On stage, a poor, ragged, dirty-faced little girl, walking with her siblings, is so overpowered by the message she has just heard, she turns and runs, holding a star high above her head.
“Hey! Hey! Unto you a child is born,” she yells.
Presumably the character is yelling it for anyone left awake in her small town late on Christmas Eve, but the actor is yelling it for the audience. It’s one last chance to make sure anyone watching “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is getting the message — a message StageOne Family Theatre has been spreading for decades.
That story — in case you somehow missed the last 20 productions — revolves around the rough, poor Herdman family and how they take over and terrorize the town’s annual Christmas pageant. Through the course of the play, the church members, and hopefully the audience, learn a lesson about the real meaning of charity and kindness.
StageOne has been putting on “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” for almost 30 years. This year, the company is celebrating an incredible 70th anniversary.
Over the years, hundreds of child actors have been involved in productions of the show, many of them going on to successful careers in theater, and just about everyone will tell you what an amazing experience it was and talk about what it was like to work with grownup actors in a professional show.
So to celebrate the company’s 70th anniversary and the 21st production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” StageOne is inviting back its alumni, an estimated 500 current and former Louisvillians.
Insider organized a little informal reunion, talking with some of our favorite “Christmas Pageant” alums and some of the current crop of kids, to ask them about what they learned while participating in one of Louisville’s favorite holiday traditions.
If you grew up in the theater world in Louisville, StageOne auditions are kind of a big deal. Outside of theater nerds, kids all over the city and beyond see the show done at StageOne either on class field trips or with their families. That’s a lot of exposure, so when it comes time to compete for the parts, there are a lot of contenders.
Amy Attaway, a former cast member who’s now the associate artistic director at Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, recalls her first audition.
“The first time I auditioned was (when) I was in fifth grade,” she says. “I did not get cast. I was devastated. I went back and did it again and got cast.” Her first role had just five lines, but she was thrilled.
This, of course, is the first lesson any actor needs to learn: persistence. Attaway isn’t the only one who had to audition more than once to get in. Elizabeth Morton is a New York actor who, among other credits, appeared on Broadway in Mike Nichols’ production of “Death of a Salesman.”
“I wanted to be in ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’ so bad,” recalls Morton, who spoke with Insider by phone from New York. “I auditioned for it when I was 13 and didn’t even get a call back, though I know why: I probably was terrible.”
Morton had to wait a couple of years to try again. Sometimes StageOne will throw in a play like “The Snow Queen” or “Kringel’s Window,” or last year’s “Adventures of Frog and Toad,” to give the holiday show a breather.
But when she was 17 and a senior in high school, Morton got her last chance to join the cast. She auditioned again.
“So when I was 17, I got to play Imogen, and it was fulfilling a long-held dream,” she says.
‘I’ve always just loved this play’
Insider sat down with the current cast’s youngest actors, Paige Franklin and Ellie Solinger. The duo — both fifth graders at Field Elementary — are double cast as Gladys Herdman, the youngest member of the misfit family.
All the kids’ roles require two actors because there’s too much school missed for the high volume of matinee performances for one person to handle.
And both are just about as precocious as one could hope. They’re also complete opposites. Franklin is quiet and serious, and she answers questions like she’s doing an entrance interview for college. Solinger’s gaze — and I suspect her imagination — wanders frequently. She kept silly putty in her hands at all times to keep her fingers busy.
Both gave amazingly complete and cogent answers about the process, both are first-timers at StageOne and, like Attaway and Morton, they both had seen the play before they auditioned.
“Like, I’ve always just loved this play,” says Solinger. “This is basically what inspired me to do acting. Like, when I was 4, I came to see the show for the first time, I saw Gladys Herdman raise up her star like I do, and I thought, ‘That girl looks like me!’”
Franklin echoes the sentiment. “I’ve seen so many kids at StageOne, and when I see kids my age, I’m, like, ‘I wanna do that,’” she says.
Solinger says what a lot of theater professionals already know: “It really does make me more interested (in a play) when I find someone who is like me, or like someone I know. It makes me more engaged, because I make connections, and it just really helps me understand the story.”
‘Oh, this is a job’
“When I think about those years at StageOne, I cannot imagine my career without them,” says Attaway. In addition to her first five-line role, she went on to perform in quite a few productions. “Three ‘Christmas Pageants,’ two performances of ‘Kringel’s Window’ and then ‘John Lennon and Me’ — those productions and the people I met were the basis of my training.”
Morton says the first time she really knew she could make a living as an actor was after seeing a production of “Christmas Pageant.” “There was this big lightbulb over my head, like, ‘Oh, this is a job.”
This year’s cast is making similar discoveries. Franklin talks about watching the adult actors during rehearsals. “You could be at their level someday,” she says. “I mean, we’re all very good, but I’m thinking we’re doing this with adults who have done this a lot of years … and it’s cool because you can see and know they are regular people just like you.”
‘Turn around and reach back’
After college, before New York, Morton came back for a yearlong internship at StageOne. She played the lead in “Christmas Pageant” that year, the role of Beth, a woman remembering the important lesson she learned about charity during childhood.
Morton says it was amazing to return to the show as an adult, five years after she had played Imogene Herdman. “It was interesting for me to be a role model for the younger kids, and to take that seriously.”
Attaway also is mindful of her early experiences. “One of my favorite things I do in my career now is turn around and reach back to people who are just starting out, to kids or college students or people who are early in their career, and see what I can do for those people coming along in the profession,” she says.
It’s too early for the newest and youngest cast members to look back, but instead they have learned to look within and to look past the sometimes frightening surface truths of the people around them.
“Just because you’re mean, doesn’t mean… you’re purposefully trying to be mean,” says Franklin. “Like the Herdmans. They’re mean, but… they don’t have a mom or a dad.”
The only time either of these kids struggled for words was in trying to impart ideas about charity, love and giving — yet they both expressed the sentiment that whatever your religion is, it isn’t about a fancy church, mosque or temple, it’s about seeing people who need help and helping them, even if they scare you at first.
Of course, these kids are actors, so they don’t have to find the right words. They just run on stage at the end of the show, thrust high the star from the top of the Christmas tree, and yell, “Hey! Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” runs at the Kentucky Center on Dec. 3, 10 and 17 at 2 and 5 p.m., with student matinees at 10 a.m. and noon through Dec. 16. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for kids 12 and under. A special alumni show will be held Monday, Dec. 19, and if you’re alumni, you can get a special rate by calling 498-2436.