No compromises

Stefan Hageneier relies on real materials when it comes to costumes and scenery

The stage of the Passion Theatre is scaffolded, craftsmen lay bricks, plaster and paint. This has little to do with normal theatre construction. Anyway, when you walk around the stage and through the workshops, you feel a touch of eternity rather than the fleeting nature of the theatre. Every ten years, the people of Oberammergau stage the Passion of Christ. Their ancestors vowed to do so more than 350 years ago to be spared the plague. Thus, the people of Oberammergau allow themselves a solid scenery and more effort than would be possible elsewhere.

In any case, the workshops and the tailor shop are very busy already. A new cross is needed because reusing the predecessor model, which was overly used ten years ago, would be irresponsible. The scenery and costumes for all Living Pictures have to be produced and half a village has to be clothed for the collective play. Therefore, costumes are designed, sewn and tried on for more than 2000 participants. At the beginning of the Passion Play, the choir and the people in historical Bavarian costumes will renew the vow of 1634 this time. So: another set of completely new costumes.

Stage and costume designer Stefan Hageneier (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

The scene and costume designer Stefan Hageneier is responsible for all this for the third time. If you describe his approach in one word, it would be "real". Real materials, no fakes. Hageneier is a perfectionist. The leather armours of the soldiers in Herod’s entourage are made of innumerable small pieces of leather cut out with a laser cutter. For the angel wings, whose span is two and a half meters and whose shape is inspired by real birds, feathers are dyed and sewed on individually. Even if the feathers are too short and therefore have to be laboriously put together: artificial feathers are out of the question. That the armours are made of metal and not of cheaper (and lighter) plastic is also a matter of honour. After all, they should not only be seen, but also heard. "It is a tradition that we do not compromise in that regard," says Hageneier.

The props department working on the angel wings (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

Another tradition, since Christian Stückl took over the management of the play in 1990: Always thinking new in terms of content and aesthetics, questioning the plot for its validity for us. "It certainly is an unusual task to tackle the same story once more every 10 years," says Hageneier. "But people themselves change in this period and so does the situation which we live in, of course." In 2020, for example, the refugee issue will be reflected in the Living Pictures, which will embed the events in a wider context: "In terms of content, we are bringing the Living Pictures closer together by forming a coherent narrative of the expelled and oppressed Jewish people."

Modell of the Living Picture "The Prophet Daniel in the Lions' Den" (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

Modell of the Living Picture "Cain's Despair" (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

Modell of the Living Picture "Moses is Cast out by the Pharao" (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

Modell of the Living Picture "Josés' Dream" (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

Modell of the Living Picture "Looking upon the Fiery Serpent" (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

While these Living Pictures are made in strong colours, Hageneier relies on colourlessness for the scenes: "Here I have a 45-meter-wide stage and a large auditorium. Thus, I need a long-distance effect," he explains. "We also perform mostly in daylight and do not have any directed lighting. The people must therefore be integrated into the scene and must visually fade into the background, so that the main characters in the front show to advantage." Thus, the basic colour of the scene is also the basic colour of the costumes for the people this time.

Modell of the stage (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

Modell of the Last Supper (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)

Hageneier reactivated contacts with his fabric suppliers in India, sent them beige-grey colour samples of the stage and designs for patterns - and commissioned thousands of meters of fabric. They will be combined with old fabrics: "Such a genuine silver brocade fabric simply has a completely different effect on the stage than a coloured one", Hageneier is convinced.

Costume of the people of Jerusalem (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

Costume of the people of Jerusalem (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

Costume of the Supreme Council (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

Within his self-imposed quality standards, he then has the freedom to think about the details. Transferring the events to the present is not the ambition of the Passion Play. "We do not want to deal with contemporary theatre here and portray the Romans as Nazis," says Hageneier. "They simply represent a military power, an authority. So, how do you do that? It must be conceivable that they looked like this. The challenge here is that they do not look too much like the Romans of Asterix & Obelix and become figures of fun." With all the effort, it is not surprising that Hageneier is resolute when it comes to one particular issue: everyone will dress in the theatre, no matter how cramped it will be backstage. "No costume will leave the theatre!"

Text: Anne Fritsch
Photos: Gabriela Neeb and Andreas Stückl