Pageants have become a regular part of the repertory for many Christian houses of worship, and they tend to get a lot of press. But they are far from the only live events being planned and staged by religious institutions these days. To underscore the width and breadth of the work in-house crews do on such projects, ED takes a look at three very different institutions — a massive Christian congregation in southern California, the international Church of Scientology, and a mid-sized church in a small town in Illinois — detailing the technical, logistical, and artistic challenges each group must contend with to pull off their very unique events.
The Crystal Cathedral: The Glory of Easter
Ten weeks before Easter, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA (an hour south of Los Angeles), turns its attention to the production of its annual pageant, The Glory of Easter. Featuring a cast of 200, mostly volunteers, with professional actors in the leading roles of Jesus, Pilate, Mary Magdalene, Herod, and Mary, this annual passion play runs for three weeks, April 4-19 this year, and closes the night before Easter. That leaves seven weeks for load-in as well as technical and rehearsal time to produce a pageant that includes everything from live animals parading down the aisles and six angels flying overhead to earthquakes, thunderstorms, and lightning inside the all-glass Cathedral.
This year marks the 19th season for The Glory of Easter, a production that has been seen by nearly 950,000 people to date in the soaring 2,890-seat cathedral designed by architect Philip Johnson. Performed with a soundtrack by the London Symphony and Seattle Symphony orchestras, the pageant tells the 2,000-year-old story of Passion week including the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus' cleansing of the temple, the Last Supper, the trial, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
The magnitude of the production is evident in its statistics. The live animals alone include five horses, one burro, one water buffalo, two piglets, two peacocks, one baby camel, one baby llama, one baby yak, and a few sheep and goats. At the far end of the parking lot, a special area called “Animal Land” is set up with dirt-filled corrals for the animals and trailers hooked up to water and electricity for the trainers.
Multiple stage managers run the show each night, calling over 350 cues, with a tech crew of 35-40 people. The primary technical positions are technical supervisor Eddie Quiroga, production stage manager Bodie Newcomb, lighting designer Glenn Grant, special effects manager Rick Helgason, audio manager Steve Conrad, and audio mixers Ray Moore and Keith Reese. Both The Glory of Easter and a second annual pageant, The Glory of Christmas, are produced by the Cathedral's in-house unit, Glory Productions.
The Glory of Easter, produced and directed by Paul David Dunn, is performed on an extremely large indoor set that uses five miles of steel under-girding spanning 124' in width and stretching 80' high. Installing the full set takes a month of preparation, including lighting load-in, angel track installation and rigging, as well as set construction. All of the performances take place in the evening, as the glass building is flooded with sunlight during the day.
“The original set was designed by Charles Lisanby, and is touched up every year,” notes Quiroga. “The sets are stored in our warehouse and brought in eight weeks out. The lighting load-in happens nine weeks out, then the sets come in.” The costumes were designed by Richard Bostard.
Quiroga got the production process rolling the week of February 10 with the load-in of the track and rigging for the flying angels. Flying by Foy provides the design of the flying as well as the equipment (tracks, motors, harnesses). The rigging for the angels goes as high as 80', with the angels flying as high as 65'. They appear from a cloud of smoke created by the seven Rosco fog machines used in the production. Two solo angels have complicated aerial choreography and fly via variable-speed motors, while the flying of the other four celestial beings is simpler.
Once the angel rig was in, the lighting was loaded in the week of February 17, followed by the set the week of February 24. The first two weeks of March are dedicated to getting the set and lighting ready to go, then rehearsals with the cast begin, leading up to an April 3 preview and April 4 opening night.
Getting the set built is a challenge in itself, and requires the use of 24 Columbus McKinnon Lodestar chain motors. “The set covers all of the marble in the chancel area, and stretches above the choir loft,” says Quiroga, who has worked at the Cathedral for over 20 years, starting as a rigger (as a rock-and-roll singer between bands, he first worked for a few weeks as a technician on the Christmas pageant and stayed on when they started the Easter show).
