Editor's note: This story was originally published in Nov. 2019.
When you buy a ticket to see a show at Sight & Sound Theatres -- $59 before taxes -- you are paying to see a spectacle.
The theater is a Lancaster County landmark. Sight & Sound has hosted shows in Ronks (currently at 300 Hartman Bridge Road) almost non-stop since 1991, and at other locations dating back to 1976.
However, for all the glitz and showmanship that audiences witness on the 300-foot wraparound stage, an entirely different performance is going on backstage.
And if everything goes according to plan, you’d never know it.
After almost two straight years and hundreds of performances, “Jesus” makes way for “The Miracle of Christmas,” a sort of prequel and one of Sight & Sound’s most cherished performances. The show has been a proud holiday tradition since 1996, sparing a few years in between.
While the central story has remained unchanged -- the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph -- Sight & Sound has grown rapidly since the first performance in 1996. This season, the performances are all sold out.
Behind the scenes at Sight & Sound Theatre
Instead of simply attending a performance in the audience, I decided the best way to capture the full breadth of the show was to dust off my all-black uniform from high school musicals of yore and serve as an honorary member of the stage crew for an afternoon matinee.
If you are blissfully unaware of the labor performed by stagehands in shows of all sizes, consider this -- an unseen force handles everything from lights to props and costumes to carpentry. Sure, actors deliver stirring pieces of dialogue and inspired musical numbers, but without the stage crew? You’d probably have a couple dozen people standing around aimlessly on a dark stage.
When I arrived for the 3 p.m. performance of the Nov. 20 showing of “The Miracle of Christmas,” a line of cars and buses was departing the theater from the 11 a.m. show.
A quick glance at Sight & Sound’s performance calendar shows an average of 11 shows per week, with two shows per day Tuesday through Friday and another three on Saturdays. All told, nearly 165,000 people will experience “The Miracle of Christmas” between its opening on Nov. 1 and closing on Dec. 28. That is, 165,000 and me, behind the scenes.
Calling upon decade-old stage crew skills gleaned from Exeter Senior High School’s unforgettable spring 2009 production of “Beauty & the Beast,” I prepared for my role with light stretches and the application of electrical tape to the white undersides of my sneakers.
Shortly before the show began, I began shadowing crew member Dan Davis, one of the many multi-year veterans of the fifty-strong stage crew. Davis wasn’t even supposed to be there that day, though a crew shortage necessitated his presence. Even behind the curtain, walking across the cavernous stage was incredibly intimidating.
As I would soon find out, every single crew member had specific marks to hit throughout the entire two-and-a-half-hour performance. Set change after set change, I’d watch them confidently hit their beats. However, these were not robots programmed into place -- a small group of crew members danced around to the opening music, and in the break area, a Nintendo Switch and “Dungeons & Dragons” monster manual adorned the tables near packages of various types of Oreos, a game fuel if there ever was one.
Since everyone knew their marks by way of already doing the show 30 times, I found myself consistently attempting one of two scenarios: A. Haphazardly adding an extra set of hands to push gigantic set pieces into place or B. Standing slack-jawed before a patient crew member would inevitably ask me to move, lest I wanted to be mowed down by the aforementioned gigantic set pieces.
In recreating locales such as Nazareth and Jerusalem, several building-sized structures need to be carefully placed. Davis allowed me to walk around inside a few, and it brings me no pleasure to report that quite a few of them felt as big as my apartment living room.
While some set pieces are moved in a traditional, humans-pushing-stuff-around way, Sight & Sound employs technology called the Raynok Control System. With Raynok, specific tasks such as stage lifts and wire-flying are pre-programmed prior to performances, allowing for computer-grade efficiency. While, yes, this means that actors portraying angels are flying up to 40 feet in the air based on a series of ones and zeros, there are crew members tasked to each flier to make certain that nothing goes wrong.
One of the many hallmarks of a Sight & Sound production are the choice roles for various farm animals. After all, Mary supposedly traveled with Joseph to Bethlehem on a donkey and ended up crashing in a barn for the night, so it makes sense that a few animals would make appearances during the performance.
If you’re the squeamish type, skip ahead to the next paragraph. In the second act, there’s a part of the show where an actor leads a small flock of three sheep onto the stage, leaving behind several mounds of ewe berries. Obviously, there is no occupation where piles of poop can be attended to later, but this was made slightly more complicated by the relative darkness of the backstage area. So, with the dutiful help of another stagehand holding a small flashlight, I swept every pellet into a small bin. Minutes later, I watched those same sheep pull the same trick, but onstage this time, where no one could assist.
An impressive production
More than a thousand miles away, “The Miracle of Christmas” was also happening in a Sight & Sound playhouse in Branson, Missouri. Justin Stahl, yet another stagehand tasked with accompanying me during my visit -- yes, because of the multitude of tasks these folks undertake during the show, I was gleefully passed around from person to person throughout the show with more frequency than a collection basket -- showcased some of the technological differences between the theaters.
From an iPad, Stahl pulled up an app that has each show programmed in such a way that you can not only see each actor and stagehand’s movements all at once, but also zoom in to see these movements from any one specific person’s point of view.
Many of the upper echelon of stage crew members have made trips to Branson to check out the digs, and vice versa. Stahl described the obvious déjà vu that comes with entering a building with almost the exact same dimensions, to execute the exact same show, with the exact same sets and props -- but with one small caveat.
“I know I’m not supposed to covet my neighbor’s stage or anything,” Stahl says with a smile. “But their backstage area is just a little bigger than ours, which makes it easier to move around the really big set pieces.”
“The Miracle of Christmas” ends with an epic battle of angels, a soaring soundtrack and a sword that shoots flames. Baby Jesus is born and, fittingly, the last word spoken in the show is “joy.”
However, the show finale celebration takes place entirely on stage -- actors and crew members leave in a relative hurry, probably because they’d be back at their marks less than 24 hours later.
I’d like to say that I was even a small help, but that would be an overstatement. For me personally, the true miracle of “The Miracle of Christmas” was not ruining the show from behind the curtain for the 2,000 people in front of it.