Jonah: On Stage! takes epic live theatre to the big screen

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Jonah and the whale will be swimming soon to a theatre near you.

For the past two decades, Sight & Sound has been treating audiences in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Branson, Missouri to epic stage productions based on stories from the Bible. Now families that haven’t had a chance to visit those cities will be able to see the company’s spectacular musical-comedy adaptation of Jonah when it comes to movie theatres across the United States for one night only on May 2.

I had a chance to speak to Katie Miller, whose grandparents founded Sight & Sound in 1976. Miller got her start in the family business as a two-year-old extra on stage, and she now serves as the company’s corporate communications manager.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Has Sight & Sound been doing Bible stories from the very beginning?

KM: From the very beginning, all of our shows — all of our productions — had a ministry focus. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1990s that we really started to transfer to doing full-length biblical shows. So a lot of times, before the ’90s, our shows would sometimes have revue-style or modern-day aspects to them and then a little bit of biblical mixed in — like I said, always with a ministry focus. But we premiered Noah in 1995, and that was really the first full-length, larger-than-life, biblical show, all-encompassing experience that we had done. And we kind of joke, tongue in cheek, that Noah is our flagship show, because it became what we were known for at that time, and it was very critical in us beginning to realize what it was that we were called to do, and that was to just bring the Bible to life through the medium of live stage.

If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you now, or how old were you then when you started doing Noah?

KM: Sure. I’m in my 30s now — I’m 33 — and I have grown up in the theatre my whole life. So when we premiered Noah, I actually was no longer acting on stage, and I was more focused on learning about other aspects of the business. So I was working with our animals, at that time I also was working concessions. I was on stage as a child, but as a teenager and an adult, transferred more to the business side of what we do.

Right. So if you’re 33 now, you would have been 11, give or take, when the Bible thing started.

KM: Yes, yeah.

I was just wondering if you know what the reasoning was behind the transfer to doing more exclusively or primarily biblical kinds of stories.

KM: At the time, we were not necessarily certain that that was going to be the only thing that we did. My grandfather had the idea to do Noah at the Pennsylvania state farm show, and he often tells the story of standing in the middle of the farm show, and he was watching all of the people interact with the animals and be so excited about the animals, and up until that time — we had already had an animal here or there in our shows, it wasn’t a primary focus like we are often known for now — and as he watched people interact with animals, he began to have this idea of, “What if one of our shows took people inside the ark?” And if you’re familiar with Noah and the way that we did the production, Act 2 opens and the audience is quite literally sitting inside the ark. It’s a 300-foot wraparound stage, and so the ark was on three sides of the audience, and [there were] hundreds of animals, both live and animatronic-style, and it’s one of the things we’re best known for, is that moment of just being inside the ark. So after he had the original idea to make Noah a full show just on that one Bible story, and then had an incredible amount of success with it, it was shortly after that that we started to produce other shows that were very similar, like Daniel and Ruth and Joseph and In the Beginning, which is the story of Adam and Eve, all the way up to what we’re doing now with Moses and Samson and Jonah and shows like that. So it was a little bit of an accident — not an accident, Noah was intentional! — but at the time that Noah premiered, I think he was overwhelmed, we were as an organization and a family, by the success and the draw for being able to go back in time and experience the Bible in a different way.

The film Jonah, was that shot in Lancaster or Branson?

KM: It has been live on stage in both locations, but it was shot for film here in Lancaster.

And the particular theatre that you’re using now, how long has that building been in use?

KM: This building here in Lancaster has been here since 1998. We had another theatre on site here that was destroyed by a fire in January 1997, and we lost everything. And at that juncture we weren’t sure if we were going to come back or not. We had just had one of our most successful years with Noah in 1995 going into 1996 — we ran it for two years — and in early 1997, there was a fire that destroyed everything. We lost it all. So we had a little bit of a season of indecision about whether we were going to come back or not — my grandparents were already in their 50s — and they decided to come back, and we opened the new theatre with Noah as well, and have been here since 1998.

In doing the Bible stories and the musicals, is there a story that you’ve done more than once? And if so, did you write new music for it or did you revive a previous show?

KM: No, not yet. I don’t think we’re long enough in our journey to have done that, but we have talked about it. Daniel was on the stage here in the early 2000s, I think 2002, and ran for a number of years, and it hasn’t been on the stage for going on 15 years, and I know some day we’d all love to see Daniel happen again, however if it ever comes back to our stage it would be an all-new show. We’re continuing to work on honing our craft and getting better at what we do, increasing our staff and what they all bring to the table, so as our shows continue to get more sophisticated and as we continue to get better at storytelling and all of that, we want to present these stories and do them justice and do them to the best of our abilities. So as time goes on, we’re realizing that shows we did even 15 or 20 years ago, it already feels like if we would bring them back, we would do them differently with new technology and new ways of storytelling and things like that. We do design our shows to go back and forth to Branson, so Jonah right now is on an actual stage in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — it premiered here in 2012 and has been to Branson and now back here — and that show has stayed the same. We made just a few minor revisions throughout the years, but for the most part it’s still the exact same show that it was when it premiered in 2012.

