“We Were All Witnesses”: Savior of the World Production Gives Casts, Audiences Opportunities to Testify of Christ
Philip M. Volmar, Church News and Events
The scene is familiar: The baby Jesus lies swaddled in Mary’s arms as Joseph kneels reverently behind, looking over his little family. A new star shines brightly above, guiding shepherds and wise men to the stable below, which is silent, still, and serene.
What is not as familiar, however, is the angelic host above—witnessing it all. Angels above the family’s heads gaze at the scene below, singing “Glory, glory, glory!” as dozens more kneel around the crèche, intermingled with the shepherds and wise men who come to worship.
This nativity scene, portrayed on stage by actors inspired by their testimonies of Christ, is just one of the scenes depicted in Savior of the World, a musical drama presented annually at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.
Also presented locally by stakes and districts around the world, the production gives audiences a chance to witness portrayals of the events surrounding the birth, death, and Resurrection of the Savior. What is uniquely intriguing about this adaptation, however, is the depiction of the angelic host standing ever-present on a colonnade rimming the stage, reminding everyone—actors and audience members alike—that all can be “witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Witnessing of Christ and Steeped in Scripture
Commissioned more than a decade ago under direction of Church leaders, Savior of the World was written by a council of members with professional scriptwriting backgrounds. Those called to this council were given the responsibility to tell the story of Christ’s birth, death, and Resurrection. They also wanted to create a production that could be accessible to lay actors and production staffs.
“The Church isn’t particularly interested in theater, but [rather] the salvation of souls,” said Alexandra Mackenzie-Johns, director of this year’s production in Salt Lake City. “Church theater is about bearing testimony through acting—acting which is founded upon the scriptures.”
She explained that cast members are not chosen because of professional ability or fame, but out of desire and spiritual worthiness.
“The directors tell us is that they’re not casting actors,” said Paul Walstad Jr., who plays the role of Peter in the production this year. “They’re casting Saints, believers. We prepare spiritually when we come so that the Spirit can move us and our testimony will come out.”
True to that end, the production’s script was written “steeped in scriptural verses” from the King James Version of the Bible, giving the play an authentic, sacred dialogue, producer Jay Clark said.
“It resonates with people,” said Brother Clark, producer of the show for the past two years. “We can come closer to God by understanding His words than by anything else.”
Originally presented biannually, once at Eastertime and again at Christmastime, the two-act production at the Conference Center is now shown exclusively in November and December. Some 30 showings are presented in any given season, giving the cast and crew a venue for sharing their testimonies.
Hosting Savior of the World Locally
The Conference Center Theater, which holds 850 people in its two-tiered seating arrangement, isn’t the only place where actors and patrons may participate in the production.
Brother Clark said that each year, dozens of stakes and districts around the Church host productions of the show, fostering testimony-building opportunities for those involved.
Chris Harmon, who served as assistant director for the production in Salt Lake City last year, also directed a cast in her home stake in Layton, Utah, USA, in 2008. She said that planning, rehearsing, and performing for the production brought families on both sides of the curtain closer together.
“Those who came to see it had their hearts touched,” she said, emphasizing that many in the audience personally knew the families portraying the angels, shepherds, and disciples in the play. “Audience members know their lives, their families, and the experiences that they’ve had. It adds an extra layer of spirituality for the stake,” she said.
The members of the Lee and Colette Jarman family of Utah, USA, are participating in this year’s Conference Center Theater production.
“We’re spending a lot of time together while we’re here,” said Lee Jarman, father of the family, “and it’s uniting us in our testimony of Christ.”
Hosting a Savior of the World production is possible by downloading the 36-page production notes, full script, and complete musical score, available free of charge for noncommercial use. The play may be presented onstage in a meetinghouse cultural hall, at a local community auditorium, or even in a chapel as a readers’ theater adaptation, Sister Harmon said.
Preparations for the play may take as little as three months or as long as a year. Producers can work with local priesthood leaders to decide if the play should be split into two separate productions, with Act I, which focuses on the events surrounding Christ’s birth, premiering at Christmastime, and Act II, which focuses on the death and Resurrection, being presented around Easter.
“Solutions to common production challenges can also be overcome,” Sister Harmon said, “by working with other stakes or by contacting the Church Music and Cultural Arts Division.”
One difficulty producers may encounter is budget constraints. But by working to host the production with another stake, activities budgets may be combined, Sister Harmon said.
Another solution she recommends is to borrow costumes from other Church units that have already hosted the production. Those interested may also contact the Music and Cultural Arts Division for assistance.
Helping Others Testify of Christ’s Resurrection
Savior of the World premiered in 2000, the same year that the First Presidency produced “The Living Christ: A Testimony of the Apostles”. This remarkable document speaks of Christ not only in terms of what He has already done, but also of what He continues to do.
“We solemnly testify that His life, which is central to all human history, neither began in Bethlehem nor concluded on Calvary,” states the document, signed by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the turn of the century.
And that is a message that Savior of the World shares—and that prophets and apostles have shared throughout time. Atop the colonnade but beneath the changing sky, angels and prophets appear, reminding audiences of the connection between heaven and earth.
Nicole Blamires, who portrayed one of the angels on the colonnade at the Conference Center Theater, said, “By watching the scenes take place, I got a sense of what it must have been like up in heaven. Seeing the glimpses of [the play], brought feelings of what it might have been like watching Christ’s birth.”
Another instance comes during the nativity, when angels kneel on the stage amidst the shepherds and others (such as Isaiah and Nephi) to whom Christ’s birth was announced.
Sister Mackenzie-Johns said that these angels, almost all of whom have no speaking lines, are at the heart of the production.
“We watch the show through the angels’ reactions,” she said. “As we watch the angels watch Mary and Joseph, [or] Peter and Thomas, we sense that [the angels] are praying for them. They carry the show. They were witnessing the events taking place.”
One scene in particular where audience members can see the angels’ involvement is where the Annunciation is portrayed, and the audience sees Mary’s reaction to the angel Gabriel’s message that she would give birth to the Son of God (see Luke 1:26–38). After Gabriel departs, all the male angels also depart from the balcony, leaving a sisterhood of angels watching over Mary below as she sings
Oh Lord, my God, be with me this day
Show Thy mercy on me, and keep me in Thy way.
Father Thomas Szydlik, a Catholic priest who lives in Nauvoo, Illinois, USA, and who came to see his friends in this year’s production in Salt Lake City, said that the ever-present angels show the audience “the connectedness between time and eternity,” which helps shape people’s own witnesses of the events portrayed in the production.
Strengthening those witnesses is one of the primary reasons for the production, Brother Clark said. “We didn’t have to see these things on earth for ourselves,” he said. “We were all witnesses to these events in some way.”