Roman soldiers on horseback are veteran riders or even professional cowboys the rest of the year.
Photos by Randall Wiebe, Artistic Director
Canadian Badlands Passion Play
Alberta’s Badlands have been well recognized in the 20th century as a massive repository of fossils and bones from the period 65 million years ago when dinosaurs were Earth’s most high profile life form. The Badlands are also one of the fastest eroding surfaces on the planet, due to wind, winter ice and moisture. This means that the scenery is guaranteed dramatic, changeable from year to year, and bound to reveal even more dinosaur and other fossil remains each time a rare intense rainfall moves through what is essentially a desert landscape.
Spawned by this remarkably photogenic terrain and the perpetual energy of a local community that has taken this very human-focused project to its heart, the Canadian Badlands Passion Play on the outskirts of Drumheller has celebrated 19 years of sold-out success, recognized as one of the most authentic and popular biblical passion plays in the world. Yes, it honors the medieval passion play traditions, telling in dramatic fashion stories from the life, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but there the similarity ends.
With a 50-voice choir, a cast of 150 people, and an audience of 2,500, the Passon Play is a major production by any standard.
The 30-acre canyon bowl that forms a natural amphitheater where this biblical cameo unfolds has sparked visionary imagination, creativity and persistence to re-create the ancient Holy Land venue for this event every summer since 1994.
Artistic Director Randall Wiebe says, “We have had terrific success so far and the feedback we have been getting from provincial, national and international visitors has been so encouraging. They are telling us that this is a must-attend Alberta event that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. And we couldn’t agree more. It also helps to have someone on our side bringing us great weather!”
Wrapping up the July 2010 season of six three-hour performances, the Passion Play set a new attendance record of 12,203 for the season. There were also a record number attending from outside Alberta.
Jesus shares a moment of delight with Matthew, one of two narrators of the passion play.
“This past summer, to fill nearly 85% of our seats in a down economy and against formidable attractions like the Calgary Stampede is quite a feat. Perhaps during tough economic times, people are more receptive to positive spiritual messages of hope,” speculates Wiebe. “There were top quality actors, an updated script, new music and outstanding performances from the more than 150 actors and a 50+ member choir and orchestra.
“Some have told us that it is like having a front row seat in an interactive live movie. Others have remarked that they couldn’t believe they actually watched and enjoyed any three-hour theatrical play. We have also received kudos from a number of American tourists who said this is the best Passion Play they have ever seen and they would come back to the Badlands just to see it again.”
Inspiring biblical miracle stories like the healing of the paralytic man, above,
and the man with the withered hand, below, dramatically unfold with energy and conviction.
Even though visitors who attend may be guaranteed that they will never step off Alberta soil, they will surely be transported back 2,000 years to the land and events that had such an enormous influence on human history. For some, this is an exciting time-travel experience; for others it is a moving faith pilgrimage that transports the imagination into the Israel of yesteryear.
Passion Play Contacts: www.canadianpassionplay.com Call toll-free in North America, tel: 1-888-823-2001.
Dates and Prices: In 2011, there will be six Badlands performances between July 15 and 24, three matinees and three daylight early evening shows. It is recommended to arrive one hour early to enjoy the pre-show, the gift shop, and the Interpretive Centre. Adult seats are CAD$34-$48 each, with reduced pricing for children, students, seniors and families.
Parking: There is free parking on site. Transportation is available for those needing assistance from the parking lots to the Amphitheater.
Amphitheater Seating: Tickets bear specific seat numbers, with every one of the 2,500 seats in this natural canyon bowl a good one. There is bench seating, ample leg room and seat spacing with clear sight lines to all action, though each guest will be closer to some scenes than to others. All actors and the choir use their natural voices unamplified, aided by the superb acoustics of the ampitheater.
Well before the six performances each July, the Drumheller regional community is on the move to provide the backbone for this world-class event. Accomplished riders in what is true-to-life Alberta cowboy country are transformed into authentically-costumed Roman soldiers on horseback, women with young children begin sewing costumes for family members who will be participating with them in the crowd scenes – right down to babes in arms. Men start cultivating dashing beards that will transform them into imposing chief priests, and local farm families offer a range of farm animals, from donkeys to goats and chickens, all of whom will undoubtedly make themselves heard on set during the performance!
Over 500 volunteers from across western Canada serve at the Passion Play during each performance. Approximately 100 will actually camp on site, making volunteering part of their summer vacation. Professionals round out the cast, directing and theatrical crew with star vocalists, accomplished lead actors, a choir that is a musical treat in itself, and a whole team behind the scenes to generate the technical magic. Nothing is left to chance!
Scenes of the crucifixion and the tomb blend fittingly with the Badlands backdrop.
Costumes, structures and scenery are meticulously authentic to the period 2,000 years ago.
Since its inception, all aspects of the Passion Play have been meticulously researched and designed by Daniel van Heyst, professor at King’s University College in Edmonton. This includes every part of the monumental set to the smallest prop piece, as well as hundreds of authentic costumes.
This attention to detail has resulted in well-deserved international recognition, being named Alberta’s Top Cultural Attraction and One of North America’s Top 100 Events, among them. Its theatrical contribution as one of the world’s noted Passion Plays has also been written up in academic literature.
As a unique North American cultural event, the Canadian Badlands Passion Play is worthy of a travel detour on a Western Canada journey from anywhere on the planet. It will serve as the perfect excuse for a spiritual pilgrimage, a bit of historical research, an inspiring way to investigate the Christian faith, or simply provide an entertaining “time travel” experience in a land that dinosaurs once ruled.
Drumheller, Alberta, www.traveldrumheller.com, hosts the richest deposits of fossils and dinosaur bones in North America. It is also home to the world-class Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, which is worthy of a day’s visit all on its own.
The Canadian Badlands B&B Association, www.canadianbadlandsbandbassociation.com, will introduce visitors with a variety of budgets to the finest homestyle accommodations in the region.
Don’t miss the picturesque hamlet of Rosebud [population 100], an hour’s drive from Calgary, on the way to Drumheller. Rosebud hosts Western Canada’s largest rural theater company, www.rosebudtheatre.com, celebrating its 25th season in 2008 with a diverse program of plays and musical productions that draw 40,000 patrons a year to the historic Rosebud Opera House. The theater experience is supplemented with unique dining, art galleries, and museums as well as creative, one-of-a-kind shopping, all in a strollable historic few blocks. See our feature article about Rosebud and its theatre.
To appreciate the diverse palate of Alberta’s province-wide tourism no matter what time of year you visit, click on http://travelalberta.com/.