It is one of the longest running and most controversial shows ever produced in America. It features brazen and terrifyingly realistic depictions of violence as well as an impressive array of homicides, including (but not limited to) lengthy immolations, vicious mauling with pointy weaponry and a number of forced dives off of cliffs. It deploys genocide as an organizing principle, and its depictions of racial wars are themselves rather racist. It played a role in the 2012 election, was recently given a rewrite by a publicly reviled, immensely homophobic, outsized bigot who went on record comparing President Obama to Hitler, and draws an international audience of more than 30,000 people each summer. Despite the show’s touchy subject material, the event’s producers have developed a number of canny audience engagement techniques that make viewers feel welcome and comfortable, notwithstanding the literally numerous holocausts that take place on stage.
The pageant has taken place annually in Palmyra, New York since the 1920s, and deploys nearly 900 amateur performers and technical personnel (all LDS members) to reenact scenes from Mormon gospel. The show happens outdoors on a holy embankment called Hill Cumorah, features a script by Orson Scott Card (controversial author of Ender’s Game) and abundant special effects by Rick Josephson (the SFX guru behind Cujo and High School Musical). As a choreographer concerned with the struggles of the American dance community to represent itself, I attended the Hill Cumorah Pageant as part of a research project investigating how contested cultures use theatrical experiences to promulgate themselves. It was the most thoroughly considered and troublingly affective live theater I have ever witnessed. It made the “conversion marketing” of the performing arts sector look despairingly amateurish by comparison.
The Pageant is a massive proselytizing effort of which live performance is but one element. It was the pre- and post- show design — a subtle bevy of enchantment engineering and mechanisms of crowd control — that were most impressive. In contrast to other fantasy destinations (such as Disneyland, which is engineered to maximize the number of smiling interactions with costumed laborers intending to separate you from your money), the Hill Cumorah Pageant is engineered to maximize the number of smiling interactions with costumed LDS members intending to separate you from the mailing addresses of your friends and family. It is a perpetual motion marketing machine, engineered to maximize religious conversions while using its present audience to volunteer future ones. Hill Cumorah is a proof-of-concept for an ideal performing arts audience, one willing to undergo great inconvenience to expend huge amounts of money while excitedly sharing their experience with others, giving up their email addresses and not trashing the bathrooms.
The experience design begins miles away from the venue. Hill Cumorah is, quite literally, a mound in the middle of rural nowhere; to get there, one must brave the nighttime wilds of upstate New York. Minutes after setting out on the dark roads from my hotel in an adjacent county, I passed a huge, brilliantly lit billboard with instructions to the effect of “Going to Hill Cumorah? Turn left at the McDonalds!” A slew of anticipatory signage led straight to the venue, adjacent to which was a massive plain bisected by neat lanes of lamped traffic cones and staffed by dozens of exceedingly friendly, semaphore-proficient volunteers. We were asked before entering the lot which highway we would be taking post-show, and directed to a sub-lot designated for folks heading in the same direction. A team of three (smiling) volunteers gestured us to an available spot, carefully guided us in and gave a friendly wave before moving on to the next of the thousands of cars they would park that night.
Between my car and my seat, I was greeted by no fewer than 40 (smiling) people. Mostly they were fully costumed performers who made certain that I knew where the popcorn and restrooms were, and verified that I had everything I possibly needed. After being seated, roving bands of (smiling) costumed performers asked about my familiarity with the themes of the evening’s show, jokingly told me to watch out for the parts they were in, and shared their favorite passages from the Book of Mormon. Finally, after relaying their personal narratives of faith, they asked if I would consider sharing the names, addresses and emails of anyone I thought might benefit from hearing from the LDS Church. When I declined, the performers walked on with a (smiling) wave and seamlessly transitioned to the family seated behind me.
In addition to the persistently friendly social interactions with the performers, I should note that the portable restroom trailers (by Ameri-Can, natch) were abundant, ADA compliant, impeccably clean and well stocked; all the concessions were locally sourced, staffed by (smiling) Rotarians from the region; young volunteers gathered up the trash from the trash cans before they were filled; Spanish and American Sign Language translation was readily accessible; and the seats were comfortable, the parking lot was well lit, the theatrical sight-lines were impeccable, and the pre-show announcement didn’t tell the audience not to use flash photography, but rather kindly stated that because the show was outdoors, a flash wasn’t going to work anyway, so taking photos without the flash would probably work best. All of this attention to detail — so systematized and so, so friendly — was the clear product of a thoroughly managed process, and an indication of highly intelligent and emotionally manipulative design.
The experience of the Hill Cumorah Pageant is as much a show about the Book of Mormon as it is about impeccable friendliness and pervasive thoughtfulness, thus it is twice over a performance of Mormonism. It is engineered to exorcise negative feelings against the LDS Church — its efforts to ban and denounce gay marriage; its rampant, racist doctrine; its tendency towards sexual violence against women in fringe sects and otherwise; and the pop culture crypto dogma of the Twilight Saga and Battlestar Galactica, to name a few. And it juxtaposes those negative expectations against the (smiling) people and their infectious faith. In the moment, the suffocating niceness and good planning utterly flustered my incredulity and non-belief. I stood in awe of the many (smiling) people who shared a passion for a faith that seemed to make them so happy. The surfeit of performed positivity made it impossible to doubt their closely held beliefs, and even made me lightly jealous of their high-fiving, familial camaraderie. That thousands of people attending the show received that same (smiling) service indicates a level of affective virtuosity that I understood was theoretically possible — Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer come to mind — but never seen for myself.
The social engineering of Hill Cumorah is as fascinating as it is troubling, in part because it reveals how low my expectations have fallen for the conventional theatrical experience. How many of us in the performing arts have grown accustomed to lousy signage and difficult parking and bathrooms that are awkwardly out of hand soap, and expect artistic vision to be challenging in the sense that artists are cannot or will not explain themselves to those who don’t already understand them? Of all of the weird shows in all of the towns in all of the world, it was the Hill Cumorah Pageant that made obvious to me that the environmental and social frame of a show is at least (if not more) important for the transmission of culture than any show itself.
What would it take to reimagine the experience of being in a theater? What would it mean for performing arts organizations to always consider the audience’s experience before, during and after a performance? What would it take for arts organizations to eagerly anticipate the audience’s pain points and address them so seamlessly that the audience was made grateful? What would it mean to teach emerging artists, administrators and trustees how to empathize with their audiences? What if we stopped being in the business of making shows and started being in the business of encouraging people to enjoy our shows? What would it take to imbue in audiences the understanding that a show is made up of people attempting to share a meaningful experience in the best way they know how, and that this is an act of generosity and not pretension, utopianism and snobbish inside baseball? Can we imagine a theatrical experience so empathetic, so finely attuned and so damned friendly that audiences find themselves looking forward to the next show before the first one has even begun?