A Space for Eternity


That's how the stage on the cemetery could have looked like (Archive of the Municipality of Oberammergau)

Building the auditorium 1898 to 1900 (Photo: Archive of the Municipality of Oberammergau)

The people of Oberammergau have acted in theatre plays for almost 400 years. But the Passion Play Theatre in its present form is much newer. At first, the Plays took place on temporary stages, which were established every ten years in the cemetery – in remembrance of the dead of the plague, with which everything had begun in 1634. Since 1830, the Passion Meadow in the north of the village has been used for performances: King Ludwig I. had only allowed the Play to take place if it was no longer held in the cemetery.  The audience sat outside on wooden grandstands until the Munich court theatre engineer Max Schmucker designed a permanent auditorium in 1898: a scaffolding structure with six filigree steel arches on which the wooden hall rests. The hall is open to the open-air stage at the front.

This October the Passion Play Theatre was declared a listed building. "The building is worthy of protection because of its special construction and design, the rare technology in the stage building and its high historical significance for the popular and amateur theatre", according to the press release of the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments. And: "Now that the Oberammergau Passion Play is already part of the intangible UNESCO Cultural Heritage, the entry of the theatre building in the list of monuments also honours its structural, material heritage.” The filigree steel structures bear witness to exceptional engineering skills, says Carsten Lück, the technical director of the Play: “It would be impossible to construct it this way today.”

Of course, since its inauguration, the theatre has been in a constant process of development. The history of the theatre is a history of rebuilding. Every ten years it has been brought up to the current state of the art and adapted to the needs of time. In 1922, for example, a studio for taking photographs was added to the back of the cloakroom building. In 1980, a huge elevating platform was built at the back of the stage, which rose from nowhere for the Mount of Olives scene. As it had not been used since then and took up a lot of urgently needed space, it was removed for the present Passion Play. In 2010, lighting bridges were added, as moving the Play into the evening hours made artificial lighting necessary. For the coming season, sound insulation was installed in the rear auditorium to support the new electro-acoustic sound system. All this was done with great care even before the official monument protection order was issued: "We always made sure to proceed as discreetly as possible", says Lück.

The current status is now under monument protection. The stage design by Stefan Hageneier probably also belongs to this. Well, it is not an ordinary, mobile stage design like in a normal theatre. Here in Oberammergau the main stage is bricked and plastered, nothing is fake. In this respect it is: a space for eternity. In fact, for the 2020/22 Play, for the first time in a long time, work was focused upon the stage, meaning: not only was it painted, but its form and design were also modified. "Stefan Hageneier tried to bring in a more even and calm line," says Lück. The formerly round arches were replaced by straight ends, everything was covered with grey mineral plaster. Before that, the stage construction from 1930 was used for the most part. In future all building measures will have to be coordinated with the monument protection authority. "That makes things a bit more complicated," says Lück, "but that does not mean that there will be no more changes.”

The rebuilt stage of the Passion Play Theatre 2020 according to the designs of Stefan Hageneier (Foto: Andreas Stückl)

In the Passion Play Theatre everything is designed to meet the special and changing needs of the Play. The people of Oberammergau have always been creative when it came to making the necessary possible. There are some things that are normally not found in theatre, for example the donkey ramp, over which the theatre animals can get onto the stage comfortably. The entrance has been enlarged upwards so that the camels don't bump their heads. The safety curtain, which separates the stage and the auditorium in terms of fire protection, opens up and down like a "fish mouth" instead of simply being pulled up. The latter is not possible at all because there is no fly gallery. There is a shortage of space behind the stage anyway, everything is organised strictly according to logic and procedure. As the choir has so many performances, the choir dressing rooms are closest to the stage, soprano and alto on one side and tenor and bass on the other. The people have to change in a time-staggered manner because there is definitely not enough space in the dressing rooms for everyone at the same time.

The Living Image "The dance around the Golden Calf" from the front ...

... and from the back (Fotos: Sebastian Schulte)

When a change in the setting is due - and this is quite often the case with the 12 living images inserted - the entire rear play area is pushed away on wheels to make room for the frames in which the living images are set up. The stagehands have just two and a half minutes to do all this before the performers have to get into position and the curtain opens again. That's quite sporty, and behind the stage it's at least as turbulent as in front of it. Yes, it has happened that the choir sang of a living image, but the curtain didn't open because there was still chaos behind it, Lück admits with a smile, "But that's the exception.” Most of the time, the participants cope well with the challenges that such a play with one and a half thousand participants entails. And now it's time for monument protection. For the building, mind you. The Play that takes place in it will hopefully continue to reinvent itself every ten years.

Text: Anne Fritsch
Photos: Archive of the Municipality of Oberammergau, Andreas Stückl, Sebastian Schulte