The Herdman children are the meanest, rowdiest kids in town, and when they hear there will be free snacks for participants in the local church’s Christmas pageant, they gamely sign up.
And that’s when the chaos ensues.
The Herdmans’ unconventional performances in the pageant form the plot of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” the holiday-themed play that opens at College of The Albemarle’s Performing Arts Center on Dec. 9.
“They’re the worst kids in town,” says co-director Jennifer Wilson, describing the Herdman kids. “They bully their way into the church pageant.”
Based on the 1971 children’s novel by Barbara Robinson by the same name, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” unfolds as the six cigar-smoking, jug wine-drinking and swearing Herdman children take over the starring roles in a church’s annual pageant. Imogene, Ralph, Claude, Leroy, Ollie and Gladys Herdman create chaos for the otherwise orderly and traditional church event.
“It’s a hilarious show. The cast is giving us what we need for comedic performances,” said Wilson, a long-time COA theater performer and current theater arts student.
Wilson, who also teaches elementary school, is co-directing “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” along with Mariah Schierer, performing arts center manager at the community college. Together, they are directing a crew of nearly 60 performers, each role double cast with understudies.
Performances are scheduled Dec. 9 at 10 a.m., Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Dec. 12 at 2 p.m.
The 2 p.m. performance on Dec. 11 will be “sensory-friendly,” meaning it’s geared toward audience members who are on the autism spectrum and have a difficult time with bright lights and loud noises, and sitting still. The idea of staging a sensory-friendly performance of the play grew out of Wilson’s own experience with her now 18-year-old daughter, Gabby, who is autistic.
Wilson, Gabby, and Wilson’s other daughter, Elise, are all COA theater veterans. Gabby, says Wilson, has grown up in the theater but early on, it was difficult for her to adjust to its sometimes frenetic pace.
“She has been a mainstay in this theater for six years,” said Wilson. “But she was misunderstood.”
Becca Brown, another young woman who had been a part of COA’s theater program, and is herself on the autism spectrum, recognized Gabby’s specific needs and took her under her wing. Brown showed Gabby how to navigate the spontaneous and raucous theater environment. The results have been very positive for Gabby, who will play one of the Herdman children during the sensory-friendly performance.
“Since that time, I have always seen theater as something for everyone,” said Wilson, who hopes this is just the first of many sensory-friendly productions at COA.
As part of the staging for a sensory-friendly performance, the theater lights will be adjusted to offer a calming atmosphere, the mics will be turned down to cut back on echoes, bangs and booms, and fidgeting will be encouraged. In addition, PAC will offer safe spaces for anyone who needs to move during the course of the play.
“We’re going to dim the lights and turn down the mics,” Gabby said. “I’m very happy about about that. We’re creating a safe space and I am very excited about that.”
Another difficulty for people on the autism spectrum can be handling the unexpected. Wilson says the theater group is producing a play synopsis in a “storybook” format that families can print out as well as a handout that answers questions about the performance. She says that will help theater-goers on the autism spectrum better understand what they are experiencing.
On stage, meanwhile, the chaos caused by the Herdman children will go on as planned, raising the ire of the staid church ladies in charge of the church pageant. In one scene, the Herdmans smoking in the church bathroom spurs one church lady to call the fire department.
It’s that kind of hilarity that makes “The Best Christmas Pageant” a heart-warming Christmas story for families that will bring laughter to any audience member.
General admission tickets for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” are $18 for adults, $17 for seniors and military, $8.50 for children and students, and can be purchased online at www.albemarle.edu/for-the-community/the-arts/.