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Passion plays: The drama of redemption

Courtesy Canadian Badlands Passion Play

It is the greatest story ever told — so much so that around the country, crews of professionals and amateurs alike work year-round to perform moving interpretations of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Passion plays may be common in church sanctuaries during the Easter season, but they are not limited to homegrown dramas produced by local congregations. In various destinations across North America, the story of the gospel is presented with massive sets, large casts of actors and animals, and professional-grade lights, music and special effects.

For church travel groups, visiting a Passion play fills a dual purpose on a tour itinerary, providing evening entertainment and spiritual enrichment at the same time. The plays can also be great conversation starters, leading to outreach and ministry opportunities among tour participants.

We’ve rounded up a sample of dramatic and musical productions that will add a touch of eternity to your next church group trip.

The American Passion Play
[ Bloomington, Illinois ]
Entering its 88th consecutive season in 2011, “The American Passion Play” was the dream of a Bloomington, Illinois, man who built a theater with an 80-foot stage and a pipe organ in the early 20th century. Since then, believers throughout the area have joined together to perform the play each year, maintaining many aspects of the original production.

“We use a live choir with that organ,” said Tena Fowler, ticket coordinator for the play. “It’s all live voices all around the building. They do a massive amount of singing — almost every scene has music in it. At one point, they all appear onstage and have drum and string instruments that they play.”

About 200 cast, choir and crew members from the Bloomington area team up for the production each year. The three-and-a-half-hour play has some 50 scenes, including the Sermon on the Mount, the Raising of Lazarus, the Triumphal Entry and the Last Supper, in addition to the crucifixion and resurrection scenes.

The 2011 season will feature five performances from March 26 through April 16.

The Living Word Outdoor Drama

[ Cambridge, Ohio ]
It’s all about authenticity at “The Living Word Outdoor Drama,” a Cambridge, Ohio, play performed throughout the summer.

“We make all of our own props and costumes, and it’s all authentic,” said Kitrina Mazaher, general manager of the production. “We have a priest’s robes and commoners’ clothes. In Herod’s court, we have a harem, with dancing girls, and princes and princesses from other lands.”

The play takes place on a 400-foot panoramic stage with set pieces representing the Garden of Gethsemane, Pilate’s court, the Jewish temple, Golgotha and numerous other places in biblical Jerusalem. Admission includes a tour of the set led by a guide who explains each area and its cultural symbols.

A cast of about 100 volunteer actors participate in the show each year, changing roles throughout the summer to keep things interesting. Of that cast, 12 have been involved for 10 years or more, and six have performed each season since the play first started in 1975.

The Miracle
[ Pigeon Forge, Tennessee ]
Now in its fifth season, the $15 million Broadway-style production “The Miracle” brings a celebratory note of faith to Pigeon Forge, a popular tourism and entertainment destination in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The show uses state-of-the-art theatrics to portray the life and miracles of Christ, including his death and resurrection.

“We’ve got fantastic costumes, lighting and special effects — it could rival anything in New York,” said Deborah Fee Newsome, public relations representative for the Miracle Theater. “We have the theatrics of soaring angels and a cast of camels, donkeys and sheep.”

The two-hour musical incorporates traditional hymns and original new compositions into its score, and uses special effects to depict numerous miracles that Jesus performed. Actors auditioned from New York and a professional crew bring a high caliber of production values to the show.

Groups should plan to arrive early for the matinee performances to take advantage of camel rides and backstage tours, which are guided by costumed cast members.

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play

[ Drumheller, Alberta ]
The backdrop of Alberta’s desert helps make the “Canadian Badlands Passion Play” come to life for visitors.

“The badlands look so much like Israel — you walk into our amphitheater, and you feel like you’re being transported back to the time of Christ,” said Vance Neudorf, the play’s general manager. “The Canadian badlands have this raw, gorgeous desert feel. The way the sun plays on those hills creates som e amazing natural effects.”

The natural surroundings serve as the setting for scenes that begin with the calling of Jesus’ first disciples and follow through the Easter story. Some 150-200 volunteer actors and musicians come together to stage seven performances of the play each July, attracting more than 12,000 visitors each year.

They perform on a stage the size of six football fields, outfitted with permanent set pieces re-creating ancient Jerusalem. The authentic surroundings are complemented by costumes and props made with period-appropriate materials.

For 2011, the play is adding a first-century village experience for visitors to walk through when they enter the amphitheater.

The Story of Jesus

[ Wauchula, Florida ]
What started 30 years ago as a youth group skit has grown into “The Story of Jesus,” an expansive play in Wauchula, Florida, that features more than 150 animals and a cast of about 250 actors, who come from dozens of churches around the state.

The play is performed in the dirt of a rodeo arena, which helps create the realistic effect that director Mike Graham is after.

“It’s real life — a gritty, dirty, emotionally raw reproduction of the life of Jesus,” Graham said. “What sets it apart from others that I’ve seen is the realism. It’s fairly violent in the places it needs to be. And Jesus is very real — he laughs, cries and engages with the people around him.”

The crew constructs elaborate sets for the 10 shows that take place each year and have sheep, donkeys, chickens and ducks wandering through the scenes to accurately re-create biblical times. Visitors will see depictions of the life of Christ, from Christmas through the Second Coming, with action sequences and background music reminiscent of a Hollywood movie.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.