The Herdman children are a handful.
But that won’t stop the meaning of Christmas from shining through in Emerald Pig’s latest production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by playwright Barbara Robinson.
When the bossy lady who runs the church Christmas pageant breaks a leg, Grace is talked into directing the production, even though she’s never done it before. What she doesn’t count on are the Herdman children, a group of six delinquent brothers and sisters who show up at auditions because they find out there is food for people who attend church.
The Herdmans are welfare children, poorly behaved. They wear ratty clothes, their family has no money and they have no manners.
They bully their way into all the lead roles, although they don’t know the Christmas story and have never seen a bible before. Grace never makes it through any of the rehearsals properly, and when opening night comes, she doesn’t know what to expect.
But what happens is magic, with the Herdman children finally understanding what Christmas is all about.
“It’s a very touching story,” said director Kathleen Hatley.
“It’s very simple. It’s not very long, but it’s got humour all the way through it and then it’s got this lovely poignancy at the end, where the meaning of Christmas kind of comes through for this particular family of kids,” she said.
“I love a show where you make them laugh and you make them cry,” she added.
There were plenty of challenges for Hatley putting on this production. One was the size of the venue.
“We are doing it at the Open Door Church, which is a lovely venue. We love performing there, but it is very small compared to a big stage,” said Hatley, who had the task of fitting a hospital bed, playground equipment, a living room and a church on stage.
Sharon Malone, producer, designed the set, fitting everything in with the help of modern technology.
Hatley was also nervous with the number of children cast in the production, but said this cast has been good about listening and staying focused. There are 30 cast members ranging in age from five to 84. At least 20 are children, including a nine-member children’s choir.
“They were all off book within a really short time,” said Hatley explaining that once they know their lines they are more in character and easy to work with.
“I have a couple of kids who have never been on stage before and they are having a ball,” she said.
Instead of canned music, Hatley will have live piano accompaniment provided by 13-year-old Hana O’Reilly, who also plays Beth, the narrator of the play and the director of the pageant’s daughter.
There is also a lot of chaos at rehearsals just because of the way the script was written, including two firemen who run through the church because the apple cake has burned and there is smoke everywhere.
“That made me really nervous, too, because, how am I going to be able to have the chaos for the show but keep order amongst the chaos as a director running rehearsals? But it all just came together.”
Hatley is the kind of director who needs to hear a play in order to decide whether she wants to tackle it on stage.
“I don’t need to see it necessarily, but I need to hear it,” she explained.
But for this play, there was no way of doing that and Hatley had to read it cold.
“I was a little leery because I don’t read plays well. But this particular play, I was laughing out loud it was so funny,” said Hatley.
According to the guide, A Play Director’s Survival Kit, by James W. Rodgers and Wanda C. Rodgers, 80 per cent of a director’s job is done if the production is cast well.
“And, man, did I ever cast this play well,” Hatley said.
The Emerald Pig Theatrical Society’s production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 1, 2, 4, 8, 9 and 10 with a special matinee at 2 p.m. on Dec. 10 at Open Door Church, 11391 Dartford St. in Maple Ridge.
Tickets are available on Eventbrite for $18, $15 and 4 for $60. For more information, call 604-785-1405 or go to http://www.emeraldpig.ca/.