Of humans and animals

In the Passion Play, it is not only humans who play a role. And they are not always the ones in charge.

On the Passion Play stage there are three groups: Adults, children and animals. The latter are indeed outnumbered, but they are no less demanding. Two camels, two horses, one donkey and all kinds of sheep, goats, chickens and pigeons are to take part in 2022. The larger guest animals are all staying on the meadow at "Scholler Toni", whose real name is Anton Mangold and who lives behind the Passion Play Theatre. He takes care of the animals and brings them to the Theatre for their performance. At least that's what he tries to do, as these animals also have their will and their oddities. Sancho, the donkey, who is actually a Catalan giant donkey, for example: during the photo shoot in 2020, he once didn’t feel to go on stage at all. He simply stopped in front of the Theatre, all attempts to motivate him failed. Only when Scholler Toni, who was actually a guest at a wedding, rushed over, could he be persuaded to perform.

In order to be allowed to take the camels on stage, a "camel’s licence" is required. Scholler Toni spent 14 days at the camel farm in Landsberg to get to know the animals and get the necessary certificate. Actually they are very modest animals, he tells. They have no problem with the cold in the mountains, in the desert it is often much colder. The only thing they are not prepared for is snow, "there they slip around like teddy bears, because they have no claws, but only some sort of buffers", tells Scholler. And if there's a thunderstorm, nothing works anymore: "If a camel gets stubborn, you can't get it off the spot. If they don't feel like it, that is it," he says. Perhaps that's why not everyone involved shares his assessment of the animals' character. "Camels are the sneakiest animals I know," Markus Köpf, who performed with them as Herod in 2010, tells me. "They always come across so crumpled, but they are completely mean creatures." They even spit, bite or kick when they feel like it. Or stand with their heads to the wall instead of the audience, with the Herod’s servant riding on them. "But by and large, they're also limelight hogs," Köpf says. "That's why it worked out pretty well most of the time."

On the left on the picture Markus Köpf on Gerko during the 2010 picture book shooting (Photo: Brigitte Maria Mayer)

The biggest challenge, however, are the horses. There are to be two this time, so that the Centurion and Pilate can ride onto the stage together, demonstrating Roman power. And it works: "It does something to you when you ride in," says Köpf, who will play the Centurion this time. "You're immediately the leader in the place, everyone has to look up to you. The elevated seating position is a power factor in the crowd. Everyone is watching out to stay out of your way. On a horse, the biggest lame duck can be something." He laughs. By now, he has got used to riding. In 2010, it was still different. When Christian Stückl announced to him that he, too, would be riding as Herod this time (and not just the Centurion, as had been the case until then), he didn't take it seriously at first. Or he suppressed it. Because he had nothing at all to do with horses, didn't even want to ride a pony in the zoo as a child. Until he happened to meet his Herod colleague on a walk, who was on his way with a horse and a riding instructor. He realised that riding has not been a joke. "I was already eight weeks behind by then," he recalls. So he took lessons, too, not wanting to show any weakness, after all.

At the first photo rehearsal in 2010, he nevertheless "sweated like never before" in his life: The Passion horse Gerko was significantly taller than his practise horses measuring up to 1.80 metres and had never seen a camel before. So when the two humped animals appeared next to him on stage, he was uneasy. The horse was nervous, which didn't necessarily make life easier for his equally nervous rider. 

In any case, Köpf is better prepared for his performance on horseback this time, knows what to look out for, and passes this knowledge on to his riding colleagues. One of them is Anton Preisinger, who will play Pilate and also has his own thoughts. The fact that his father waved to him from his horse as a Roman Centurion in 1970 helps morally at best. "Horseback riding is not necessarily my hobby," Preisinger admits. "But now the role just demands it." He had started riding lessons in December 2019, this time in a group setting and with the Passion Play horses. Now he'll be likely to resume training during the winter. His riding scene is reasonably manageable, which calms him down: he rides on stage with the Centurion, soldiers drive away the people, and then he may already descent again. "I just hope that there aren't too many riding experts in the audience, because of course they'll see right away that I'm a complete beginner," he says and laughs.

In the run-up to the current Passion Play, the donkey that has always played a part in the Entry into Jerusalem also caused a stir. The animal protection organisation PETA addressed a request to the mayor of Oberammergau at the time, Arno Nunn, as well as to Walter Rutz, the managing director of Eigenbetrieb Oberammergau Kultur : Oberammergau should please dispense with the donkey (and all other animals) altogether. "Nowadays, Jesus wouldn't ride a donkey," says Peter Höffken, a subject specialist at PETA. "He'd probably get around on an e-scooter or some other animal- and environmentally-friendly electric vehicle." This suggestion is not implemented, however, the Catalan giant donkey was deliberately chosen because it is particularly powerful. Also, the distance Jesus covers on it is not exactly long. Frederik Mayet, one of the Jesus actors, estimates that it is about 30 metres from the back to the stage. And if you read the descriptions of Anton Lang, who rode the donkey as Jesus in 1900, 1910 and 1922, it seems that there are indeed animals that find pleasure in the theatre play - and in making their human fellow actors feel who is really the stronger one: "[The donkey] was soon so familiar with the Play that he trotted to the Theatre alone when his time had come, and made himself heard at the rear entrance in his own language," Lang writes in his memoirs. "Teasing was something he could not tolerate. He kicked a fellow actor, who had teased him with a lump of sugar before the performance, so hard on his bare foot, which of course was not protected by the sandal, on the open stage during a living image, that the latter had to grit his teeth to keep from moving."

Frederik Mayet with donkey Sancho during the rehearsals 2020 (Photo: Sebastian Schulte)

Text: Anne Fritsch
Photos: Brigitte Maria Mayer, Sebastian Schulte