A huge pyramid with all of the technical systems tucked below the platforms that rise as steps, the set is covered with greenish-beige vinyl flooring. A court for the high priests sits on raised platforms with columns on stage right, with Pilate's court raised on stage left. “The center area changes locations, from a marketplace to Herod's castle to the crucifixion scene,” says Quiroga, who notes that hydraulic Genie lifts are used to raise the crosses onto the stage.
There is also a custom manual counterweight system that Quiroga built for a platform used during the ascension scene. “Jesus is on the platform and engulfed in smoke and a laser cone,” Quiroga explains. “He then descends below the stage on a lift. As the smoke clears, the large 90' doors of the Cathedral open, and He is gone, creating the illusion he has ascended to heaven.” A fan on the smoke creates a dramatic twirling effect with the lasers.
To light the pageant, Grant combines the year-round rig with extra fixtures owned by the Cathedral that are brought in for The Glory of Easter and for The Glory of Christmas. The pageant rig includes 14 Martin Professional MAC 2000s, 18 Martin MAC 600s, 24 Strand SL ellipsoidals, 85 Altman 6×22 ellipsoidals and 35 6×16 ellipsoidals, over 150 assorted PAR cans, plus seven Strong Super Trouper followspots.
The lighting is hung on structural catwalks as well as additional trussing that is installed for the pageant. “We got new truss this year from Total Structures,” says Grant. “We used it for Christmas and reconfigured it for Easter with an extra ‘V’ section to fit the configuration of the set.”
Control for the entire rig is via a Strand 550i console with 2,000 channels and a backup Strand 510i rack-mount with 2,000 channels (the consoles are located on the mezzanine level along with the sound console). There is also a portable Strand 300 Memory Control console, and two Compaq iPaq handheld remotes with Strand wireless software used to focus the lighting instruments.
“We have two weeks to focus the lighting and do touch-ups on the sets,” explains Grant. “The show has been updated over the years and the lighting is quite different.” At the top of the show, the lighting uses bright primary colors in the moving lights as well as the ellipsoidals to emphasize the happier moments in the story. “It is very bright at the beginning,” emphasizes Grant. “In the trial scenes, the lighting gets darker, with darker colors.”
For the crucifixion scene (with Jesus attached to the cross via a harness), the lighting is primarily backlight, augmented with lasers. There are a total of five laser effects in the show, with the lasers provided and operated by YLS Productions in Los Alamos, CA. The laser effects range from the cone used in the ascension to a star field in the crucifixion scene, and a lumia, or glow, and a single beam, both used as the stone rolls from the tomb in the resurrection scene in an earthquake effect.
“At the end of the show, the lighting is more pastel, Easter-type colors,” says Grant, who notes that the pageant ends with a song-and-dance number featuring the entire cast, and celebrating the ascension. The Glory of Easter closes the night before Easter, when the Cathedral holds a sunrise service. “The set stays in place but you can barely see it,” notes Grant. “They bring in tons of flowers to cover everything; it's a long night.”
The audio for the show mostly uses equipment that lives in the Cathedral year-round, including an Amek Recall console with 56 channels and two ProMix side consoles to provide extra channels. The loudspeaker mix includes three EAW KF859s and 10 EAW KF650s, with up to 20 EAW sub-woofers brought in especially for the production. Amplifiers are Crown Micro-Reference units with a Crown IQ system, while 25 wireless microphones are by Shure.
“The challenge for the audio is the room itself,” says Reese, one of the board operators for the show. “It's made of glass, steel, and concrete, so it's like a big reverb chamber in there. The set deadens it some, and the more stuff they put in there the better it helps absorb sound. What we have is more like a concert touring system than a permanent install, and we need to be very directional with the speakers.”
