Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Show Must Go On by Paula Gail Benson

Poster by Susan Craft
It’s become my tradition to post in WWK a recap of our church drama ministry’s holiday production. Here, I’ll tell you about our latest, an original play with hymns called The Church Groundskeepers’ Christmas Pageant.

How do you create a drama from scratch? The same way you write any work of fiction. You start with an idea, scribble on notebooks in coffee shops and other locations, then sit down and bang away at the keys converting the fragments into a polished work.

But, as we all know, writing is easier at some times than others. 2015 was difficult for us in South Carolina. We’ve had tragedies from shootings and floods. And, then Clemson headed for the national championship while the University of South Carolina’s football program lost Steve Spurrier and suffered a dismal season. (Of course, only diehard Gamecocks would equate that last item as a great disappointment.)

As with most years, I had begun noodling on a concept almost as soon as we finished The Fourth Wise Man, our 2014 effort. For the last few years, people had been asking me about a series of plays called The Church Basement Ladies. They take place at a Lutheran Church and involve the activities of the women, who behind the scenes, handle so many of the celebrations and sorrows of the congregation.

Valarie ward, Brenda Byrd, Colleen Arnold, Jim Jarvis
Because professional companies are still performing the plays around the country, I couldn’t get the rights for us to present one. Besides, our company currently has more males than females.

So I began pondering what would happen if the men who cared for the church grounds were suddenly forced to present the annual Christmas pageant. When I mentioned the idea, people responded to it favorably.

Asa Arnold and Brenda Byrd
The cares and worries from the year took their toll. As the fall neared, I didn’t have what I considered a viable story and I knew I was running out of time. Then, I learned our musician would not be able to assist us this year.

I was trying to figure out how to tell my cast members that we would not do a play when I had a conversation with a dear, close friend and long-standing drama buddy, who now spends his retirement time building sets in Beaufort, SC. He told me, “This year, it’s more important that you do the play than it has been before.”

John Arnold, Mark Wade, Valerie Ward, Jim Jarvis
When I hear the voice of reason, it doesn’t take me long to be convinced.
Jim Jarvis and Asa Arnold

First, I found a member of our congregation who agreed to be our musician. Since she refused payment, I told her our cast project would collect funds for her special interest, our Stephen Ministry, which pairs trained volunteer caregivers with persons facing crisis situations. Very fitting for all our state has faced this year. (I’m delighted to say we were able to collect over $800, enough to provide training for another caregiver.)

Second, I got in front of the computer and started putting together a play. I’d identified hymns with nature images and went back to find some matching Bible verses. The characters got their names based on the first initial of the actor who would be playing the part.

This year’s work was a departure in that it was original and humorous. I tried to keep it gentle, yet recognizable, with jokes and situations church goers could identify.

When we gathered for our first read through, I appreciated that the cast laughed and enjoyed the story. I warned them that they would be called upon to say some words that might be uncomfortable. (Our Church Groundskeepers reminisce about pageants they participated in, transposing “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” with “mold, flatulence, and fur.” They didn’t mind.)

One player in particular, Jim Jarvis, proved a challenge. He has a following among our congregation and audiences. People look forward to seeing him take on unexpected roles. So, he became our version of George Bailey’s Clarence OddbodyWilbur Randolph, a ghost who also happened to be the church’s guardian angel.
Tom Crump and Jim Jarvis

I think a good portion of our audience came just to watch Jim Jarvis play an angel.

We gave dinner theatre performances to full houses on the first two Fridays of December. Because part of the story involved homelessness, we were pleased to have as guests some residents of a nearby shelter. It meant even more when a resident told us the production was meaningful because that was where the resident had been the previous Christmas, living in a car, looking up at the stars.

As always, I’m so tremendously grateful to our cast and crew, who bring much more than just time and talent to the productions. They contribute a part of themselves to establish who the characters are and how the audience will see them.

Have you participated in a live production? Did you find it gave a boost to your creativity?
Asa Arnold, Colleen Arnold, and PGB


  1. I suspect your friend was wise indeed in insisting the “show must go on.” In times of turmoil, items of consistency have even more meaning. Well done.

    And nice smile in that last picture -- enjoying life is a great thing!

    ~ Jim

  2. Paula, what a wonderful story you just told. You are truly gifted in more ways than one. I had a few walk on parts in high school plays and once when I was still in high school, five friends and I performed a dance in a community wide production on stage. We each represented a different country with our costumes. I have no memory of the song or anything except my dad laughing at our skinny legs.