How did you settle on Jonah being the stage production that’s going to be put on the big screen first?

KM: Well it definitely was a challenging decision, and one that we prayed about and discussed at length. When we landed on Jonah, it just felt right from a number of different angles. The message of mercy and forgiveness and new beginnings is so powerful, and aside from that the show is just so fun. There’s Jonah and the whale, and there’s this beautiful bright coloured seaside — the town of Joppa, which has a wonderful music number, and the large ship with the sailors on it that take Jonah out into the sea, and then the storm and he gets thrown over — there’s so much fun and epic experience to this show, it’s become a family favorite. We know that when we talk to children that come in, and we ask them what their favorite show was, a lot of times the answer was, without doubt, “Jonah! We love Jonah!” So to introduce ourselves on a national platform, in movie theatres all across the nation, it felt like the right show to do that with.

I’m curious about the development of the musical. It does some interesting things, like bringing Jesus into the story quite explicitly. How were decisions like that arrived at?

KM: We have 600 employees in both locations who are all working together to do this big thing, and we have a team of writers and developers who do research and study the scriptures and study historical documents and things like that, and our whole production team works together to tell the story through all of the ways that we tell the story — the costumes and lighting and set pieces are all a part of the storytelling itself. So there’s a huge production team that’s just dedicated to bringing the Bible to life, and doing these stories justice. The stories from the Bible have been around for thousands of years; we often say we don’t get the credit at all for these stories, we just have the opportunity to tell them in this very unique way. But all of our shows point towards Christ. For us, at the end of the day, really, all of the Bible stories — every story that we present — really is the story of Jesus. So in Noah, he is the ark of safety, and in Moses, he’s found in the burning bush and he is the redeemer, the Passover lamb, all throughout the story of Moses. And so, in all shows that we do, they all really are just telling the story of Christ. For us, that’s really what it’s all about.

What sort of plans do you have beyond this? Will you be doing other one-night events in theatres based on other shows? Do you plan to expand to other venues for the stage productions?

KM: At this moment, we don’t have plans to expand to an alternative location. Not that we will say never, but that’s not in our current plans for the future. And as for the Fathom event, which we’re so excited about, we don’t know, to be honest. This is a brand new venture for us, we will see how May 2 goes, and maybe give me a call a couple weeks after that and we’ll see if we have plans to do it in the future! We would love to see that it’s successful, and that people who don’t have the opportunity to come to our Branson or Pennsylvania locations will be able to have an experience in their own back yard. We’re excited about it, we’re hoping it does well and seems to resonate with people, but where we go from there has yet to be determined.

Was the Jonah stage production conceived at all with the big screen in mind? Did you have to change it at all to accommodate the cameras and things?

KM: We started filming our shows for home entertainment, for the most part for DVD purposes, back in 2004, was the first time we did it. So before we had ever produced Jonah, we had already produced DVD versions of Noah and Ruth and In the Beginning and a number of other shows, so Jonah was next in line for that. And again, I don’t know that at the time we ever saw it going anywhere, other than an opportunity for our guests to take the experience home with them and share it with those who maybe couldn’t come see us here. We also have stories — we have photos of DVDs we have shipped out to missionaries all throughout the world, who use them in their churches and their ministries, and from the very beginning it was a way to expand our ministry and impact people who couldn’t come, and for us, partnering with Fathom Events is the same thing, it’s just providing an opportunity for people who maybe can’t come to one of our two locations to have an experience. As for altering the show, no, it was filmed in front of a live audience. All of our shows are, and it’s something that we’re really passionate about. We love that we have the opportunity to provide these two mediums of storytelling — live stage and film — and bring them together for a unique experience.

I’m a bit of a Bible geek, and I really liked the fact that, early on, King Jeroboam is brought into the story, because he’s not mentioned in the book of Jonah at all, but another book in the Bible does make a passing reference to Jonah in connection with that king, so the fact that your musical connected those two things, I did like that.

KM: Yeah. It’s something we try really hard to do. The Bible is not necessarily laid out like a lot of people think, in complete chronological order. So when our story teams are working on the production and the writing of the next show, they definitely do a very deep dive in hopes of being very accurate. Like I said, we hold these stories tightly and loosely, all at the same time. They’re not ours — there are many people who present them in different ways, in different mediums, and so we hold them loosely in that way, but we hold them tightly in that we believe in their sacredness and in the space that they have in all of the world. And so we want to be able to present them in a way that’s so honouring of that.

Right. But you still have fun with the anachronisms and things, though, right? The fact that the characters in the story are saying, “Oh, that’s in this chapter and verse in the Bible,” when of course there were historically no chapters and verses back then.

KM: Right. (laughs) Yeah, no, at the end of the day we are an entertainment venue, and we want people to walk away having had an awesome and fun experience, and we believe families coming together and laughing together and having a good time, it’s what– you know, Jesus had fun. When he was here on this earth, he had fun, too. And we love that aspect of who he was and what we get to do as well.

Jonah: On Stage! plays in theatres for one night only on May 2. You can order tickets here, and you can watch a trailer for the film below:

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