For 11 consecutive years Rev. Jeff Edwards has led an original Christmas theater performance alongside members in the community at Parsippany United Methodist Church.
The production process is a testament to Edwards’ profound spirituality and love for all people.
“By the summer I get an image or scene in my head. The image or scene becomes a seed thought for the play. From there I put out a call for people to be in the play,” said Edwards.
Most people who respond to the call, to be a part of the Christmas performance cast, are from the church, but some are from the surrounding community. Throughout the years some people have entered the church through being casted in the plays.
“I will take whoever is willing,” Edwards says. “Everyone is welcome to be a part of the cast. I begin to create characters based on the people who volunteer.”
Edwards asks for volunteers first because he creates the Christmas play around who responds to the call. For the past decade the cast has averaged 30 people with a large portion being children.
“Throughout the entire process I keep asking, ‘What can we create together?’ And I have faith we will create something beautiful as a holy offering to God.”
Once the idea presents itself and the people respond to the casting call, Edwards embarks on his annual trip to a friend’s house where he writes his next original Christmas performance.
“For a week I go away to the home a friend provides me, and the primary work is done on the script. Along the way there is great uncertainty. Can we do this again?”
Edwards continues to write all throughout late summer and into early fall, but the script is finalized by mid-October because rehearsals begin the first week of November.
The 30-member cast rehearses three times a week leading up to the show’s debut.
“The rehearsals can be rough and frustrating for everyone. There is a level of chaos to the practice of the production. The reality is that there are always complications and conflicts with people’s schedules. But people are faithful to process and their commitment.”
The Christmas performance is held in the church’s fellowship room. The room is larger than a basketball court. On one side of the fellowship room is a permanent stage that is extended for performances.
“There is a great degree of technical work,” Edwards describes. The performances have taped, edited, musical transitions, which help create the moods for scenes. On stage is a sprawling screen with rear projection to display the backdrop of scenes or prerecorded videos apart of the play. Every year is very different.
“It is an incredibly mysterious experience. From the origin of the seed thought, to the writing of the script, to rehearsals; eventually the chaos forms. It usually does not take shape until the nearing of opening night. But there is an end point filled with mystery.”
The Christmas performance occurs for three nights. Information of the play is passed around via social media, word of mouth and flyers. Every year the fellowship hall is filled all three nights.
The production process is a testament to Edward’s profound spirituality and love for all people. The scripts and performances witness to the true meaning of the Christmas story.
“The Christmas story is very realistic about the brokenness and darkness of the world. The Christmas story is not a hallmark card. We are very conscious of the pain and suffering of the world. It is important to talk about the hardships in the Christmas story and then recognize the incredible message of grace. Our plays are not about sweetness and Christmas lights but focus on the need of God’s grace as we are guided to care for the world.”
This year the play focused on children having nightmares. The performance, The Lambs Are Frightened; They Need to Know emphasized the daily bombardment by messages of fear and its effects on relationships with others. The play presented the interconnectedness of human interactions and how, as fears are resolved, relationships with others grow stronger.
“We are willing to invite people into our lives with more authenticity when we reconcile our fears,” says Edwards.
In the play, each child has a series of dreams confronting a fear. In the midst of each dream an angle appears asking the character questions, helping them face their fears. As the child progresses closer toward the fear, the conversation increases between the children and the angels.
“Incredible humanity is on display. We see ourselves in the child, in their fears and in their dreams. Then grace enters our life and calls for our response, and we can choose to accept or ignore it.”
As the characters reconcile with their fears and their relationships with others, the gospel message and the Christmas story come into focus.
“Hope is found in our relationship with Christ in the mess of our lives, to give voice to our different experiences of Christmas and to take seriously that life is not easy; this becomes our message of the play. God is among us to love us, to help us and to teach us to share ourselves with each other.”
“And then it’s over. All the performances, all the setup, all the rehearsals, all the work that began with a seed thought; it is suddenly over. It is a dynamic series of events wrapped in mystery. God has seen us through. It’s not your typical Christmas play, yet we never had a participant complain. Everyone finds their meaning in it.”