First Pentecostal Church of North Little Rock, better known as the “Big Church” on I-40, is, by almost any outward measure, a growing, thriving congregation.
It has a large, robust membership from around central Arkansas numbering around 2,500 members, Sunday attendance averaging around 2,000 people, a massive $24 million facility sitting on 22 acres just off of Interstate 40 that has been paid off since 2008, and an additional 93.5 acres on the south side of the freeway to provide room for future growth. Among other activities, the church has established mission locations in Guy, Sheridan, and Hot Springs, sponsors a children's home in India, performs community outreach through its A.C.T.S. (Alcohol and Chemical Treatment Services) program offering counseling and group therapy for chemically dependent persons, and its 180° Life Enrichment Program, offering group sessions for anger management, domestic abuse, parenting, and juvenile crimes, to name a few.
The church also ministers to inmates in the Pulaski County Jail, and those in state prison like the Cummins, Tucker, and Wrightsville units through its Atlame Jail and Prison Ministry, with some men in the congregation sponsoring probationers and parolees to assist them in the successful completion of their sentences. Each summer, the church is the site of the annual Arkansas International Camp meeting, a week long Apostolic gathering that draws thousands of people from around the world, and on one weekend each fall, it hosts the Mid-America Youth Conference.
Then, there is “I AM,” a celebration of the Easter story through the lens of Christian tradition, staged with original music and live action, bringing to life the Biblical story of hope and redemption as they are related in the Gospels of the New Testament.
Pastor Nathan Holmes, co-pastor at the church and one of the creators of the show, said the genesis of I AM came out of a desire to do something different. Thus, for the past five years, the church has performed its original, in-house production of “I AM,” the story of the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ told mainly through the Gospel of St. John the Divine. The production follows the events portrayed in the New Testament Book of John from Jesus' teachings in the synagogue, miracles of healing, the triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, his betrayal, arrest, execution, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
“We had been doing Christmas shows that were really successful, with a lot of people from the community coming out to support them, and we actually did a 4th of July production and so many people came,” said Holmes. “We just felt like the greatest story to be told is the story of Jesus and nobody in central Arkansas that we knew of was doing it. We felt like God had blessed us with the abilities and the resources to make that happen. So, five years ago, we launched I AM.”
But it really isn't so much the story, which is the story of Easter in the Christian tradition, that is unique, or even the way it is being told, through music and narration. To some degree or another, many churches stage Easter programs that tell this story. What truly sets this production apart is the scale, the originality, and the evolution of the production from large to larger than life.
As Holmes describes it, “It's evolved. It started off very humble and now it's pretty large with a lot of things involved to make it happen.”
It was in late 2013 that Holmes got the idea to create a large scale presentation on the life of Jesus explored through writings in Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and to weave a narrative taken from the Bible around music and dramatizations of the scriptures. He enlisted the help of a lay member of the church, Zach Ward, who had built a reputation as an accomplished storyteller, to help with the script, most of which was taken verbatim from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
Scriptwriting began the first week of March 2014, and rehearsals began in mid-March. The script was finalized at the end of March, and has been amended each year to add new scenes
The 300 or so cast, crew, and support staff required to launch the initial production of I AM in 2014 at a cost of $3,000 seem anything but humble, but five years down the road the production has evolved into a massive effort that consumes two months out of the lives of more than 700 people, a handful of chickens, goats, a lamb, and even a donkey. It transforms the cavernous sanctuary into an enormous amphitheater capable of immersing some 2,500 to 3,000 people at a time into the middle of the events that are believed to have transpired in 1st Century Jerusalem. The total cost of the production this year was estimated to be about $75,000 to $100,000 and will reach an audience estimated between 15,000 and 18,000 people.
Ward, who serves as the director of the production, explained how the premise, and the title, came about.
“There are the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and each kind of tells the story of Jesus a little bit differently,” said Ward. “Luke was a physician so he wrote for a more educated crowd. Mark was a fisherman, kind of in the same spirit of Peter, his gospel is more immediate and straightaway, they were men of action. John was the beloved, the closest to Jesus, kind of Jesus' best friend. He comes at the whole story of Jesus from the Jewish mindset of 'who is this guy?' 'Who is he? What is he?' That's why we've named this production I AM. You'll find all through the Book of John statements of I am the door, I am the bread, I am the life, there are many 'I am' statements.”
Ward said the production consists purely of volunteers, with only the scene portraying the ascension of Jesus into Heaven requiring professional assistance due to the complexity of the scene and the equipment required to accomplish the scene.
