots of shadows, side lighting, and back lighting. It was really very theatrical.”
The x.Spots were used extensively to cross light the angels, giving them an ethereal glow. Four of the angels flew from front of house out over the audience to the stage and back and a lone angel hovered above the stage. As well as the x.Spots, each flying angel was followed by its own 2kW and 1.2kW Lycian spotlights which picked out their reflective Mylar costumes in pink.
As a theatrical venue, the Prestonwood Worship Center has its pros and cons. “Balancing usability with esthetics is a tough thing to do,” says Danforth. “The church doesn't want to see an ugly lighting rig in the middle of their beautiful auditorium.” On the other hand, the custom-built facility came complete with more than a thousand dimmers and some existing lighting positions. Danforth compromised by using very little trussing front of house but working closely with the set designer, Peter Wolf, to hide fixtures onstage.
The main restrictions the designers faced on the show were safety issues. With so many platforms on the 15,000-sq.-ft. stage and hundreds of cast and choir members moving around, they had to be careful to use side lighting so that people could see where they were going. They also avoided abrupt light changes and shocking effects when the animals were onstage to prevent startling them.
Adding further proof to the notion that this was a production of Broadway, if not biblical, proportions, was the presence of veteran set designer Wolf, whose firm The Wolf Companies has designed the pageant for the last nine years. Wolf, whose credits include the original production of The Wiz and revivals of The King and I, Mame, and Peter Pan, found the 2001 pageant to be most challenging yet. First of all, he had to transform the look and feel of the Worship Center into a theatre. Then, he says, “There was the challenge of coming up with something theatrical that would work perfectly with both secular and biblical acts.” And on top of this, he had to work come up with a performance area that could be negotiated by camels and donkeys, and hide entrances and exits so that, as he puts it, “The actors don't walk themselves to death getting onto the 125' stage.”
To transform the auditorium into a theatre, Wolf began by creating a proscenium using a curving cloth edged with chaselights for the arch and two large side panels to the right and left decorated with sculpted angels. The existing stage is flat and designed to house Prestonwood's choir; Wolf split it up into six separate levels or platforms to highlight different scenes.
To create the looks for the secular Acts I and II, the designer drew on his extensive theatrical past. He says, “For Act I, we wanted a Christmas feel but also a Vegas, or Ginger Rogers-type look.” Wolf used sequin-covered Austrian drapes in an off-gold color to add glamour and elegant Art Deco sculptures and snowflake motifs to complement the 50s-style costumes worn by the dancers.
For the concert in Act II, Wolf created a painted backdrop of a New England village green, complete with pond and gazebo. The Wolf Companies designed nine backdrops for the festival, each one 30' high by 140' wide, which had to be painted in a separate shop from the set construction to avoid dust contamination. Fifty scenic artists and fabricators began work on the Christmas pageant six months before the show opened to be ready in time. The New England atmosphere was enhanced by a snow shower, courtesy of three CITC Little Blizzard snow machines, and a 30'-tall Christmas tree.
Wolf created several set pieces with backdrops for Act III, including the marketplace in Jerusalem and the hill of Golgotha. The largest set, a cave-like stable in the hillside below an inn, was used for the Nativity. This set proved too big to be portable and so was hidden in place until the third act. Built on five different levels, the hillside has room for 500 cast members holding candles to gather beneath a hovering angel. To help the animals negotiate the different stage levels Wolf built in fortified ramps. (Unfortunately, the donkey that carried Mary to the stable was unable to carry Jesus up a steeper incline during his Palm Sunday procession and a sturdier one had to be brought in.)
A production that doesn't blanch at using live animals onstage will not be intimidated by special effects. Prestonwood church volunteer and licensed pyro technician Russell Sweeney used indoor fireworks to end Act I with a bang and ZFX Flying Illusions of Las Vegas was called in to give the angels their wings. ZFX director of field operations Paul Rubin trained flying cast members to use ZFX's proprietary equipment. Rubin explains, “We try and make our stuff as safety foolproof as possible.” Each angel, as well as Jesus, wore harnesses made out of nylon webbing padded with neoprene for comfort and held in place with quick-release rated buckles. ZFX caters most frequently to productions like Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz, but the company has created black harnesses for Dracula, and in this case provided white ones to blend in with the angels' costumes. For the four angels who flew out over the audience, Rubin used ZFX's Motorized Travel Systems, comprised of a motorized lift, a manual travel crank, and a remote control directional unit. Each angel had three assistants on the ground: one to operate the lift, another to manually crank the travel unit, and a third to control the angel's direction. Rubin is particularly proud of flying four angels in formation. He says, “We were able to create situations or pictures that the audience would be able to relate to the show, not just ‘Here's some track, lets put someone over the audience.’” The angels flew a combined total of a third of a mile, coming from the back of the auditorium over the audience to the stage and back again at heights of up to 60'. The angels are suspended on wires 1/16 of an inch thick, making it very difficult for the audience to see unless they were hit by a followspot. Rubin has already been hired for this year's Christmas pageant and is planning even more ambitious choreography.
Prestonwood's Worship Center has an extensive sound system used for services and choir performances. Technical director Nine calls sound quality a priority for the church year-round, for broadcasting services in the huge space and recording choir concerts for distribution on CDs.
Randy Adams designed the audio for the Christmas pageant using two existing Soundcraft Series 5 fifty-six-channel consoles. He added a Mackie D8B digital console for vocals and dialogue and a Mackie VLZ-1604 for the choir mix. To carry the sound around the enormous auditorium, he used a wide range of speakers from EAW, including ASV7652IXs and MH464s for long throw, MH662IEXHFs for short throw, KF930s, 802002HFs, HK294s, UB82 compact under-balcony and front-fill loudspeakers, and a UB22 rear fill for surround-sound effects. Bag End supplied a D12 Dual 12" bass speaker enclosure, and D18EI dual 18" bass speaker enclosures with ELFM subwoofer control processors.
For amplification, Adams used a variety of Crown amps, including CT210, CT410, D75A, MA600, MA1200, MA2400, MA3600VZ, and MA5000VZ models. Other equipment included a PreSonus ACP88 eight-channel compressor/gate, Lexicon 300L effects processors, a Yamaha SPX990 multi-effects unit, a Crest Century LM52 monitor console, Shure PSM700 wireless in-ear monitors, and Renkus-Heinz 12" stage monitors. Many of the performers used Countryman E6 ear set mics wired for Shure wireless bodypacks but with varying amounts of surgical tape — the 'N Sync dancers needed a lot to hold the mics in place during their energetic routine, whereas Jesus needed only a little tape and some makeup to blend the set in with his beard. Other mics included Schoeps CMC 6s, Neumann U87A large diaphragm condenser, AKG C414/ULS, C419 and C535EB, Audio-Technica AT40433s, AT4047s, Pro7Rs, and Sennheiser E602s and E604s with Mk104 Lavaliers. Shure products included Beta 98A, SM57, Beta 87A, U2/Beta 87 wireless transmitters, and U1 bodypack wireless transmitters.
According to Doug Leake, stage manager and audio engineer, the production didn't require many audio special effects but he describes a thunderstorm during the crucifixion scene. “The system was designed to do multiple zones around the back of the building so we utilized most of the main system for the front and then added some additional subs in the ceiling to create a 6.1 surround-sound field.” The final effect allowed the audience to hear the storm sweeping over the auditorium.
Now that the Prestonwood team has christened the newly built auditorium and worked out the kinks in the space, they are already planning a bigger and better show for this Christmas. And the 7,500-seat Worship Center definitely gives them room to grow.