“The production is a very unique marriage between show business and religion,” says Quiroga. “It is put on by a church but with all the resources of any large production. The technical challenges come in phases. First the angel track, then the lighting and the set. The challenge is getting it all in, but after all these years we have it down to a science.” One of the other challenges is making the sets, now over 20 years old, look good. “When the theatrical lighting goes on,” Quiroga says, “it all looks amazing.”
The Church of Scientology: Events Around the World
It'sone thing to stage events in your own space — you may have to deal with height or power restrictions, but at least you know where everything is and where everything goes. But try planning and executing multiple events at multiple locations, year in, year out, many of which are not under your control. That's the task facing Golden Era Productions, the arm of the Church of Scientology that handles both its live events and video and film production, among other tasks. This group plans, designs, builds, and installs the set, lighting, and video for at least six major events in California, Florida, and London every year.
Golden Era's year begins in January with a massive celebration of over 5,000 people held at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium to usher in the New Year by celebrating the expansion of the church and its various social reform activities. At Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL, the church stages three different events during the course of the year, one of which is a birthday celebration for the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. In October the church holds a massive three-day event in East Grinstead, England, which brings in 5,000 Scientologists from all over the world for a series of meetings, an elegant black-tie dinner in a massive tent the size of a football field, and a charity concert. Add to that a series of smaller events around the Los Angeles area, and the fact that they've been holding these types of events since the 1980s, and you begin to see why Golden Era has such a busy full-time staff, and why careful preplanning and coordination on a week-by-week basis is crucial to its success.
If the production staff has one thing to its advantage, it's the fact that these events have been produced for so long. “Our events are very predictable,” says event stage manager Ron Sommerville. “We know what date we're going to have them on, when we have to start loading in, and when the stage has to be done. We do a schedule — from when the shop will receive the designs from the art department, to when it's going to ship — so all that stuff is figured out. What we try to do, and where we pride ourselves, is in beating that schedule. Every stage we've done for the last two years we've done ahead of schedule. The reason we do that is that if we get it in on time, the speakers will be able to work onstage when they need it. And for all of us, that's the most important thing.”
In addition to Sommerville, the Golden Era staff includes event art director Cindy Cruzen, lighting designer Chris Maifeld, stage production assistant Adam Lewis, and event production manager Fed Tisi, a shop staff of 12, plus a wide assortment of costumers, makeup people, live video editors, camera operators, satellite/production truck crew, etc. An average of 60 people work on-site at the actual events. The only person not on staff is the event sound engineer; Golden Era brings in veteran Mick Sturgeon to handle those chores. All of the lighting and sound equipment is shopped out for the events, but most of the video equipment is in-house.
Cruzen's department, which includes a set designer, illustrator, costume designer, and prop designer, has about a two-month lead time, from producing the designs and plans to getting those turned over for budgeting purposes, and then into production. Each project, Cruzen says, begins with the theme. “We work with the planning department in terms of what our message is and our program for that event,” she explains. “Everything I do I try to dovetail intrinsically with the message. We also review what we've done each previous year. And then I look at what's being done in the industry; I look at architectural books and graphics to draw on any new cutting-edge ideas in terms of style, look, and so forth. We maintain a classic, timeless motif to our stages but at the same time I try to do a combination of both classic and contemporary, and blend the two to come up with a different look.”
Once the designs are set, they are sent, either in blueprint or AutoCAD form, to the set builders, who will then build the various set pieces and props, either by hand or by an automated router. The shop also has a vacuformer and an automated Styrofoam machine, because many of the set pieces are made of Styrofoam or plastic. “It's very cheap and you can do a lot of detail with it,” says Sommerville.
The biggest job for Sommerville and his crew is the annual three-day event in Saint Hill, East Grinstead, each October. A tent approximately 120' wide by 210' long is set up on a large farm field; the first night 4,000 people fill the space to watch the main event, which takes place in the adjacent 800-seat Great Hall, via videoscreens. Seminars are held by the representatives of the various countries the next day; that night the tent is transformed into a dining room with tables for 1,500 people who are fed a five-course meal and entertained with a live concert. Maifeld's lighting, which is supplied by White Light, takes advantage of the white tent; last year he programmed a series of moving clouds on the ceiling which changed throughout the evening from daylight to sunset to nighttime, to suggest a European garden. A dance floor is set up in front of the stage, and prior to the concert an awards presentation is held. After further meetings on Sunday, that evening is marked by a concert in the Great Hall to benefit local charities.
