It’s opening night.
Makeup has been applied, costumes put on, and props laid out. The final shout of “break a leg” has finished echoing through the hallway. After hours of utter chaos, it’s peaceful. Actors who moments ago joked and talked with one another now sit side-by-side in silence. Slowly they are making the transition from the everyday lives of modern-day teens to the daily struggles of adults who lived more than 100 years ago.
They are getting into character.
“When you’re in character, you’re acting just like that person, feeling the way they feel, and you have to let that show,” says deacon Jeff Timmons.
Building a character for a play means training yourself to think, feel, and behave the way your character would. In real life, building a character is not that much different. It requires the same hard work, discipline, and dedication as acting. But it also requires making decisions about the attributes that should be included in the part you wish to play—things like willingness to work, to share, and to love others.
In Los Lunas, New Mexico, Jeff and his fellow cast members are participants in a ward play that spreads the gospel message. While they are learning how to act on stage they are also helping each other learn the best ways to act in life.
Part of creating a strong character includes an appreciation of those who have gone before. As part of their stake’s Pioneer Day celebration, the youth in Los Lunas re-created the lives of 19th-century Armenian converts to the Church in their production of “And They Shall Be Gathered.”
“The early converts to the Church faced challenges, just like we do now. They were just different kinds of challenges,” says Geoff Pankretz, a priest who plays the male lead, Sarkis.
The Los Lunas First Ward put the production together with the help of director Norlan Jacobs, who was in the original production of the play at BYU more than 20 years ago. Brother Jacobs, cast members say, taught them many things about acting—concepts like blocking (learning where to stand and how to move on stage), characterization, and motivation. But more important than that, he stressed the significance of the story the play tells: a story of love, sacrifice, and of the great strength early converts to the Church were required to have.
“Brother Jacobs told us about the actual people the play was based on. They left their family behind in Armenia because they knew the Church was true. They decided to come to Utah. After they left, their family was killed. It makes you realize how important this play is. It gives you an appreciation for what people went through,” says 16-year-old Shae Dunkley.
A Team Effort
Sometimes building character means knowing when to be a leader and when to be a follower. Putting together a play is no exception.
“This play has taught me a lot about working as a team,” says 17-year-old Libby Farnsworth. “I’m used to getting on the stage and being the center of attention, but this play is not a one-person show. You have to really allow the limelight to be on the person it’s supposed to be on.”
On stage, teamwork means remembering your own lines and helping others out when they forget theirs.
“Libby’s really great at feeding me lines. When I forget what to say next, she repeats the line before, to jog my memory. She’s saved me more than once,” says Geoff.
Backstage, the teamwork is just as important. Lights, sound, and props are all essential to the play. If a light is turned on too early, or too late, or not at all, for instance, the audience and the actors become confused.
“You’ve got to be right on cue on certain parts because people are really depending on you,” says 14-year-old Rex Hoel, sound manager for the play.
Another characteristic these young actors are working to cultivate is a willingness to share the gospel message.
“This play is really great because every single person that’s sitting here will be getting a missionary message,” says 15-year-old Sam Timmons.
“This play has really helped me be a better missionary,” says Alisha Hopper, 15. “I’m not so afraid to go out and talk to people anymore.”
Missionary opportunities are plentiful in the area since there are very few LDS families in the town. They are making their beliefs known, not only through the message of their play, but through their actions among their friends at school, helping to convert some of them along the way.
Eighteen-year-old Matt Dixon, a convert of only a few months, is a member of the cast, and 15-year-old Beau Taylor, who runs the lights backstage, will be baptized just six days after the play opens.
“I’ve been going to church for about a year now, and these guys have really helped me build my testimony by being examples,” says Beau.
A very important character trait that all the youth in Los Lunas are striving for is a personal testimony of the gospel, the Church, the Savior, and the prophets. Certain gospel principles are reinforced through the message of hope and truth the actors find in the play.
“When you watch this play, it really invites the Spirit,” says Grant Farnsworth. “After being in this play, I find that I’m more in tune and that I’m more sensitive to other people’s feelings.”
Geoff says that his character’s strong desire to know about the truth of the gospel was what inspired him during the play.
“My character is the kind of person who wants answers,” he says. “He doesn’t feel right about his life and he wants to know why. This play has really helped me see so many things about the Church that are so great and so true, and that I never really thought about before.”
Because they are few in numbers, the LDS youth of Los Lunas were already pretty tightly knit before they even started rehearsals for the play. Still, the play allowed them to deepen existing relationships and strengthen a network of support—a vital tool in building character.
“I think I’ve learned to listen more. I think I’m more understanding now,” says Libby.
A play is a lot of work, and with many people depending on each other, nerves can wear thin and patience can give out. But this group has found the best way to deal with such problems.
Fourteen-year-old MarLyn Williams says, “I think we’ve all discovered that, in the play and in life, you can’t get by if you can’t laugh at yourself and with each other.”
And that’s exactly what this group does. With a lot of work, a healthy dose of patience, and smiles all around, this group creates characters that are touching, funny, and real—both onstage and off. By loving each other and loving the Lord, they are spreading his message wherever they go. They are learning to stay in character.
Art Imitates Life
Armenia of the 1890s may seem an unlikely place to find a missionary story, but the play “And They Shall Be Gathered,” written by Martin Kelly, is exactly that. Based on the true conversion story of husband and wife Arzuman and Akaby Tavoian, the play explores not only gospel principles but the love of a family as well.
Arzuman and Akaby (named Sarkis and Arick in the play) learn about the gospel individually, and each decides to be baptized—without telling the other person. (Because of their common last name, the missionaries are unaware that they are married.) When they discover they are both members of this new religion, they realize they must leave the country and go to Utah in order to fully live and practice their faith.
Just as they are preparing to leave, another young family member is killed in an accident. The family is severely saddened by the death and doesn’t understand why he was taken so young. Sarkis and Arick are able to leave with their family the gospel message of hope and the knowledge of life after death.
They then bid their family a fond but teary farewell and set out for Utah.
Sadly, Sarkis and Arick never hear from their family again. It is assumed that they were killed by invading Turks just after Sarkis and Arick left the country.