After two long years, the Canadian Badlands Passion Play was back in the natural amphitheatre bowl outside Drumheller, Alta. Photo courtesy Canadian Badlands Passiona Play

Badlands Passion Play makes triumphant return

  • July 21, 2022

Following two summers of cancellations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Badlands Passion Play returned each Friday, Saturday and Sunday July 1 through 17 to dramatize the epic life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

An average of more than 10,000 people have flocked to the natural bowl amphitheatre located just outside of Drumheller, Alta., each year since 1994 to witness this production mounted traditionally by a small troupe of professional actors and over 200 volunteer performers. This setting is deemed ideal because of its striking topographical likeness to the countryside surrounding the city of Jerusalem.

Vance Neudorf, executive director of the Badlands Amphitheatre since 2008, expressed gratitude for the passion play’s financial backers and supportive board of directors for matching his team’s enthusiasm to doggedly committing to find a way to get this play back on stage in 2022. He said the audience and critic feedback validates this team effort.

“A lot of people who participated in the exit surveys said they really loved the humour in this script,” said Neudorf. “People have also commented that they get such an intrinsic, personal look at His life and being during this time period, particularly the crucifixion of Jesus. A couple commenters said, ‘I’ve been here many times before, but this time I had to look away. The pain was too much to bear.’ The action on the stage is connecting with people on a very real level.”

Another signature element of the play is that the script undergoes a major overhaul every few years. Some iterations are driven by its ambitious musical performances, others prioritize action-oriented storytelling and some versions — including this year’s imagining — scale back the flashiness of the sets, costumes and musical spectacle for intimate, character-focused drama.

Neudorf and his team chose the script inspired by the Gospel of Matthew. Alberta playwright Royal Sproule first penned what Neudorf dubs “the Matthew script” before the 2006 summer schedule. The executive director credits Sproule’s work for revitalizing a brand that had been experiencing declining fortunes.

“In a very real sense this play saved the organization at that time. We had done a choral-based one for over 10 years, the numbers were dropping off and the board looked at the situation and thought, ‘maybe we have done all that we can do. Maybe it is time to pack it in.’ But the board was approached with a pitch to switch to a play from a choral version. The board said yes because there was nothing to lose,” he said.

Given this historical precedent, it was a slam dunk for “the Matthew script” to rekindle what the Badlands Amphitheatre hopes will be a post-pandemic renaissance for the passion play.

The journey in rebooting the Canadian Badlands Passion Play was not without adversity. Neudorf said it was difficult to receive funding and trickier to attract the same quantity of volunteers as in previous years. Organizers of the play were required to assume additional responsibilities. For example, The Catholic Register spoke with Neudorf while he inspected the sets to ensure the performance that evening would go off without a hitch.

Complementing Neudorf’s contentment that everyone involved in presenting this play got the job done is fulfillment for the message it imparts to the spectators.

“We’ve seen it in our reviews time and time again where someone writes, ‘I need that message of hope, love and positivity in the world — and also being able to move forward in life.’ ”

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