Canadian Badlands Passion Play

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The Canadian Badlands Passion Play is a passion play performed annually since 1994 in Drumheller, Alberta. The play takes place every July in a natural bowl amphitheater found in the Drumheller Valley. The outdoor stage was chosen for its likeness to the hills found near Jerusalem, Israel, as well as the superb natural acoustics. It follows the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus found in the Gospels, told through drama and music, using nearly 300 performers. The play begins with the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and ends with the Great Commission of the disciples. It is a large attraction to Drumheller, an area already known for its tourism industry. The play draws audience members from across Alberta, Canada, and internationally, some coming as pilgrims, others simply coming to see a large scale professional theatre production.


In 1988 the founder of the Rosebud Theatre and Rosebud School of the Arts, Laverne Erickson, formed a steering committee and began gaining the support of local community organizations for what would become the Canadian Badlands Passion Play. 1990 held the charter meeting for the establishment of a passion play, and thus was born the Canadian Badlands Passion Play Society. The Honourable Gordon Taylor, Former Minister of Highways for Alberta and Member of the Legislative Assembly for the Drumheller Riding, was presented with the title of honorary chairman for the society. Mr. Taylor had, during the 1960s, put forth efforts in Drumheller to produce a passion play for the area, but the project was never started due to several factors. The name Canadian Badlands was chosen due to the topographical similarity of the Badlands to the Israeli countryside surrounding Jerusalem.

The crowd acts as a character unto itself.

The society set Summer 1994 as its goal for the first production of the show. 30 acres (120,000 m2) of land were obtained, in addition to another 65 acres (260,000 m2) owned in conjunction with the Drumheller Valley Ski Hill. In July of that year, the Canadian Badlands Passion Play held its premiere performance, filling the 1150 available seats. The original playwright, Kathy Covert, directed the show.

The next years saw the introduction of many changes and upgrades, including an increase in seating, the building of a choir loft, expansion of the set, and various script changes. Regional choir rehearsals occurred throughout Alberta and Saskatchewan. 1998 saw the Society’s first Winter Choir Concert Series in Lethbridge, Calgary, and Red Deer.

In the year 2001, the Jerusalem Wall Project opened its first phase. The project meant to replicate on a smaller scale the actual Jerusalem Wall in Israel. The Jerusalem Wall through the years has housed many services including a concession, gift shop, black box theatre, interpretive museum, wardrobe, production offices, storage and a rehearsal space. Many of these facilities continue to exist as such. 2003 introduced a variety of small scale dramatic performances on the site, although this initiative lasted only three years.

In 2006, partly in response to declining ticket sales, the performance was completely updated, with a new script, written by Royal Sproule, and new music by Bill Hamm, both of whom held a reputable history with Rosebud theatre and Rosebud School of the Arts. Auditions were held province wide, and other changes were made including the expansion of the musical instrumentation, and the insertion of a narrator character in order to aid audience comprehension of time and location changes in the storyline.

January 18, 2011 The Passion Play Society celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding. A commemorative heritage coffee table book with photographs will focus on the past five years of plays and appear in a story format, telling the story of the life of Jesus based on the book of Matthew, the tax collector.

15 July, the 100th performance of the Passion Play will take to the outdoor amphitheatre and kick off its 2011 season. Playwright Royal Sproule has written a new script that will focus on retelling the life of Christ through the eyes of the John the apostle, the choir will joining actors on stage, and the play itself running for seven nights instead of six. The Passion Play also debuts a new sound reinforcement system for its 2011 performances. The three-dimensional sound system will enhance the audiences’ audio experiences, and strategically place sound (both voice and music) that keeps audiences engaged as the visual action unfolds in front them. The audience will feel more like they are in the play rather than just watching it. This modification was also completed to accommodate those with difficulty hearing.

The Society Mandate[edit]

“The Society’s objectives are to tell the story of the life of Christ through the medium of the creative arts, and in so doing: to engender faith in Christ and thus enrich the lives of visitors and participants, to advance the arts, to foster community spirit, and to create a high quality, summer-long attraction of international interest and significance”

–The Canadian Badlands Passion Play Society-

In 2008, a new tag-line for the passion play emerged; "An authentic experience with the life of Jesus Christ". This reflects another aspect of the society's mandate, which is to provide an authentic encounter with Jesus. The Society is also mandated to build awareness and skill in the arts, through the production of the annual play and through various events through the year.

