Behind the Scenes of The Great Passion Play
Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
– Watching an emotional drama of Jesus’ last days on earth and his ascension to heaven is one thing. Standing in the crowd jeering at him and asking for his crucifixion is another. That’s the fun, yet uncomfortable place, I found myself when I decided to go behind the scenes of The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs.
This two-hour, outdoor production runs most evenings from the end of April until the end of October. About 250 actors make up the cast with 150 of them on stage during some scenes. Camels, donkeys, horses, pigeons, sheep, and goats are also used to depict the times of Christ.
The recreated Jerusalem representing two thousand years ago is set against an Ozark hillside and is about the size of two football fields. With an impressive 4,100-seat outdoor amphitheater, the current production comprises a cast in authentic attire, and features original music composed by Phil Perkins and performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London.
My first step to enter this Holy Land is to look the part. A woman hands me a costume from a rack and points me toward the dressing room. Slipping the floor-length robe over my clothes, I stand somewhat lost as to what to do with the headscarf. Other women quickly wrap it around my head and shoulders. Another suggests I role up my pant legs so they don’t accidentally peek out from under my robe were I to go up steps.
The director then gives the assembled cast notes observed from the last performances. We are reminded to spread out during the Pilot scene and kudos are given to a girl that did well playing Pilot’s aid for the first time. Then, we head off to take our places for the start of the play.
Lights, music, action – the bustling city comes to life, and after a few minutes, I walk onto the set with my veteran leaders – Norma Achord and Opal Littrell. Without them to follow, I would certainly look to be the village idiot, unsure of what was going on and possibly trampled by horses. I’m trying to take it all when Norma leans forward while saying to me, “We’re supposed to bow.” This is what you call on the job training.
Her next direction comes at the moment Jesus is rebuking the moneychangers at the temple and overturns some crates of birds. “Look out for the doves,” she says as they fly from their coops, seemingly straight toward my head. They rise in the sky circling over the set, roosting here and there before flying back to their off-stage home. Norma was once hit in the forehead by one of the doves. Another time one roosted on her head and she spent that scene thinking “Don’t make a deposit now.” Actually, they aren’t doves. They’re homing pigeons.
We walk offset and stand in the shadows of a building until I go with Opal to the well. We pretend to look at cloth another woman is selling and shake our heads that we don’t want to buy food or goods from other Jews roaming the street. I find it hard to ignore my desire to look at the audience.
After this shining moment in the spotlight, where I hope the audience can’t tell I have no idea what is going on, Opal, Norma and I have some behind the scenes work to do. We head to a room to put out the bread for Jesus and his disciples who will sup there in the next scene. A man hobbles in to join us and for a moment I feel sympathy for whatever affliction has caused him his bad gait. Then I realize he has pea gravel in his shoes. It is spread over the floor of the entire set. He’s the first of many hobbling Jews I’ll witness this evening and I’ll even take on a limp later in the play.
Behind the massive set, kids are running around, talking, huddled in groups like teenagers at the mall. From kids to the adults, it doesn’t always seem as though the actors are paying attention to the unfolding drama up front. Yet, they seem to hear their cues and step into the set when they’re supposed to.
I ask Norma if anyone ever falls. “Yes, a few people fall from time to time,” she says. A couple of scenes later, while I’m watching the play from bench seats by the sound booth at the front of the set, and below and out of sight of the public amphitheater seating, a young boy carrying a torch up a short flight of stairs trips. Luckily, he recovers nicely. Norma looks at me as if to say, see it happens. I feel a little guilty as if asking the question caused his faulty footwork.
Considering the play is in its 39th year, there have been few mishaps during the production. But, there have been some. Once a horse spooked, stopped quick and the rider slide over its head and into the well. Another time a horse got loose, ran to Pilot’s porch then turned and ran up the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) path just as it was trained to do. One time a skunk walked through the audience, and at another performance one of the crosses would raise only halfway.
The craziest story of all is the night that Jesus was knocked out when he was being whipped. A back up Jesus had to finish the play. There are three different men that play Jesus.
The flogging is my most difficult time. Other cast members are shouting and jeering at Jesus, raising their fists and calling for his crucifixion. Pretending to be involved in the drama, I point at the scene as I ask the man beside me if he doesn’t feel a bit uncomfortable to be yelling at Jesus. Yes, he admits, but adds that he’s helping tell an important story.
I can’t seem to raise my fist to Him even if I am just portraying the story, so I decide to designate myself a hand wringer. “Use lots of hand gestures,” Norma tells me. I just nod and wring my hands some more.
I’m allowed to go up the hill to see the crucifixion. To get there, cast members must walk in the dark to be in place when the lights come up. It’s not easy walking up a steep, bumpy hillside in the shadows. I do what’s known in the business as the “Passion Play shuffle” and slowly make my way without tripping.
When Jesus ascends 70 feet into the air, I keep my eye on him, thinking that from my vantage point I’ll be able to see the stage trick of where he “disappears.” Not so. I still don’t know.
What I do know is that going behind the scenes of The Great Passion Play was even more fun than I expected and I’d love to do it again. I can see the appeal of being a cast member, being a part of that family. Their nightly dedication is impressive.
This season marks Norma and Opal’s 19th year with The Great Passion Play. They met on the set. Norma lives in Elk Ranch near Holiday Island and Opal in Berryville. Ninety percent of the cast comes back every year. For many of them it’s a family affair.
“I have six members of my family that work in the play,” Opal explains. They are her three sisters, sister-in-law, brother and herself. “My brother takes care of the animals up top.”
Pat and DuWayne West of Cassville began acting in the play for the first time in 2006. They perform five nights a week when in town and are looking to move closer to Eureka and family. Their son, daughter-in-law, her parents and their grandchildren have all been in the play about four or five years. “It’s a missionary type thing,” says Pat West. “It’s better than anything on the television.”
Danny Cameron of Green Forest has been in the play for nearly nine years, starting when he was just 16. At first he parked cars. Eventually, he became Barabbas, Simon (who carried the cross for Jesus), and now plays three to four parts a night as needed.
Another man tells me he and his wife and three kids just moved to nearby Holiday Island from California and began acting in the play last year.
The times and life of Jesus has been performed since 1968 in the charming Victorian town. The Great Passion Play grounds offer even more than the outdoor drama, including: a New Holy Land tour, Sacred Arts Center, seven-story Christ of the Ozarks statue, Church in the Grove, Berlin Wall, playground and picnic area, Smith Memorial Chapel, gospel concerts, bible museum, Parables of the Potter presentations and The Great Passion Play buffet restaurant.
For performance schedules, reservations or information, call 1-800-882-7529 or visit www.greatpassionplay.com. Tour groups are also welcome. Along with the many offerings of the Passion Play grounds, Eureka Springs has quaint shops, Victorian architecture, restaurants and numerous lodging options. The entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places. Call 1-800-6EUREKA or visit www.eurekasprings.org. for more information.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
“Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism”
1 Capitol Mall, 4A-900 - Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 | 1-800-872-1259 or (501) 682-7777 (V/TT)