Eastern Iowa church comes together to stage annual Christmas play

39-year-old production features live animals as supporting cast

Joseph Brown has been part of the Marion Avenue Baptist Church’s yearly Christmas play his entire life.

He was the baby Jesus when he was 1 month old.

Today, 30 years later, Brown directs the show with zeal.

It was his father, Larry Brown, who staged the first production of the Live Animal Christmas Play 39 years ago.

As a way to bring more people into Larry Brown’s small church in Washington, Iowa, he wanted to do a live animal Christmas play.

“You can’t do that,” his wife said when he told her of his plans to bring a cow onto the Marion Avenue Baptist Church stage, along with sheep and chickens.

He did, though, and the play has been staged every year since. This year, a 13-foot-tall camel, llamas, a potbellied pig, a mule, horse, doves and a red-tailed hawk will join the performance alongside sheep, goats, turkeys and chickens, which are raised specifically for their role in the show.

The animals support a cast and crew of about 250 people, all of whom are volunteers.

It’s church member Calvin Helterbran’s job to manage the animals.

Many are from church parishioner farms, including the chickens he raises. Some animals, such as the camel and reindeer, are rented from a woman near Cedar Rapids. A local boy who is training to be a falconer brings in the red-tailed hawk.

Helterbran uses live feed sprinkled onstage to direct the flock in the right directions.

Animals aren’t always predictable, of course.

During the final dress rehearsal, a chicken flapped in from offstage to collide with Mary. Helterbran said they’ve never had any major mishaps during a performance.

“People like to see the animals,” Helterbran says. “That’s what brings them to the show.”

This year, organizers expect 4,000 people from around southeast Iowa to attend the Nativity play. After having to turn away people in 2012, they’ve added an additional performance this year. The shows are free and seats are on a first-come, first-served basis.

The script — specifically the opening scene — changes each year. This year’s show, which church members began working on in August, starts with a top hat-bedecked narrator descending from the ceiling in a shower of artificial snow illuminated by a spotlight.

What follows is a two-hour musical rendition of the Christmas story complete with fog machine, singing angels, including one who flies over the audience, Roman soldiers with torches and huge choral numbers.

“Every year we’ve tried to add just a little bit more,” says pastor and play director Joseph Brown, who took over from his father in 2011.

“We’re trying to make it a first-rate production.”

All this is done with one goal — spreading the original message of Christmas, he says.

“I love the Christmas shopping and Frosty the Snowman and all the jingle bells, but we want to focus on the true meaning of Christmas. Our purpose for the play is sharing the love of Christ.”

For that reason, the show doesn’t end with the wise men and shepherds crowded around baby Jesus.

Instead, it skips ahead to a grown Jesus being brutally beaten and crucified and ends with Jesus’ resurrection and the full cast singing in joy.

Including that part of the story is important to the show’s purpose, says Joseph Brown. “It’s our gift to the community.”

It’s a gift from son to father, as well.

Larry Brown was thrilled as he watched his son direct the play he started 40 years ago.

“You know your labor was not in vain,” he says. “It brings me great peace.”

If you go:

  • What: Four performances of the Live Animal Christmas Play open to the public.
  • Where: Marion Avenue Baptist Church, 215 S. Marion Ave., Washington.
  • When: Saturday, Dec. 14, 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 15, 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
  • Cost: All shows are free. Seats are given on a first-come, first-serve basis.

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