Sommerville notes that his goal every year is to find ways to cut costs; for last year's event in England, the Golden Era shop made 800' of balustrade out of Styrofoam and shipped it overseas to be used for the dinner party. “One of the reasons I decided to make them is that the cost was too high to rent them and I couldn't find that much quantity anywhere in England or Europe,” he says. “Shipping them by boat was about $15,000 cheaper. We are now the largest owner of balustrades in the country!
“Obviously, time management and being on schedule is a key factor in making this work,” he continues. “But even more important, I spend a considerable amount of time and effort in getting the best prices on things and doing things in the most efficient way. That takes foresight and planning because you can easily go to an outside company and say, ‘Build me a backdrop,’ if you want to pay $15,000 an event. But it takes a bit more planning if you do it yourself.”
The key mandate in designing and executing all Scientology events is that they will be videotaped and sent out to the various members around the world who were not able to attend. And because a lot of what transpires onstage is presentations and awards to parishioners for their achievements, lighting and sound are very important components. “Everything is aligned to getting that particular message of that particular event out to our parishioners, so sound actually becomes one of the most important elements of our events,” says Sommerville.
Needless to say, lighting is equally vital to the success of these events — what's the use of taping them if you can't see what's going on? According to LD Maifeld, the trick is balancing the light needed for taping without frying those onstage. “It's really important that our executives feel comfortable and be able to communicate what they want to communicate in our events,” he explains. “I take a lot of care to make sure that with the lighting of the podium, not only do they look great but they feel comfortable. So we usually put the podium at around 40-50 footcandles. We always look where we're going to place podium lights; one of the things we did on our New Year's show was use the Selecon Pacifics because they're a little bit bigger than a Source Four and a little bit cooler, and surprisingly it makes it more comfortable for the people at the podium. Once I get that then I can decide about the light level for the rest of the stage and the audience, and we build our looks from there.”
Well before the event, Maifeld works with the art department on a 3D imaging program called 3D Studio Max. “We use that to work out all the different lighting looks for the stage,” he says. “We generally go for an almost black-and-white sort of backdrop; different parts will be painted in colors, but the sky and a lot of the backdrop is black and white, so we can do different color looks over that. Most of the vibrant colors we do go on the backdrop.”
The biggest event for Maifeld is the New Year's celebration because it is more of a TV production than the others (he also serves as the DP for many of the films made by Golden Era for the church). The first part of this event is usually a concert or some type of theatrical presentation; this year Doug E. Fresh performed. That is followed by the various live and taped presentations detailing the church's efforts in social areas like literacy and drug rehabilitation, and their goals for the coming year.
For this year's event Maifeld went with Angstrom Stage Lighting for the gear, in part because they had the new Martin MAC 2000s in stock. “It's a really nice instrument, especially for a place like the Shrine, where we end up with about a 35' to 40'-high trim, which is a pretty decent throw. The MAC 2000s have a really good output and their color-mixing is nice.”
As with all events, the goal is always to try and make things go as quickly and smoothly as possible, especially in a union hall like the Shrine. About a week before the event, Maifeld went to Angstrom Stage Lighting in Hollywood and worked with VP of production James Skipper to prepare as much as possible. “We got the Wholehog, patched it, set all the color palettes, did as much programming as I possibly could, and laid out the full design of the show. We even took paper tape that you get from adding machines and marked out all the pipes, so that when we arrived we just rolled out the paper and were able to do the hang off that. Things like that make it go really smooth during load-in.”
