BUILDERS, PAINTERS, animal handlers, costume teams, breakdown crews and tram drivers for special assistance guests are just a few of the requirements for Savannah Christian Church’s seventh production of The Journey, an outdoor, interactive “walk-through” drama recreating life in Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth.
It almost sounds like a checklist for a Broadway musical or a Universal Studios ride, but this enormous performance that lured in over 13,000 visitors last year is fueled by pure volunteer enthusiasm from the church and hundreds of community supporters.
Sometimes only seeing is believing, and in this case, it’s far more than just seeing. While many of us know the Christmas story, The Journey gives us a chance to actually become a part of it from the moment of arrival.
Each guests joins a group (or a “tribe”) on a their way to register as citizens of the Roman Empire. Trailing behind a Roman soldier, they are escorted to the gates of Bethlehem, crossing the Sea of Galilee, walking through beggars and laborers in a bustling village full of action and sounds, and then stumbling into performing historical figures such as the Wise Men, the angel Gabriel and King Herod before ultimately reaching the baby Jesus in the manger.
“We had no idea it would be the success it was,” recalls Kay Garletts, who has been heavily involved with the production since its small inaugural performance in 1996, in the church’s former location on Tibet Avenue.
By the third year thousands were lining up to fill a church that was well over maximum capacity. It was time to regroup: could they move forward and accommodate the rising masses? With plenty of acreage outside the new church on Al Henderson Boulevard, a new vision was inspired, and Garletts brought it to life in 2002.
After choosing the most favorable design from an assortment of miniature Christmas models, she then called on an architect to draw up the plans and presented “Build Bethlehem in a Day,” a competition between 18 teams of volunteers, each tasked to build one of the eighteen life-size structures that now comprise the set of The Journey.
Now with each production the standing frames are refurbished and decorated under Garletts’ supervision, while drama director Wayne Sullivan and the cast begin hours of rehearsing on stage, and Armstrong history professor Dr. Jason Tatlock assists in the historical accuracy of every line, costume detail, and decoration.
And let’s not forget the small zoo of animals that make their home on the Henderson Campus for two weeks, such as geese and hens from Peth Farms, or the Percheron horses from Historic Savannah Carriage Tours.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” Garletts tells me. “You shouldn’t have this much fun with joint compound and Styrofoam,” says Garletts. “We do.”
But a village built in one day is not meant to last forever. So if you haven’t seen The Journey yet, it might be the time — as this will be their last running until 2010. cs
When: Wed.–Sun., Dec. 3-7 and 10-14. Registration from 6-8 p.m. nightly. Groups depart every 5 minutes.
Where: Savannah Christian Church, 55 Al Henderson Blvd., Savannah Georgia, 31419
Tickets: $5/person or max of $20/family. Children 5 and younger free.
Information: www.savannahchristian.com or 912/629-4765.
It is free and open to the public.
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Photo credits: Terri Morgan Hsu