“During that scene, Jesus flies, which requires a professional staging company due to the complexity and the liability,” said Ward.
Ward said part of the staging involves a rear projection screen upon which images are projected to go along with the scene playing out on the stage. The screen itself, he said, is 145 feet wide and 35 feet high. Throughout the 80 minute production, images flicker across the screen to provide references of time, place, and mood.
While much of the action is staged on a traditional looking stage located at the front of the sanctuary, audiences are immersed in the overall experience as various scenes not only spill out into the sanctuary, but sometimes originate from different points around the venue.
At some point we've got people coming from the mezzanine, or coming in from the rear entrances, coming off of the stage, just spread out all over,” said Ward. “Our goal is for it to be a truly immersive experience, with every audience member winding up just a few feet from a cast member at some point.”
Another unique feature of the production is the use of “living pictures,” in which all of the actors involved in several of the pivotal scenes freeze in position for as long as 90 seconds or two minutes at the time, giving the appearance of three dimensional versions of some of the old masters' well-known paintings of Biblical scenes. These vignettes are scattered throughout the production.
“Some of the scenes such as the crucifixion, or Jesus being taken down from the cross, those types of things are being done in this living picture format, kind of to give us the feeling of a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio painting, one of the old masters,” said Ward. “We've tried to give it that look so we're kind of proud of that.”
Ken Bourn, a church member now in his fifth year playing the Apostle Matthew, said the living picture tableaus are extraordinarily difficult to do, but have proven to be a popular feature.
“Most of our critical scenes are still shots and they're timed,” he said. “We've got the time ticking down so we have to be posed when the lights hit, we have to not breathe, and to be completely still. The idea is for it to look like a picture.”
Initially, the scene depicting the Lord's Supper was the only tableau done in this manner, but Bourn said the popularity of the technique has led to more and more scenes being added for the effect.
As is often the case with such an ambitious production, principle roles can be demanding, both mentally and physically, and work schedules can even create issues, which made it necessary to double cast, and even triple cast some principle roles. The role of Jesus, alternately played by Greg Isaacson and Ashland Bourn, was double cast due to the physical demands of the role.
“It's pretty physically demanding. It's a lot of mental strain mostly, but there's a lot of physical exertion too,” said Bourn, “obviously the cross, the crucifixion scene, it's a lot of work. We have kneepads under our costumes for a reason. We get thrown around and bloodied up a good bit. Not too much, but there is a physical aspect to it.”
Bourn is returning to the production for a second year, having served as an understudy to five year veteran Isaacson during last year's production.
“I did one performance last year so technically this is my second year,” said Bourn. “But, this is my first year to do multiple performances.”
Bourn said his preparation for the role, aside from the standard rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, that is the routine of stage actors everywhere, involved a number of ways of getting inside the role, which he said has proven to be an emotional experience for many of his fellow performers.
“My preparation has been a lot of prayer, fasting, prayer from friends and family, studying the lines and studying the word of God,” he said. “There have been a couple of practices during the crucifixion scene where I've been in tears because it has been so real, and several of the people around me have been in tears because it is so real.”
Holmes said in 2017, the church took the step of charging admission to the production, primarily due to the number of no-shows leaving empty seats the church couldn't release because they were reserved.
“We had people wanting to see the show who couldn't get seats, but we'd have empty seats at every performance,” said the pastor. “Once we started charging admission, the problem went away. It's only $5 but when people pay something, they show up. Plus, its way more organized now, people get here and they know where they're going to sit, it's just a lot more organized.”
The first two years the production was staged for two performances, and a third performance was added in 2016, then two were added last year for a total of five performances. Finally, this year, to accommodate growing demand, a total of eight performances were scheduled over six days, and as of last Thursday, the day of the final dress rehearsal, 14,000 of the available 15,000 tickets had been sold.
“This show has been a real blessing for all of us,” said Holmes. “We just wanted to give the people, the community, something for Easter they can't find anywhere else in central Arkansas.”
With the growth of the production, the time commitments required of the cast and support staff have grown also, and Pastor Holmes said the decision was reached this year to begin staging the production every other year. Anyone who missed the chance to see it this year will have to wait until April of 2020 to see it. As of deadline time Monday, a few tickets were left for the performances Thursday night at 7 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets, if available, may be purchased online at https://fpcnlr.ticketleap.com/iam2018/dates.