Twenty years ago when Holden Hansen came up with the idea to stage The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, he had no idea it would become a Fayetteville holiday tradition. But, in keeping with the enduring story that is told in the play, the annual production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (BCPE) has made its way into the hearts of the literally hundreds of area children who have performed in the show, and it has helped to form who they have become today.
On Dec. 9, the show will open for its 20th season, and Up & Coming Weekly thought there could be no better time to celebrate the show, its casts and the warmth it brings to our holiday season.
“I often joke with Bo (Thorp) that if I had known the play would have ran this long I would have made her sign a contract so I would get residuals,” said Hansen during a recent telephone interview.
Hansen, a professor of theater at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, was very involved in children’s theater in the late ‘80s. When Thorp approached him about doing a Christmas performance, he immediately thought about the BCPE.
“I had directed the play in Waterloo, Iowa, for a children’s theater back in 1983,” he said. “It’s just a brilliant play for anybody who has a program that involves kids on stage. In fact, I think the reason it is brilliant is that art imitates life — it’s a play about putting on a play with children. All the kids don’t have to act — they just have to be themselves. It’s very truthful in that sense.
Hansen said that children involved in theater learn a lot of the social skills they need in life.
“They learn deadlines, organization, how to work together. I think they learn things about themselves, and they learn how to communicate,” he said. “These are the kinds of things that any human being needs to learn to succeed. I find the same thing to be true of college students. Quite a number of my students have explained to me that they have this confidence to function in the world that they didn’t have before they were involved in the theater.”
As to why the play has become interwoven in Fayetteville’s holiday fabric, Hansen noted, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a great story. It touches a chord in people. We often look at the less fortunate as a pariah in our society, so we love to watch these Herdmans succeed. We see their humanity when Imojean sort of becomes enrapt in the beauty of the Christmas story. It just resonates through the theatre. It coincides with the spirit of Christmas — it’s all about love isn’t it?”
Jenny Beaver was just 12-years-old when she fi rst performed in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. She was cast as the first “Beth” in the play, and kept that role for the following four years.
“We rehearsed in some old building downtown that didn’t have any heat,” Beaver recalled. “I remember thinking I was really big time, because I was rehearsing for this play in that old building.”
That was just one of many shows Beaver would perform in at the CFRT, but looking back, it still holds a very special place in her heart.
“Since I’ve moved back home, I’ve seen it about three times. My sister, Laura, who was also in the show, has never seen it since she stopped being in the play. I hold “Beth” close to my heart, and she holds Gladys close to hers. We talked and she said she just couldn’t watch anyone else being Gladys because she loved it so much,” said Beaver.
For Beaver, seeing the show brings back the memories of lessons learned on the stage and friendships made. “Growing up in the theatre taught me that not everybody in the world is like me. Because we grow up in the same neighborhoods and go to the same schools, we form our cliques. Theater opened a door to a whole new group of people for me — people I probably wouldn’t have been friends with.”
She noted that while each director and each cast tries to make its mark on the show, it actually changes little. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is just perfect.
The story is so straight to the point. I don’t think you have to add any updates; they just distract from the story.” The story she’s referencing, for those who have not seen the show yet, is that of the Herdmans. They are the meanest kids in town. When they get a chance to takeover the church Christmas play, they do it with a vengeance. While many sat back and waited for the play to fl op, it actually turned out to be ... well, you know.
“Beth’s final speech always makes me cry, and I love when Imojean looks at the baby and she actually understands ‘Unto you a child is born,’” continued Beaver. “I love it when Beth talks about how the Herdmans changed because of the play. Because it gives you a chance to see that people are good — you just have to give them a chance to be good.”
Broadway performer Grady Bowman, who was in the first two BCPEs, looks back at the show fondly.
“I played Claude Herdman my first year and Charlie the second year,” said Bowman, who is currently performing in Billy Elliot on Broadway. “As a kid, getting up with the other kids to do something we all loved was great.”
Then, it was just something to do around the holidays, but after seeing the play a couple of years ago, Bowman has a different perspective on it.
“I really didn’t get the impact of the show until a couple of years ago when I was home and I went to see it,” he said. “I looked at it as an outsider and was just overwhelmed by the meaning and the story.”
He recalled that the excitement that Hansen brought to the production resonated through the cast. “Because he was so excited to do the play, it made us as excited and made us want to do what he wanted us to do,” he said. “Really the CFRT, and plays like the BCPE, are the basis for what I am doing today.”
Tommy Walsh, 17, and currently playing Ralph in the production, has been in the BCPE for eight years. The show helped launch his CFRT career, where he has performed in more than 10 shows and participates in the Performance Troop.
“I love being on stage, being goofy and wacky, expressing my thoughts on stage and watching the audience react to it,” said Walsh. “Being in the theater has taught me to express myself better and be myself — there’s no judging, you can just be who you are.”
Laurel Flom, 15, who is playing Beth in the current production, concurs with Walsh. “This is my sixth year doing BCPE. Each year is different, the people are who make the show. It’s really fun going to rehearsals. It’s a very open atmosphere. Everybody accepts everybody else. Being in theater has made me a more wellrounded person. It opens you up to a lot of situations and people.
“You make a lot of different kinds of friendships with a lot of different people. They are the people you have fun with. They accept you. You don’t have to worry about holding back, you can dance like a fool and everybody will join you.”
For John Burton, now 10, his first exposure to the BCPE was when he was just 4-years-old. The normally active toddler sat silent and still throughout the play. As he exited the theater with his mom and dad, he said, “I want to be a Herdman.”
“I just loved that play,” he said. “I thought it looked like so much fun, and the people who were in it looked like they were having fun. So every year after we would see it, I would ask to try out. Last year, I was a shepherd and it was everything I thought it would be. This year, I’m Claude Herdman. I want to be in the play as long as they will let me.”
The BCPE opens on Thursday, Dec. 9 and runs through Sunday, Dec. 19. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for children. For tickets and more information, visit www.cfrt.org.