The Performance[edit]

Jesus, John and Peter Celebrate at a party given by Matthew

The story takes the viewer through the course of Jesus' three-year ministry, condensed into three hours. It is similar in many ways to other passion plays of similar scale. Action occurs in every viewable space on the set, including the hills and audience area. The performance occurs in nearly any weather, with the exception of weather that threatens the safety of viewers or performers.


Musical underscoring adds an extra element to the show. The play is infused with choral and instrumental music, as well as onstage singing and playing by cast members. The music which has been used since 2006 was written by Bill Hamm, a professor at Rosebud School of the Arts, and central figure in the Rosebud Theatre. This music shifted away from the chorale style music of the prior script, and moved more towards a musical underpinning present through most of the performance. This music plays much like a film score, heightening drama and enhancing the overall artistry. The choir pulls from English and Hebrew religious texts, as well as providing a dramatic vocalise style underscoring at times for scenes on stage. In 2006 instrumentation grew from a single electric keyboard, to include trumpets, euphonium, tuba, timpani and other percussion, and other instruments. Portions of the music are drawn from Hebrew folksongs, and one piece in particular from Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria. Others nod to the Classical canon of composers, such as Mozart. Some of the music if based on modal textures, such as the Phrygian dominant scale (also known as Ahava Rabboh, Freygish, Hijaz maqam, or Jewish Scale) which is constructed by raising the third note of the Phrygian modal scale.

Music and Dance is a big part of the play


The body of performers is drawn from a pool of musicians and actors from across Alberta, and in some cases reaching into Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and even Ontario. It is composed mainly of volunteer amateur actors and musicians, however also involves a few notable professionals, such as actors from Canadian Actor’s Equity Association. Performers number in at nearly 300 people annually, though the precise number fluctuates from year to year.


The goal of the society is to present an authentic experience. Costumers in the Wardrobe department extensively research authentic first century garb in the Middle East. It was unlawful to have a graven image for the Jewish people of that time, and so there are little to no pictorial resources which can be drawn upon in the way of statues and engravings. Much of the wardrobe is therefore based upon text descriptions by historians, and the customs and culture of present day Orthodox Jews. Much is also drawn from studying the wardrobe and culture of the Bedouins, who have changed relatively little over the centuries. Many performers have multiple roles, and therefore multiple costumers, demanding a vast archive of costume pieces.

Here John the Baptist speaks to King Herod from a hill

Nature's Special Effects[edit]

A large part of the draw of an outdoor theatrical experience is the surrounding nature. Shows have been highlighted by sunsets, eagles, seagulls, gophers, wind, light rain, and timely cloud breaks. Even windstorms and rainstorms are known to enhance the experience of viewers.

Script Evolution[edit]

It is a challenge to make characters that can be connected to

The original script used in the show was written by Kathy Covert, who also wrote a portion of the lyrics for the music. This script was used for two years. In 1996, Randall Wiebe wrote a new script, based primarily on the Gospel of John. New music and lyrics were written by the Society founder Laverne Erickson. The script was used for the subsequent 11 years of the production, with annual edits and updates, in order to keep the show fresh. Scenes were added and deleted according to playwright and director tastes.

Over time there developed a marketplace, which took place behind the main action, keeping the full cast involved for most of the show. In 2006, partly in response to declining ticket sales, as well as a desire for a fresher production, a new script was written by Royal Sproule (with excerts taken with permission from Murray Watts' "Miracle Maker"), and music was written by Bill Hamm, both of whom are quite prominent in the Rosebud Theatre community. The new script saw a move away from many of the crowd oriented scenes, and more significantly the crowd marketplace backdrop from which characters were drawn for certain scenes, as well as the established pre-show in favour of scenes more focused on individual relationships within the story. In recent years, a pre-show performance has begun to be re-established, and patrons have remarked on the role of the crowd members in the story. The crowd now functions almost as an individual character due to choreographed movement at different moments in the show.

The new script gave a new approach to the story. The idea was to bring in artistic theatrical techniques in order to make it powerful and entertaining, while remaining true to the story. Allusions were made to Shakespeare’s Henry V, most significantly, the opening speech by delivered by Matthew, which is derived largely from the Chorus' introduction. Several surrealistic and symbolic theatre techniques were employed. The script also made more nods to the humanity of the characters, particularly the disciples and female followers, and made greater use of their relationships and interactions with one another.

