Badlands passion play
by Laureen F. Guenther
The Canadian Badlands Passion Play, set in Alberta’s Badlands, presents its 25th season this summer. Between July 6 and 22, over 150 professional and volunteer actors will re-enact the life of Jesus.
The Passion Play was first performed in 1994, on the bare hillside of a natural amphitheatre in Drumheller. Sold-out audiences of 1200 watched and listened from the facing hillside.
Today’s performance space is very different from those bare hillsides 25 years ago. The set has tripled in size, with several buildings added. A sound system was installed. Audience seating has doubled. New scripts, based on alternating gospels, are written every five years.
Aaron Krogman, who played Jesus from 2013-2015 and understudied the role in 2011-2012, is playing Jesus again this summer. “(Playing this role) has actually been a pretty important part of my acting career, but also my life,” Krogman says. “Prior to the Passion Play, I wouldn’t have called myself not a Christian, but I would have barely called myself a Christian.”
Although his father is a pastor, Krogman had a strained relationship with the Bible, he says, and he wasn’t comfortable with how some in the Christian community use Scripture. He also found aspects of Christian history challenging.
“I was a little bit reticent to join the Passion Play,” he says, “because I wasn’t sure what I was going to get, what kind of community I was going to be joining.”
But, he says, “Essentially, I was paid to spend three months each summer from 2011 to 2015, to study the Gospel of John. … The first two years, I really struggled. I had a lot of doubts and a lot of cynicism and criticism.”
“Then … the words of that text, the words I was memorizing and trying to learn how to communicate in a truthful way …. That text was let loose inside of me and it went beyond just the acting. … I found myself being pulled apart and put back together in new ways.”
“It has really changed my relationship to the Bible,” he says. “I think I was in a position of putting myself over top of it and being a little bit critical and in judgement. But I’ve come to see it as this really amazing, surprising and dynamic text that I am underneath, and I can only be underneath.”
“Each time I read the script,” Krogman says, “each time I would come to it again, each year I would do it — and this year is no different — the character of Jesus is something that just blows my mind in ways I’m not expecting.”
“That process has been a life-giving thing, ultimately, for me,” he says. “It’s made me capable of having a more life-giving relationship with the Bible. … as well as with the Christian community.”
Krogman wasn’t scheduled to act in the Passion Play this year, but his plans changed suddenly when the scheduled performer backed out. That led to other unexpected developments. “The group of people that were gathering around it in this last-minute way, a lot of us are singers,” he says. “As they were looking at rewrites and they were planning for this year, all of a sudden, the idea came up, why don’t we consider of taking a step towards a musical?”
They took more than a step, and this year’s Passion Play became a full-blown musical, with Luke Ertman writing all-new music.
“There’s a really, really good feeling among the whole group that’s rehearsing because the music’s so exciting,” Krogman says. “(The music is) a language that speaks really strongly on that stage. … There just seems a lot of things that are falling into place in really wonderful ways, and I’m so pumped about this year in a way I have never been before.”
“There’s tons of music in it, tons of singing,” he says. “And the type of text has a really modern feel to it. (Scriptwriter) Barrett Hileman has used the Contemporary English Version as his main text for adaptation (of the script), so I feel like it’s the most accessible it’s ever been.”
“The opening night is already sold out,” says Executive Director Vance Neudorf. “The word is spreading quickly that this is a year you do not want to miss.”
For tickets and information, go to www.canadianpassionplay.com.