Theatrical Mission 

One church shares its faith through a $175,000 production.

Church members are too busy during these months to even think about things like getting married, anyway. Many of them are occupied with three-hour nightly rehearsals for West End Assembly of God's now-legendary Christmas show, "Glorious Christmas Nights."

Part traditional Christmas pageant, part Broadway extravaganza, this annual show boasts a $175,000 budget and cast and crew of about 400 adults and children. Last year's 19-show run drew 25,000 Richmonders. And if you don't have a ticket for this year's production by now, good luck getting one.

Audiences don't just pack the church's sanctuary (which was designed to support such large-scale productions) just to see the super-realistic manger scene, which is the centerpiece of every production — complete with live animals and flying angels, levitated courtesy of Las Vegas-based Flying by Foy. What they come to see is what the church will think of next.

Every year the show is different. Bob Laughlin, West End Assembly of God's minister of music and producing artistic director of the show, describes this years' production as a combination of "'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' with 'Shrek,' nursery rhymes, 'Into the Woods' and a little bit of 'The Wizard of Oz.'"

"Each year the show has a different theme," he says. "We use it to reach families with our message of hope, care and concern with our community. …It is just part of what we do. …For us it's a tool. We use it to share our faith."

The church staged its first Christmas show 20 years ago when Laughlin joined the congregation after working as a youth minister in Atlanta. Trained in music education, Laughlin had seen, through his experiences with his youth ministry, "how effective [musical theater] was in involving a lot of people in one positive goal."

Even before he arrived in Richmond, he began planning West End Assembly of God's first Christmas show, arranging for some church members to build a barn in the then-small church's sanctuary.

"People in the congregation jumped in and risked following this wet-behind-the-ears guy into this project," he says. "They're an adventurous crowd here. They aren't afraid to try anything."

Since that first show, weekly attendance at Sunday services has jumped from about 300 to about 2,000 weekly. And the scope of the annual Christmas show has grown at a similar rate. What started out as a group of untrained amateur theater dabblers has grown into a talented core of theater technicians with the skills to pull off a production that would daunt even professional theater companies.

"It's amazing," says Rich Mason, University of Richmond's assistant technical director and an artistic adviser and designer to West End Assembly of God for the past three years. "There is no one else in town that takes on this kind of project that I know of. …What it is is a mission, really."

To put things in perspective, he points out that WEAG's budget for "Glorious Christmas Nights" is equivalent — in a good year — to an entire year's budget for some local professional theaters. The budget for "Gypsy," the latest show produced at UR, was $23,000. "And they're definitely using that [$175,000] wisely," he says. "They're not overspending. They continually reuse and rework things. … Much of what impresses me about working with West End is that we talk about a project, and they find solutions."

Every aspect of every show is done from scratch, with West End Assembly of God's members writing the script, music and lyrics, building and painting set pieces and drops and creating costumes. Laughlin credits Richmond's theater community for its generosity in helping the church learn the skills necessary to produce such a show. From time to time, the church also brings in noted New York theater professionals as consultants. "We get the best training we can afford," Laughlin says.

Each summer for the past five years, the church's music and arts ministry has also offered a four-day retreat to New York to take in the best of Broadway and visit with production houses to gain inspiration for that year's holiday show.

Ideas for the show are developed during another retreat in the country, where the church's creative core "sits down with white boards and goes to town," working on an outline for the script and music. Ron Klipp wrote the original music for this year's show. Laughlin and director Kathy Renouf were its principal writers.

In October, the show's concept is revealed to church members at a kickoff event, and casting and rehearsals begin. "Anyone who wants to be in the show will be in the show as long as they are willing to commit the time," Laughlin says. "…The real joy of it all, for me, is to see these people being mobilized."

And joy is what this show is all about, and what sells tickets. That and the unpredictable nature of "Glorious Christmas Nights." "People probably did expect a traditional Christmas pageant in earlier years," Laughlin says. "We do a traditional pageant inside our story, we just get there in fresh new ways every year." S

"Glorious Christmas Nights" runs Dec. 6-15 at West End Assembly of God, 401 Parham Road. Tickets are $15. Call 754-0738 or visit www.weag.org for details.


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