December 8, 2022 : By Ryan Klinker - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
In the years since her time onstage as a student in Liberty University’s Department of Theatre Arts, Rachel Day Hughes (’13) has brought her acting craft to multiple stages. This holiday season, she has made her screen debut in the feature film “I Heard the Bells,” which premiered on Dec. 1 and has rapidly gained an audience around the country.
The film, which is currently showing in Lynchburg and other locations nationwide, is the first cinematic project by Sight & Sound, an entertainment ministry that has staged stories of faith in an immersive theatre experience for five decades. Sight & Sound theaters are in Lancaster, Pa., and Branson, Mo. Sight & Sound TV was launched in 2020 to provide streamable content, and it has since reached virtual audiences in 175 countries.
“I Heard the Bells” tells the true story of 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of the famous “Paul Revere’s Ride,” as he encounters a period of loss and depression but finds newfound hope during the Christmas season and pens the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Sight & Sound describes the film as “an inspiring story of redemption and rekindled faith.”
“The heart of the story is hope; rekindling hope over a life that is marked by grief and suffering,” Hughes said. “He suffers a great deal of loss and is challenged through his journey of grief to wrestle with his faith. What’s so beautiful about his journey is that he does reclaim the truth of the words “Peace on earth, good will to men” as he is writing this poem on Christmas Eve. It’s the story of one man’s journey through grief and back to the Lord.”
Hughes portrays Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, and was able to develop her character by reading a diary that Fanny kept for much of her life, which was later turned into a book, “Mrs. Longfellow.”
“It was a real treasure trove for an actor to get to experience the whole true story of her life through her own words,” Hughes said. “The whole thing was such a dream. I felt like I was time traveling because of the authenticity of the set. It really felt like we were back in the mid-1800s. My favorite part was filming the communion scene, which is straight from Fanny’s diary word-for-word. It was a full-circle moment for me as an actor.”
She said her time in Liberty’s theatre program helped her delve deeper into the techniques and philosophies of acting, citing Professor Chris Nelson as being a particular influence on her work today. At Liberty, Hughes performed in productions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Hairspray,” “Tarzan,” and multiple other shows.
“I definitely would not be here today without my experience at Liberty,” Hughes said. “I received a Grade-A education in acting theory and practice, and I really fell in love with the art and craft of acting under the teaching of Chris Nelson specifically. I had performed in my early life before college quite a bit, but I didn’t know much about the great acting teachers and theories and how it’s truly done.”
Hughes also credited Liberty for her start in professional theatre. As a student, she attended events like the Southeastern Theatre Conference, which allowed her to connect with regional theatre companies in Georgia that she went on to perform with after graduation. In the fall of 2013, Hughes moved to Lancaster, Pa., to join Sight & Sound and has performed in 11 of its productions.
While the film originally scheduled as a three-day theater event as part of a Fathom Events release, audience reception has extended its time in theaters nationwide, with some locations planning to screen the film into early January. Showtimes and participating theaters can be found on the film’s website.
After its theatrical release concludes, “I Heard the Bells” can be streamed at Sight & Sound TV and will be released on DVD next year.