More than world class. . .SST is kingdom class
AFA Journal staff writer
June 2018 – “I was a toddler on stage,” Katie Miller told AFA Journal. However, Miller is no Hollywood actress who worked on a movie set. Nor was she a child actor on a television sitcom.
Miller was born into a family-built business, the ministry of Sight and Sound Theatres that dates back to her grandfather Glenn Eshelman’s slide shows in the 1960s. A few decades ago, six to eight immediate family members, along with a handful of cousins, neighbors, and community helpers were putting on musical productions at a small theater in the farmlands of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Remembering humble beginnings
“We’d have costumes on at intermission while we sold concessions, then run backstage to finish the show, and then clean bathrooms and hand out programs for the next show,” remembered Miller. She is now communications manager for the entire SST Bible-based dramatic arts company.
Today, they have 650 employees at two identical 2,000-seat theaters, the second located in Branson, Missouri, an Ozark Mountains mecca for family-friendly entertainment. SST productions occur on a 300-foot panoramic wraparound stage. Resplendent costumes swirl among towering 44-foot sets. Live animals enhance each drama. Sight, sound, color, even smell, and physical sensation help bring biblical truths to life.
Special effects grip guests’ attention and reach beyond one’s imagination. For example, in this year’s new production, SST uses a 110-ft. LED screen, longest in the world. Computerized boats and other stunning props provide realistic settings for scenes such as Jesus walking on water.
Even with resounding success, stellar productions, and sold-out crowds filling the house, the family still operates on simple principles of humility, grace, and hard work. Current leadership, as well as directors, writers, actors, and creative genius behind the shows, started out the hard way – as stagehands, cast members, and technicians.
CEO Matt Neff came to Sight and Sound as a stagehand. He ended up marrying a member of the cast – Eshelman’s daughter Amy. Twenty years later, after working through a variety of roles from general laborer to administration, he stepped into the executive team in 2015.
“The entire story of Sight and Sound is the biblical principle of being faithful with little, and also – when the Lord trusts you – with much,” Neff told AFAJ.
Retaining humble hearts
Guests leave awed at the quality of performances, each taking about three years of preparation before it reaches the stage. SST team members are careful to credit God for the impact on those who attend.
“It’s really humbling,” Neff said. “We get to tell Bible stories that have been changing people’s lives for thousands of years, and then allow the Lord to work in people’s hearts.”
“We can’t take credit,” Miller concurred. “Jesus was a great storyteller, and we have the opportunity to tell stories that communicate and connect with people. We hope our audience members see themselves reflected in the characters on stage.” And they pray that the dramas have compelling influence on their guests.
“We say our greatest measure of success,” Neff added, “is the stories we hear from those who have come through our doors and say things like, ‘I never thought about it that way.’ ‘I never thought that Moses had struggles the way I have struggles.’ ‘I never thought Joseph hurt the way I have hurt.’ ‘I never thought about the Scriptures that way.’”
This year, Sight and Sound is debuting the most impactful story of all – the story of Jesus Himself.
“The play Jesus is centered around getting to know who Jesus was through the lives that He touched and encountered,” Miller explained. “So we see people before and after encountering Jesus and allowing Him to change them. That’s how we give people the opportunity to get to know Jesus – through the people that He walked alongside on a daily basis.”
While Sight and Sound considers Jesus its biggest production yet, it continues the work they have always done.
“Every story in the Bible points to Christ,” Neff said. “We take that approach with every Bible story we tell. Our ultimate goal is always that people would leave our theaters having experienced God’s love and presence.”
Jesus could have been a show about miracles. But there is so much more. It is the greatest rescue story ever experienced by mankind. It is a look at the most famous person ever to walk the earth. It is about people whose lives are changed for eternity by that man. It is about a relationship with Jesus. And it’s portrayed in world class fashion.
“But we’re not satisfied with being world class,” Neff concluded. “We’d much rather be kingdom class.”
SST nurtures new dramatic gifts
In one of their latest ventures, Sight and Sound trains students in the world of Christian performing arts. The Sight and Sound Conservatory (sightsoundconservatory.com) brings 10-12 high school graduates or college students to the Lancaster location each year and puts them right alongside their regular staff to learn all aspects of theatrical production, from horsemanship to makeup, from stage combat to voice and ballet.
The comprehensive classes take place before or after shows – when students go on stage as part of the cast. But the most valuable lesson students can learn from SST is what former actor Katie Miller learned from her grandfather.
“My grandfather always says, ‘Your gifts will make a way for you,’” she told AFAJ. “Each of us is created with a design by our Creator, and He has a purpose and plan for us. When you’re stewarding well, allowing what is inside you to grow and blossom, the Lord uses that, and He’s the one who orders your steps.”