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On this stage, the spotlight's on Jesus

In productions by Sight & Sound Theatres, the word of God is the gospel.

December 30, 2006|David N. Dunkle | Religion News Service

STRASBURG, PA. — The sprawling stage at Millennium Theatre is more than 300 feet long, wrapping around both sides of the 2,000-seat theater.

The sets are gigantic, the lights brilliant, the music thunderous. At any moment, dozens of actors and live animals might be swirling across the stage or up the aisles. Angels are often dangling from wires 50 feet overhead.

This is no place for actors to show off their Al Pacino grimace or their Jennifer Aniston pout.

"No one can see your face," said a smiling Brandon Talley, 24, who has performed at the Lancaster County theater for three years. "You have to put your whole body into it."

The theater, the larger of two operated near Strasburg by Sight & Sound Theatres, specializes in large-scale Bible stories. The actors are talented, but they know that the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ are the stars.

It's demanding work. "The Miracle of Christmas" runs more than two hours and is staged 10 or more times a week (through Jan. 6).

The passion onstage is matched behind the scenes, where a small army of Christian soldiers churns out costumes, builds sets and tends the theater's large menagerie of animal actors.

Sight & Sound is no earnest-yet-amateur church production.

It's a sophisticated, computerized professional theater that for 30 years has been mounting multi-million-dollar spectacles that are seen by more than 800,000 people annually.

"We sow the seed at Sight & Sound," theater founder Glenn Eshelman said. "The seed is the Word of God, it's the Gospel. We want the best here."

To achieve that, Sight & Sound has created a unique operation that mixes faith and fantasy.

On staff are animal handlers who raise and train the more than 100 animals used in the shows. The animals live in barns and stalls behind the theater.

The costume shop uses an elaborate system of bar codes to enable stitchers to find a particular item among more than 16,000 articles of clothing.

Set design is the responsibility of Jim Mulder, the director of show technology. He worked for 22 years at Disney's Imagineering division before coming to Sight & Sound about seven months ago.

Mulder says he feels free to propose any idea, regardless of cost. He often travels to see the latest gizmos and techniques on Broadway and elsewhere.

"They may have to rein me in because of cost, but we are trying to be very up to date here," he said. "It's actually kind of a chore to keep up with the technology, it's changing so fast."

What isn't changing is the Sight & Sound mission. Operations director Jeff Baughman said the dedication of the 400 workers tends to be extreme because they believe in what the company is doing.

"Without them, we couldn't do what we're doing," Baughman said. "The way we do things has changed, but the heart of what we do hasn't changed at all."

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