2011 will debut a new script that will focus on retelling the life of Christ through the eyes of the John the apostle, playwright Royal Sproule has written. By working with the original Biblical text, Sproule uses what he hesitantly calls “pageantry” to pull the audience in, yet warns that, while Matthew was an easy story to digest, John doesn’t pull any punches.


The new 2006 script also included the use of a Narrator, through the vehicle of Matthew the Evangelist, disciple and traditional writer of one of the gospel accounts(The Gospel according to Matthew). This gave the story a personal touch, allowing the audience to see what the situation may have been like through the eyes of one of his followers. The narrator character also allows scenes to move between times and locales with greater ease, and helping the audience to understand these leaps with greater fluidity.

One of the Narrators is the previously possessed Mary Magdalene

The most recent edition of the script gives portions of the narration to the character of Mary Magdalene, giving the perspective of one of Jesus’ most dedicated female followers, a story not often heard.


The Passion Play stage is placed within a natural bowl amphitheatre in the hills of the Badlands. The space encompasses 2700 seats, as well as a 300-seat choir loft, although the recent addition of a musicians' platform has decreased this number slightly. The stage itself has undergone massive upgrades over the years. It currently holds a large set building that serves both as a backstage and as a prop storage during the off-season. A large cement paddock is at the front of the building marking areas known as the “temple” and the “marketplace”. A large stone threshing floor, clay oven, and a grinding wheel lie adjacent to the building. Some aspects of the stage were used during the 11-year run of the old script, before the 2006 change, largely as part of the marketplace backdrop. After the script change was made and the marketplace was no longer used as such, staging no longer required some of these stage areas, and they become largely a part of the atmosphere of the play, rather than a part of the show directly. The front of the stage is marked by a large wooden dock, representing the coast of Lake Gennesaret (or the Sea of Galilee) and other bodies of water. Carved into one hill are stairs leading up to “Calvary”, and at its base lie tombs which are used at various points in the production. The entire area is used in the production, including the surrounding hillside.

The Summer Theatre Project[edit]

The Summer Theatre Project was an initiative started in 2003 to extend the Passion Play site as a summer long cultural attraction. The project included several shows, including family and contemporary shows, and one man scripture based shows. Of these, two are presently performed regularly. Proposals have been made to extend this idea and make the Passion Play a hub for scripture based plays.

The Creation Question Paradox[edit]

The Passion Play takes place in Drumheller, Alberta, a place best known as the world’s biggest dinosaur cemetery. Hundreds of fossils have been found in the hills surrounding the Drumheller region, and many are uncovered on a regular basis. Amidst this backdrop of evolutionary processes frozen in action, Drumheller is home to a fervent community of Evangelical and devout Christians, many of whom are vocal proponents of seven-day creationism. In the hills can be found a colossal statue of Jesus, and the town is home to dozens of churches and other religious centers. It was also the site of a biker church rally. Recently a Christian rock festival has been organized on the passion play site. This apparent clash has even become the topic for 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Company Documentary "The Cross and Bones".

Planned Advancements[edit]

Several upgrades are planned for the show and the production site. The remaining phases of the Jerusalem Wall Project (the first of which was completed in 2001), will see the renovation of the current phase, as well as an extension from the current wall to the set building allowing for transport of props, actors, and storage materials. Further improvements to an animal holding area used during the production run were completed to accommodate the live animals used in the show. Renovations to office spaces to increase efficiency and staff comfort. A Roman Road campaign has been launched, and will see the paving of a period style road designed for the ease of visitors, and actors during the show. Seating was expanded and in 2010 the website featured for the first time an online ticketing system where patrons can even choose the seat they’d like if booked early. Improvements and repairs were made to the set and set buildings as well. In 2011 the implementation of a $100,000 three dimensional surround sound system to enhance the audiences’ audio experiences and accommodate those with difficulty hearing.

See also[edit]

References[edit] (13 June 2008). "The Passion Play - The Story behind the Story". The Weekender (Drumheller, AB, Canada: Drumheller Mail). Retrieved 11 May 2009. 

"The Canadian Badlands Passion Play Society 2008 Annual Report" (Press release). The Canadian Badlands Passion Play Society. January 2009. 

Wiebe, Randall. "The Canadian Badlands Passion". Sandalstrap. Retrieved 11 May 2009. 

"The Canadian Badlands Passion". canadianbadlandsPP. Retrieved 18 January 2011.