American, British cast finds ways to communicate same message in pageants

Robin Dick of Oxford, England, right, plays Arthur Ashton in a scene from the British Pageant at a media day held last week in Nauvoo. (H-W Photo/Deborah Gertz Husar)
Posted: Jul. 12, 2014 3:55 pm Updated: Aug. 2, 2014 8:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

NAUVOO, Ill. -- Arthur Ashton strides onto the stage ready to tell his story -- and the story of his audience.

"It's a true story. It's a good story and a story that's still being written, which might be why you're here," said Ashton, the fictional character played by Robin Dick who narrates the British Pageant. "Let me tell you why I'm here -- because in 1837 my daughter Sarah came home on fire talking some nonsense about some prophet in America. Then again, if you do some real searching, you'll discover that what you once thought was nonsense is really the truth, and in the end, the truth can change you."

It's the opening scene of the British Pageant, which premiered last year in England and now plays two nights a week alongside the Nauvoo Pageant, highlighting another side of the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"It tells the story of the English converts who left England and came to Nauvoo and their experiences," said Dick, a 22-year-old from Oxford, England, who also plays Elijah Fordham in the Nauvoo Pageant.

"But we realized we couldn't possibly tell it without acknowledging and honoring the great faith and tremendous sacrifices of the reformers both in the British Isles and elsewhere who made it possible for us all to have our religious freedoms today," said Alexandra Johns, lead writer and director of the British Pageant who previously performed in and directed the Nauvoo Pageant.

Adding performances of the British Pageant to mark the 10th anniversary of the Nauvoo Pageant expanded the core cast to 26 with the addition of five actors from England, Scotland and Wales, who are adjusting to life in the Midwest.

"Nauvoo is not too unlike England. It's very green and very humid, just a lot hotter. This heat has been something else," Dick said.

So have the bugs.

"We don't have bugs like this in England," said Lucinda Bishop from Aldershot, England.

The core cast plays all the speaking roles in both pageants, which has challenged performers from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The pageants share similar principles and spirit, "but there are certain technical challenges, especially as Americans, to be able to represent it properly," said Josh Rich, an Idaho native now living in Utah back for a second year in the Nauvoo Pageant and playing three roles in the British Pageant. "The message ultimately is more important than the technicalities for us. We need the technicalities to be in place enough so we don't get in the way of the message even if it's not (delivered with) a perfect accent."

Ben Hunter, a native of Airdrie, Scotland, easily slips into an American accent.

"We're brought up watching American films, listening to American music. The only challenge is not accidentally falling into a Scottish accent. You have a strong desire to be yourself when on stage," Hunter said.

Achieving a natural accent takes practice for all the cast members, but the challenge goes beyond simply speaking the words.

"The British Pageant is written by British people to be spoken in a British way. Doing the accent isn't quite enough. You have to understand how the phrases are structured, how the intonation changes," Dick said. "It's exactly the same for American accents. You have to say things in a way Americans say things."

Johns and Emily Wadley, director of the Nauvoo Pageant, explored the language barrier, and the experience of bringing together two stories, during a performance at last week's pageant media day.

Trading American and British words and phrases from biscuit/scone and cookie/biscuit to apples and oranges/chalk and cheese and it's all gone wrong/it's gone pear-shaped, the pair finally found some words they could agree on -- family, gospel, testimony, gratitude, faith, friendship, compassion, charity and love.

"We actually don't have a common language. Although we speak English, apparently, there are some considerable differences," Bishop said. "I've certainly had to beg forgiveness on several occasions for using words that apparently are not appropriate over here."

But classic theater principles are similar in both countries, with the big outdoor stage requiring "big" acting, Dick said, and the Nauvoo Pageant using the classic device of the story being told by many people coming forward on the stage.

"The hardest bit for me has been understanding that performing for British people and performing for American people are two very different things," he said.

Carefully choosing his words, and broadly speaking, Dick said Americans are more easily touched by the feeling of a performance while a British audience focuses more on the underlying principles and subtext.

"Americans are more easily satisfied," he said.

But Dick said he's more than satisfied to be spending part of the summer in Nauvoo before beginning training in September to be an opera singer.

"I've always sung and acted, but I met someone in the pageant last year who was an opera singer and inspired me," he said "That's one way being in the British Pageant had a massive influence on my life."