THE ROLE OF THE LIVING IMAGES, OR TABLEAUX VIVANTS, IN THE PASSION PLAY AND THE REASONS WHY THEY POSE SUCH A HUGE TECHNICAL CHALLENGE
The Living Image "The dance around the Golden Calf" gets illuminated (Photo: Sebastian Schulte)
Here it is at last, smack in the centre of the stage. The Golden Calf. After the Play was postponed, it had been stored away in the construction yard along with angel wings, snakes and lions - yet behold it now, a glowing centrepiece in the blue room. The Golden Calf is one of the twelve Tableaux Vivants which have been an inseparable feature of the Oberammergau Passion Play since 1750. Back then, it was fashionable in theatres to arrange groups of people into motionless pictures, i.e. "Tableaux Vivants," says stage designer Stefan Hageneier: "Although not an Oberammergau invention by any means, this tradition has survived in Oberammergau to this day. The Passion Play's basic structure of action scenes, chorus, and Living Images has never changed."
What has changed over the years, however, are the Living Images' aesthetics and their content. While the Images always show scenes from the Old Testament, neither their selection nor their order of sequence are cut in stone. Although some of the Living Images such as the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden or the Worship of the Golden Calf are fixed and non-negotiable dramaturgical elements of the Play, others do change. "The first Image has traditionally been a bit of an experiment," Stefan Hageneier relates, "because it would to some extent also include the renewal of the pledge. That is why this particular Image was always the odd one out, it was an idiosyncrasy. I personally believe that many people in the audience did not understand it either." That's why we decided on a bit of innovation this time around: This time, the Oberammergauers' solemn pledge of 1633 to henceforth perform the Passion of Christ every ten years will be shown not as a Living Image but as an opening scene to the Play. The chorus, whose function in the Play has also been a bit elusive until now, will be leading the audience through the Play in the guise of historical Oberammergau citizens. And the Living Images will remain strictly Old Testament. "What we wanted was a continuous narrative of images showing the Jewish people on the run. We put in a lot of Moses images as a figure of identification on that contextual level," Hageneier says. "They are also images of humanity afflicted by disasters. The analogies between then and now are not very far-fetched, just think of the flood in the Ahr Valley. Yet we also have images of hope among them to highlight what's happening on stage."
The reason the Living Images are the most technically challenging part of the entire Play is because each one is set up differently and because changeover times are so short. While the Play is being performed out front, the next Image needs to be set up behind the stage. To give the audience an unobstructed view of the mountains behind the theatre, the Passion Play Theatre was never equipped with a fly tower. For the longest time, the props and scenery were moved up onto the stage from below. However, Hageneier has decided to take a radically different approach: His stage sets are pre-assembled on stage trolleys which can be assembled like modules into a wide variety of configurations. "That doesn't make things any easier," he admits, "but it lends a much better sense of depth and perspective to the scene. Everything is more architecture-based now; before, the stage sets were a lot more two-dimensional." The new "houses" taper off toward the back and visually extend far into the backstage.
Every Living Image is different and follows different rules. For each transformation, the stage trolleys' side, ceiling, and floor elements have to be dismantled and reassembled. As a next step, the decorators place the props such as the golden calf, the angel wings, the lions, or the snake within the set before the trolley is ready for being positioned on stage. Only at this point can the cast members be called in and take their places. To make sure that everything runs smoothly at the premiere, all workflows are being optimised as of this writing. At the Passion Play Theatre, preparations for the premiere in May are now in full swing; every day, one of the twelve Living Images is set up, the participants positioned, and the lighting parameters defined. The scenery elements are lined up neatly along the sides of the backstage, the big red snake hangs in a mesh box under the roof. Over the next few weeks, a team of 30 will practice every move until all workflows are seamless and smooth.
Twelve weeks ahead of the premiere, however, there is no hurry yet for setting up the Golden Calf. In the late afternoon, the participants gather on stage. Stefan Hageneier shares his ideas of what the Living Image should look like. Who should be kneeling down in prayer? Who should be facing in which direction? Who should be standing at the Image’s perimeter? Who should cut which pose? - And as if by magic, everyone is suddenly in the right position. Still in their winter coats and with theirs masks on. And no less impressive for all that.
Text: Anne Fritsch
Photo: Sebastian Schulte