    I always thought I'd like to be part of a community theater after I retired because I love plays put on by dedicated but unprofessional actors. However, once I retired I became too involved in other things to give up all the time it takes to take part in preparing for any performance even just working on the settings.

  3. I can't believe you have time to create a new play during the season. Outside of school chorus, I've never performed. I don't do well at being the center of attention so I don't think it would help my creativity, but if it works for you--I'm glad. It appears to have been successful and fun. Kudos to you!

  4. Wonderful, wonderful! I love the whole premise of the groundskeepers putting on the Christmas play. Well done!

  5. Paula,
    Your Producer, Lighting amd Sound engineer were Outstanding! Are they for hire?

    Disney Studios

  6. How delightful. Wish I lived closer - would have loved to have attended! I too used to participate in our Church plays. We had two cats that the Church had adopted when they were abandoned on our property,Sam and Sylvia, I played Sam on a regular basis. It was great fun, especially the first time. Sam had one eye, he was lithe and jet black. I played him while dressed in my black SCUBA diving skin (rather more clingy than I would have selected for a church appearance) with a patch over one eye, gold lame ears (all I could find) and a crocheted very long tail. The first appearance looks were, shall we say, priceless. The kids loved it, and the plays were usually geared towards the kids, kindness to animals, and respect for all no matter, race, color, creed, or species!

  7. What fun, Paula! I admire your ability to put something like this together, much less at the busiest time of year. I bet everyone appreciates your hard work, and I hope you get a great deal of satisfaction out of the entire venture.

  8. Hi Paula,
    Love that photo of you!
    A million years ago I danced in many ballet recitals and in high school musicals. What fun! I especially remember Brigadoon, where had a wonderful, swirling kilt.
    I remain happily amazed by your creativity!

  9. Thanks, Jim. You're right. Consistency can provide comfort.

    What kind words, Gloria. You would truly love participating in community theatre. It offers a wonderful camaraderie.

    E.B., it was crazy, but fun. I love hearing how you find your muse on the beach. I live vicariously through your Outer Banks stories!

    Vicki, I love the premise, too. I think this story truly resonated with people. One of the nicest compliments I received was that the play and its message would be appropriate for many church settings.

    Dear Disney Studios, there were four people back there working the lights and sound. I was the one operating "Big Bertha" our monster spotlight. Let's talk!

    Kait, I love the description of your costume. How wonderful to present the productions to the young folks. It's great to see appreciation for plays in the eyes of children.

    K.M., thank you. It was very satisfying. I've developed deep friendships and appreciated people encouraging and supporting my writing.

    Shari, I can imagine you in a swirling kilt! What fun! You must show me a picture sometime!

  10. I have also written a skit and a standup comedy routine for a church fundraiser. It is always hectic but gratifying. I didn't perform in the skit but I did the routine, which went over very well. It is a very different form of writing. I'm glad you had such success.

  11. Thank you, Warren. You're right. Crafting performance comedy is very different from writing short stories and novels. Sounds like you had a good experience.

  12. Loved this post, Paula. There is nothing like the excitement that flows between the performer and audience during a live show. Knowing all the chaos going on backstage, while trying to keep it together onstage , always gives me an adrenaline rush. By the way, is there any chance your production was videotaped and loaded to YouTube? I'd really love to see it.

  13. Oh,my goodness..that is wonderful! And gorgeous, and inspirational. Thank you, dear PAula--for this wonderfully heartfelt moment of realizing how magical our lives are. xoxo

  14. You came through, Paula! How wonderful. I knew you could do it! It sure has been a rough year for your area. Glad your friend recognized how much they would need this. It's interesting, and I think unusual, that you have more men actors than women. But you worked with this and, voila, there was your production!

    I've only been in pit orchestras, never on the stage, thank goodness!

    Oh, I did write a script for a Lenten progression thing, but the idea was someone else's. The concept was very well received.

  15. I enjoyed your post, Paula. Like others, I think it's wonderful that you persevered despite all the challenges you encountered and all the sorrows your community and your state endured. I haven't performed in a stage production in decades, but when I taught Sunday school, my students loved writing and performing plays and skits, usually in connection with a holiday. The most memorable was probably a Passover play my middle-school class wrote and performed entirely in Hebrew. As you might imagine, it was a VERY short play with very simple dialogue. At an all-school assembly, the students performed the play twice--the first time with only the Hebrew, the second time with a younger student holding up sheets of poster board with English sub-titles. It was a lot of fun.