Shana Bestock, age 9. Photo by Paul Bestock.

Gladys Herdman Changed my Life

Written by Shana Bestock | April 6th, 2021 (Originally published on October 1st, 2017)

We asked Shana to share with us her experience of playing “Gladys” in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and the impact of that opportunity. We know many of you have stories and memories of this show too! We hope you’ll join us December 29th for a Community Theatre Celebration that will include some favorite scenes and moments from BXPE.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
 was the first professional show I was ever in. I was nine years old and played Gladys. This was the Seattle Children’s Theater production, the first year they moved to the vast Meany Hall. Our tech was a nightmare of slide malfunctions (perhaps influencing my later career distrust of projections) and we never had a full run before opening night. From my perspective, the slides were unnecessary. To me, the show was about silent thumb-wrestling backstage, and warm-ups so that our small voices could carry through that huge theater, and the hot smells of pancake foundation in the dressing room. And of course onstage, the lights and those layers of (horribly wonderful) 1980s costumes, and the energy of my fellow actors, the electricity of looking an adult in the eye as an equal, the bodies scattering out of my way as I shazamed up on a bench and up higher as I was born aloft on the shoulders of my childhood hero who was playing Leroy.

For the final moment, I got to run downstairs, go into the dark, cavernous orchestra pit, and climb up on a ladder. I’d huddle on top until the last possible moment, then spring up waving my star-on-a-stick yelling “hey, hey, unto you a child a born!” The independence of running through that vast theater by myself, the ownership of that pit, the power of that moment – it was all completely terrific.

My dad’s mom, Grandma Rose, came to see a mid-run performance. That night some adult somewhere forgot to unlock the orchestra pit. I ran to the far door. Locked. I tried again. Locked. I tried to take the elevator upstairs to the main stage, forgetting the elevator was bizarrely broken (it only went down). I ran up the stairs, adrenaline bringing tears to my eyes. I careened into the stage manager, on headset backstage right. She held a finger up as I started to pant-whisper the situation. The light had already come on for my moment on the ladder, and I could see from backstage the terribly empty spot. She shoved me out onstage – and she must have stayed backstage but it felt like she pushed me all the way out because my whole body felt like lead. I did the line from centerstage, tears streaming down my face, feeling more heroic, noble, and tragic than St. Joan at the stake. And then it was curtain call as normal, and life went on.

Dad was up in the first row of the balcony, whispering to his mom to watch for the moment that never came. Grandma Rose thought it was all wonderful, of course, regardless – but I was devastated that she didn’t properly see my amazing ladder reveal. Grandma Rose got Alzheimer’s shortly thereafter and the next play she saw me in, she didn’t really know who I was. Which sounds heartbreaking, but the point of this story is that I was given at a very early age a tremendous, precious, resilient gift. An understanding that theater is never just about the star-on-a-stick moment, but about sharing that moment with those we cherish. The opportunity not only to direct the play year after year for other Gladyses, but a deep, deep layer of quiet joy when I welcomed their grandparents to the theater.

Shows come and go, and last a lifetime. And sometimes the stories we tell about them are just as important as the theatrical moment itself.

-Shana Bestock, Penguin Producing Artistic Director

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