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'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' to take Dickinson State's center stage

"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" — a play by Dickinson State university is set to take center stage this December.

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Playing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Bradley, Dickinson State University senior and theater major Rachel Wood, right, is on the phone learning about the unexpected news that she has to direct the Christmas pageant as her stage husband Chris Prchal reads a newspaper. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

Though change can be unfavorable, sometimes change is good. In “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” the children’s show will share a different story to the meaning of Christmas and what it means by giving change a try.

As a way to get the community into the holiday spirit, Dickinson State University’s Arts and Letters Department will unveil “The Best Christmas Pageant ever” at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 10, in Dorothy Stickney Auditorium in May Hall. The show will follow with three performances with a 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. show on Saturday, Dec. 11, and a final performance at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12.

Written by Barbara Robinson in 1971, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” tells the story of six misfit children who volunteer to star in their town’s Sunday school Christmas pageant, and they end up teaching the town a new meaning of Christmas. The book was later adapted into a play in 1982 by the Seattle Children’s Theatre.

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The cast of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" rehearse the nativity scene Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, on the stage of Dorothy Stickney Auditorium at Dickinson State University. The play will have four performances, beginning at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

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“When I found out that our play dates would be in December, (I thought) you can’t do a December show unless it’s a holiday show," Director Cheryl Hewson noted. "I looked through a few holiday things and of course, this was my favorite by far because I like to use things with a large cast so I can include a lot of the young people that audition and something that has a pretty good story. So when I read this, that was it. That was the one. I didn’t realize at the time that it was a popular children’s book that’d been around for decades. So it was just a double bonus when I could get a show that a lot of the kids might be familiar with.”

For those who are not aware of this story, they will be “pleasantly surprised,” Hewson remarked.

“I guess part of the theme is making the best of a bad situation. Because when the real director breaks her leg and can't do it, that’s a bad situation. And then when this group of basically young hoodlums comes and takes over everything, that's basically a bad situation too because the good kids have never experienced this before other than being bullied on the school grounds… (This play’s about) turning somebody's life around that you didn't expect to,” she said, adding, “... You just never know who you're going to touch or how you're going to touch them.”

Auditions for this play began during the first week of November, with about 27 people ready to play a part. However, Hewson said there was a real shortage with the amount of boys who auditioned, so she had to improvise and cast some girls with male parts.

“... They were all agreeable to that and they made pretty good boys up on stage,” Hewson said, adding, “I think once we get the costumes on them, nobody's going to realize that it's girls playing boys' parts because they've certainly taken on the mannerisms of the kids that they're trying to be.”

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Director Cheryl Hewson gives advice to a young actress during a rehearsal of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Dorothy Stickney Auditorium at Dickinson State University. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

As a DSU adjunct instructor of music and voice, Hewson tries to direct a play annually. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is Hewson’s third children’s show she’s directed at DSU. This production also marks the first children’s play taking the stage at the university in more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic.

Directing a children’s show is not as daunting of a task as one might think compared to other theatrical productions, Hewson noted.

“Actually, sometimes it's easier because the kids are less inhibited. So if there's some kind of action going on, (and) I say, ‘I need this and this and this and this.’ Man, they jump into it, throw their whole energy into it and they just have a great time doing what they're doing,” she said. “Sometimes with older actors, you don't get that until it's closer to the performance because it's not a novel experience to them. And with these kids, it's a novel experience. I have great kids in the cast; it seems every year I have such great kids. Now this year, I've got kids in there that have been in my first two shows, and I've got kids in there that I've never seen before. I've got a fair number of high school students and then of course, my college students that are in there and a few adults are coming in to do a guest appearance. And so, it's pretty much all ages.”

Hewson added, “I enjoy seeing the kids blossom from the way they appear at auditions to the way they appear in the show as a character. That is the most enjoyable thing. Because they grow in ways that I don't even expect or I can't even anticipate. When I cast them, I say, ‘Okay, this kid sounds like that. This kid looks like that character. I think this kid could carry that off.’ And I'm constantly surprised by how much more they accomplished than I expect them to.”

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Mrs. Bradley, played by Dickinson State University senior and theater major Rachel Wood, answers a phone call during a scene of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Dorothy Stickney Auditorium. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

DSU senior and theater major Rachel Waldo said that this play is a way to bring on the holiday cheer.

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“It’s so light. A lot of the shows that I’ve done in the past have been more dramatic, so this show (has) the little one-liners and the energy that the kids bring to the show is a lot of fun just to feel the Christmas spirit and the general levity of the show,” Waldo said.

With “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” Waldo will be playing Mrs. Bradley — the mother of the two main kids in the play.

“It’s sort of through her lens that you’re seeing the process of directing this children’s pageant and the Christmas story and the crazy antics that the kids get up to,” she said.

During her years at DSU, Waldo said each production is a learning experience.

“It’s really awesome watching the kids grow because they do even more than in a college show. From beginning to end, it’s a full 360. It’s crazy to see how far they’ve come and how far they’ll continue to go,” Waldo said. “It’s also awesome to be able to offer the little pieces of knowledge that we’ve picked up in our years here to the new generation of actors and directors, and it’s really fun to get them involved and feel like you’re helping the community in your own little way. And it’s fun too.”

After wrapping up “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” around Halloween, Waldo hopped right into this holiday production. As a seasoned actress, Waldo has been helping Hewson with blocking — the precise staging of actors — and that has been its own tedious process, she said. It’s also important for Waldo as a more experienced actress to help younger cast members with memorization, volume and enunciation of their lines.

“I’m focusing on directing in my studies and I’m right now the director of theater at Dickinson High School,” Waldo said. “So in watching Cheryl work with the kids here, it’s been really awesome and (it’s) a new way to look at how she directs them and things that you might assume them to know that they probably don’t because of the lack of having done this before. (I’m also) able to pick out things that she does really well and that I can steal for my future productions.”

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Angels sing "Silent Night" during the nativity scene of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" in a rehearsal Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Dorothy Stickney Auditorium at Dickinson State University. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

As opposed to watching television, Hewson said this is a way to capture a live performance in person.

“Plus, you get the bonus of hearing the Christmas story in a slightly different setting and in a totally different way once the Herdmans get done with it. And you get to sing and hear a few Christmas carols… So it’s just a nice getaway for about an hour and 15 minutes of a person’s time either in the evening or the afternoon,” Hewson said. “Of course, the kids love to perform, so they’ll love to have an audience.”

As an advocate for all things theater, Waldo said she hopes people will give “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” a try this holiday season.

“I really hope that people bring an open mind and take away the idea that you should give every kid a chance because as someone who is going into education and directing, it’s sometimes the very people that you don’t expect anything of who do the things that no one could have imagined. I feel that every kid deserves a chance,” Waldo added.

Tickets for adults are $10, and children tickets are $5. For any DSU faculty, staff and students, admission is free. To purchase tickets ahead of showtime, visit dsuarts.com. People can also purchase tickets by visiting Stickney Hall 221 in person or at the door on each performance day.

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