It's that kind of prep work that is Golden Era's goal for every one of its church's events. “Let's face it,” says Ron Sommerville, “when you're in this business it's like painting the house: 95% of what you do is preparation. And if you don't take that to heart you've lost the game.”
Christ Community Church: New Space, Weekly Services
While some houses of worship put all of their design and technical eggs in one basket, so to speak, for an Easter or Christmas pageant, others try to bring high production value to their services and special events on a weekly basis. Christ Community Church in St. Charles, IL, which moved into its new 1,500-seat sanctuary in February, not only puts together full bands, one-act plays, and a complete lighting, sound, and video package for most of its services, but they also host a comedy club every fall, giving the sanctuary a café feel, and are planning a fine arts festival this summer.
“We've always had a high bar for production excellence,” says communications director Caesar Kalinowski. “Even when we were in smaller spaces, there was a lot of professional ability bolted into them. And now that we were able to build the auditorium of our dreams we've definitely put in a lot of bells and whistles technologically.”
The lighting in the new space, designed by Paul Wonsek of Paul Wonsek Associates in Atlanta, working with staff LD Larry Winters, and supplied by Skokie, IL, Intelligent Light Creations, is an ETC-heavy rig, with an assortment of Source Fours and Source Four Jrs as well as Altman scoops and High End Systems Technobeams® and Studio Spot® 575s, all run on an ETC Emphasis 2D control system. The audio system is Renkus-Heinz on the front end, with QSC amps and an Allen & Heath console. In addition, the church has two video editing suites and a complete television switching room for all the camera work, the integration of video, PowerPoint, slides, and other visual media.
According to Kalinowski, even major church events like Christmas and Easter favor regular services with high production elements over large-scale pageants. Music is an integral part of the church so there are bands and choirs of all different shapes and sizes each week; the recent grand opening sported nine horns, a 65-voice choir, eight vocalists, three guitars, bass, piano, synthesizers, and drums, while services a week later featured six vocalists, bass, guitar, drums, piano, and synth.
Each week's dramatic offering is usually a one-act lasting five to six minutes designed to illustrate that week's topic, and can be anything from a monologue to a full cast of up to 12 people. These performances often involve a set and costume element, and the church has various methods of bringing them to fruition. “We have quite a big drama team so you'll get a situation where we'll say, ‘We need airline seats; who's got that?’ And someone will say, ‘I know a guy who works for the airline, maybe he could also get us some flight attendant outfits.’ We've also got quite a lot of sets and props and wardrobe in-house; it gets recycled like any theatre. If we need to build something, we have two or three professionals who've been building sets for us for years, and then we have a whole art ministry that can paint it when it's finished.”
The creative and technical crews try to maintain a six-week lead time for each week's service. “Sometimes we try to find out what the next teaching series is going to be, in specific, to help in the planning,” says Kalinowski. “We'll know in general it's going to be the book of Romans, or marriage, or something, and we'll say, ‘We need some topics.’ Then we can start on the music and work on the dramas and videos that should go into those services.”
Despite all the production elements that go into every service, Kalinowski stresses that the goal is not effects for effects' sake. “For us the goal is high production value without ever feeling like we are,” he explains. “In church we don't want it to feel like a show; we want it to feel like a family coming together, to learn together, to learn from each other. We work hard on having a community atmosphere and making this big church feel small.”
The production team accomplishes that task in various ways. “It's in how often we're changing the lighting,” Kalinowski notes. “If we rotate the moving lights, it's very slow, in tempo with what's going on; we're not doing a lot of flash to make it look like a rock concert. Another thing is the proximity of the seating to the performers or whoever's teaching that week. Although it's a space that sits 1,500, the room was laid out so that it doesn't feel any bigger than the old space. Your proximity to the pastor or teacher is not a whole lot farther than it was before. Even though everything is extremely scripted, we try to leave out the performance elements, remembering that we're doing worship. We want the focus to be not on us, not on the performers, not even on the seats, but on God himself.”