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Sight and Sound Theater Introduces the Greatest Story Ever Told

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

Sitting atop a pastoral knoll in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country is something quite unexpected. While the area is well-known for simple living, plain dress, and the reluctance to adopt the many conveniences of modern technology*, one would never expect to find a 2,000 seat theater specializing in Biblically-themed theater productions there.  No need for alarm, this is the location Sight & Sound Theaters calls home.

Founded in 1976 by former dairy farmers Glenn and Shirley Eshelman, Sight & Sound was really an outgrowth of Glenn’s burgeoning love of photography and multi-media slide shows.  The Eshelman’s traveled around the country for many years showing off his love of God’s creation through photography before buying a small plot of land to construct a theater.  Their intent was to showcase these slide shows in one convenient location.  Never in their wildest dreams did they think it would spawn two world-class theaters (also a location in Branson, Missouri) that today employs more than 650 people.  Some would call it the hand of providence. Quite simply, Sight & Sound Theaters exists to glorify God.

“The name Sight & Sound came from the heart of who we are” explains President/CEO Matt Neff.   “Our intent is to reveal God’s Word through story.  The name really came from Scripture where Jesus was constantly telling stories and using parables all the time. It’s the disciples asking, ‘Why all the stories?’ He said, ‘Seeing they don’t see.  Hearing they don’t hear.  They don’t understand.’  But sight and sound together … that was sort of the nexus for our mission and focus.”

For the last 42 years that vision has produced some of the most elaborate Biblically themed theatrical productions in the world.  From Samson to Jonah to the just-released Jesus, Sight & Sound strives to produce live performances that can compete with virtually any theater in the world … even Broadway.  But these productions don’t just happen overnight.  Through meticulous planning and lots of prayer each of their productions take roughly three to four years before the curtain rises on opening night.

“There is a lot of work that goes into it,” Neff says.  “We do just about everything in house.  So, whether it is writing the script, designing the show, building the sets, making the costumes, training the animals, and training the actors.  That is a three and a half year process.”

“It takes every single minute of those three and a half years to produce a Sight & Sound show to this level,” adds Creative Director Josh Enck, who began his career there as a stage hand in 1995.”

Enck, who has directed five previous productions with Sight & Sound, realizes that he has taken on the Bible story of all Bible stories with their re-telling of the greatest story ever told.  While there were many, many different ways to approach the One who represents the very fabric and foundation of evangelical faith, it is the simple theme of search and rescue that ultimately drives this production.

“We felt the Lord move and place this one on our hearts,” Enck shares. “It was not a difficult decision to make that we were going to do the show. But how were we going to do the show? It is that blank piece of paper that you stare at on the first couple days of creating something new that was intimidating.  It absolutely drove us to prayer, and in the midst of prayer, the theme that came out we completely immersed our hearts into.  That theme is love that rescues.”

“We wanted to tell the story in a fresh way and in a little bit of unexpected way” says Kristen Brewer, a member of the Sight & Sound writing team.  “We asked ourselves the question, what do we want the audience to walk away with?  And we wanted them to know that Jesus came to rescue you. We want people to go back home, get their Bible out and read back through the stories themselves. So we tell the story from the perspective of the people He encountered and who He rescued.  You couldn’t meet Jesus and not do something with Him, not react, not take His hand.”

Casting who would play Jesus was no easy task.  Thus, Sight and Sound went through the painstaking task of looking for and finding just the right person who could best embody the role of the Messiah.  In the end, not one but two actors were selected to play the most pivotal of roles.  In addition to Sight & Sound veteran Brandon Talley in the lead, 22-year-old Southern California native Jonathan Blair joins the cast after a brief stint at the theater’s Branson location. 

“When I found out that I got the role, I had an overwhelming sense from the Father that you don’t have to fight this battle, that I will go before you; and I will deliver it into your hand,” Blair says.  “All you have to do is trust Me. I felt very much like Peter in that moment, like, just step out of the boat into the uncertain, into the water. Keep your eyes on me, and I’ll take you there.”

Becoming Jesus onstage is a demanding task to say the least.  Beyond the sheer magnitude of playing the Son of God, Talley and Blair are in virtually every scene amid sets that are vivid, lush, and technically spectacular.  Speaking of spectacular, Jesus also marks the debut of a 110-foot long high definition video screen designed to enhance the visual depth of each scene but is not intended to overwhelm the audience. 

“It is approximately the wingspan of a 737 jet,” points out Corporate Communications Manager Katie Miller, the granddaughter of Sight & Sound founders Glenn and Shirley Eshelman.  “It is three stories high.  And it actually flies in and out of the stage space like a backdrop.  But it really becomes the backdrop of our show.”

“We wanted people to really be immersed in the story of Jesus and actually make it feel like they’re sitting there at the Sermon on the Mount,” Enck adds.  “We’re only using seven percent (of the screen’s luminance capacity), because it’s built for outdoor use, for stadiums and things. But this isn’t a story about the LED screen, this is a story about Christ.”

Jesus is potentially the most important production Sight & Sound has ever staged.  The theater originally produced a Jesus-themed play in 1987 but the aforementioned technology has enhanced the feeling of “being there” as part of the story to an entirely new level.  This is of the most critical importance in an age where Biblical literacy seems to be dwindling more and more each year.

Says Blair, “Our culture is so obsessed with entertainment and so obsessed with media, film and plays, that oftentimes that’s where we go, that’s where we’re receiving our world views. It’s shaping our perspectives of the world. So, this is the time to be creating works that portray the truth, that portray who God is, especially in media. This may be the only Bible that kids or people ever read, ever see. This may be their only interaction with this material, so it’s priority.”

“The best compliment we ever get is when a family comes to Sight & Sound, experiences a Bible story, walks out and then says later, ‘You know, we went home and we read that story together in the Bible,” agrees Miller. “We want these experiences to go beyond our four walls.  It’s meant to be something that is inspiring and produces this overwhelming sense of recognizing that these stories are timeless.” 

For all the dazzling production values that go into each and every Sight & Sound performance, in the end Jesus is about saving the one.

“I want them to know that Jesus left the 99 to rescue the one, and that they are the one that He would have left 99 for, no matter who they are, no matter where they’ve been, no matter what they’ve done, no matter what their background is.” Enck explains.  “And I want everybody who comes to see this show to walk away knowing that He left the 99 to rescue them as well.”

Sight & Sound Theater’s production of Jesus playing now through January 2019.  For tickets please visit their website.

Watch a trailer for Sight & Sound's production of Jesus:

* courtesy of Wikipedia

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