The cast of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Columbus Children's Theatre is a mix of veterans and newbies. For the 2014 production, CCT's tenth since 1995, this combination of experience and enthusiasm makes it possible for everyone to enjoy the 27 shows in 24 days.

The cast of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Columbus Children's Theatre is a mix of veterans and newbies. For the 2014 production, CCT's tenth since 1995, this combination of experience and enthusiasm makes it possible for everyone to enjoy the 27 shows in 24 days.

Ellie Levine, 16, plays the lead role of Imogene Herdman this year. Two years ago, in the last Pageant production, she was Juanita, one of the "good girls" in the Sunday school choir whose Christmas pageant gets overrun by the riotous Herdman clan. The four Herdman brothers and two sisters, of which Imogene is the oldest, descend on the Sunday school in search of free refreshments and are more apt to communicate with fists than words. But by play's end, they - and the rest of the congregation - are transformed in a sort of Christmas miracle for modern times.

Ellie, a junior at Columbus Academy, has been involved with CCT since she was about 5 or 6, her mother Susan estimated.

"I was in theater when I was little," Susan Levine said, "and I started taking the kids (Ellie and her older brother) to shows. It's just so wonderful to have something like Columbus Children's Theatre right here."

Ellie recalled, "When I was little, I took a lot of classes there. I've been going to CCT all my life."

Her first performance for CCT came in the 2012 Pageant production, followed by parts in The Stinky Cheese Man and The Wizard of Oz. The biggest difference in preparing for this year's Pageant is that she can drive herself from her New Albany home. Her mother lauds Pageant's director and CCT artistic director Bill Goldsmith for running a tight ship that makes it possible for kids and teens to balance such an endeavor with the rest of their lives.

"Bill is so efficient," said Levine. "His rehearsals are set up down to the 15-minute segments. He's very conscientious about the kids' and parents' time."

Ellie said she didn't audition with the intention of snagging a big role like Imogene, but when Goldsmith had her read lines for the part several times during the three-day audition process, she said she figured it was a possibility. The auditions were held Sept. 28-30, then phone calls went out that Friday to offer parts. Rehearsals began Oct. 12 and take place most Sunday through Thursday evenings, from 6:30 to 9 or 9:30 p.m. Performances will begin Nov. 28 and continue through Dec. 21.

Ellie said learning the role has been an enjoyable mix of memorizing lines and matching them to a very physical mode of movement.

To capture Imogene's menacing but ultimately very maternal and protective character, Ellie said Goldsmith and she were "using a lot of different animal movements," like cocking her head and thrusting forward with her upper body. Once she has all the movements down, Ellie said she then finds it easiest to memorize her lines.

And when it comes time for shows, she said her best method for relaxation is "just to be with the cast. We'll do warm-ups with all these tongue twisters and physical exercises, and we're all friends. We like to hang out."

Does she find it difficult to switch from friendly Ellie in the wings to angry Imogene on the stage? Ellie's laughter makes it clear she doesn't.

"Not at all," she said.

Ten-year-old Sam Blosser is experiencing his first CCT production, but he is a veteran of five previous plays with Center Stage Homeschool Co-op, a local enrichment program for home-schoolers. The Clintonville resident even performed in Pageant with the Co-op, though in the role of Hobie, another member of the Sunday school choir. In CCT's Pageant, he plays Elmer Hopkins, the minister's son.

"I've never been in a professional play before," Sam said, "but my mom has a friend who goes to our church. She's a professional play actor, and she told us about it. It's really fun. I like meeting all the new people."

Sam, whose mother Charity home-schools him and his four siblings, also juggles his involvement in the show with a serious health challenge: At age 4, he was diagnosed with Juvenile Dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease that manifests itself in muscle weakness and skin rashes. Once a month, he spends most of a day at Nationwide Children's Hospital, receiving an infusion of steroids and other medications that enable his immune system to operate more normally.

"The idea is to get it into remission," said Charity Blosser. "There is no cure."

But Sam's involvement with theater has proven a wonderful outlet for his energy and intelligence, Blosser said.

"He's used to doing a lot of memorization. He can't help it," Blosser said, adding that it's a big part of their home-schooling routine. "And anything he does, he does 110 percent."

Sam said he enjoys both rehearsing and performing equally. The former gives him time to hang out with friends, while the latter is a huge, though sometimes nerve-wracking thrill.

"I do get pretty nervous (before a show)," Sam said, "so I usually listen to calm music like Wilco or I pray or I throw the baseball or shoot hoops. It just calms my nerves."

Neither Ellie nor Sam is projecting a future in theater for themselves. Ellie, who is just beginning the college-search process, said that if she continues in theater, she's more interested in directing and stage management. Sam said he most enjoys writing, but "only when you don't have to put in a bunch of sentence starters."