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‘At the Manger’: Ready for Its Close-Up

By Sarah B. Cahalan

On December 22, the Marian Library’s Nativity exhibit was featured on CBS Sunday Morning, an incredible opportunity to share the collection with a national audience. How does something like this happen? An incredible amount of work goes into the process, even though the result is only about five minutes long!

First, the media relations department here at UD pitched the story to CBS last summer. They sent a list of selected Nativities that were going to be featured, but more importantly, they highlighted specific themes such as unexpected materials (recycled soda cans!) or surprising symbolism (devils threatening the Nativity scene!). This pitch resonated with a CBS producer, who scheduled some phone calls with people here at UD.

Preliminary inquiries

On the phone, we further discussed this year’s exhibit, including the year-round work of volunteers, staff and faculty in the University Libraries. The producer asked about specific Nativities, and we provided details about their materials and meanings. It emerged that CBS was particularly interested in the variety of cultures and materials presented in the collection, though in my phone call, I underlined that those were inseparable from the religious content of the Nativity story. One set the producer insisted on including was the so-called “Hipster Nativity”; more on that piece momentarily.

The call comes

Following phone calls last summer, we heard nothing until late fall. In fact, most of us assumed they had decided not to pursue the story. Then came the phone call from media relations: CBS would be here in a few weeks. They were going to film the exhibit, speak with employees about the individual sets, and interview Michele Devitt, a Marian Library employee who also has her own extensive Nativity collection. Unlike other media visits, which rarely exceed an hour or two, CBS was going to be here for a full two days. We were asked to clear our schedules and be as flexible as possible — not an easy task in early December, one of the busiest times of the year in the Marian Library.

Nerves set in

I am not a media natural, so once I knew I was going to be interviewed, I agonized over how to simplify the long history of the Nativity tradition into a few sound bites. Father Johann Roten, S.M., shared some details about Nativity traditions that antedated the conventional origin story of St. Francis introducing a live Nativity in 13th century Italy. I thought about buying a new dress. More importantly, I considered what to say about the Hipster Nativity, which is a divisive piece in this year’s exhibit. The piece is one of my least favorite in the entire collection — would St. Joseph really take a selfie? Should the Holy Family be depicted alongside corporate logos? — but a number of people here find it charming and whimsical. In fact, I have (incrementally) come around to this Nativity as I have seen UD undergraduates approach it, talk about it, even take their own selfies with it. Perhaps it is a “gateway” Nativity that creates a level of comfort among visitors, at which point they can engage with other items in the exhibit. But I hoped it would not be the main representation of the Marian Library or the University of Dayton on national television.

The whirlwind begins

When the days of the actual visit arrived, the camera operator arrived first to shoot “b-roll,” or basic footage of people enjoying the exhibit and footage of specific sets. Even this was complicated by filming around several visiting children whose parents did not want them on camera. It was fascinating to observe the work of UD’s media relations department to communicate and navigate this challenge. Later that afternoon, the producer arrived to assess the locations and map out the following day: Which Nativities would we talk about, and in which order? How would we balance the schedule in order to get the crew back on their airplanes at the end of the shoot? The preparations lasted until around 7 p.m.

Midwestern hospitality and a friendly crew 

The crew arrived at Michele’s house early the second morning to view her collection and speak with her about her passion for this tradition. Michele, with characteristic generosity, made banana bread for them! In the late morning, the crew came over to the Libraries building. This included the producer, the camera operator, an audio engineer and the correspondent who would actually conduct the interview. The correspondent’s name was Nikki Battiste, and she had recently covered stories on murder, abuse and devastating storms, so this may have been a nice respite from crisis. We discussed a number of Nativities; she had great questions, such as “Is it OK for a Nativity to be funny?” and “Where would Jesus be born if he came into the world today?” (Alas, these were not included in the final segment.)

Stage presence … and Christmas presents

At one point in the interview, we did a “TV walk,” where we were meant to walk and talk as we moved through the gallery, with specific cues about where to stop and gesture at details. On multiple occasions we were filmed talking, with no audio, so in some of the footage, a good lip reader could learn exactly what my kids got for Christmas, my favorite restaurants in Dayton and so on. By the end of the second day, I was not physically tired — I spend a lot of time on my feet on a normal day — but I was mentally exhausted. Rarely do I think so carefully about every word I say for such an extended period of time. I wanted to be sure that what I said was both accurate and a good representation of this institution. Nevertheless, Nikki was so personable that she ensured our conversation was familiar and friendly, not just a lecture.

Roll credits 

Michele and I were shown on camera, but this was a massive production that involved everyone in the Marian Library. Melanie Zebrowski and Jillian Ewalt in particular did significant behind-the-scenes work, making specific pieces available, answering last-minute questions, and coordinating logistics with media relations. Meagan Pant in media relations was the choreographer of the whole project; she is a delight to work with. Other people in the Marian Library picked up tours and instruction sessions that I had to miss or stepped in to help with little details to make things run more smoothly. It can be hard to tell from the finished product, but this was a departmental priority for multiple days. The crew shot so much footage and asked so many questions that it could easily have been a multi-hour documentary. We are happy with the final product, which shared the Nativity story and some of its traditions with a national audience a few days before Christmas. Although we did discuss the Hipster Nativity, dozens of other Marian Library Nativity sets were also shown on camera.

Pro tip: Pockets

One final tip I have for anyone being interviewed on camera: Wear something with pockets. I wore a simple black dress on the day of the interview, not wanting to distract from the artwork. But my lack of pockets led to some interesting negotiations with the microphone equipment. Fortunately, the interlibrary loan closet provided some privacy to get properly “mic’d up!” Lesson learned. 

View the segment

The entire story is now available on the CBS website.

— Sarah B. Cahalan is an associate professor and the director of the Marian Library, the world's largest dedicated collection of materials on the Virgin Mary.

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