Ready, steady, go!


The first rehearsal of the people of Jerusalem for the 2020 Passion Play starts on the middle stage (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

Christian Stückl is getting warm. Where everyone else wraps themselves in thick coats, winter jackets, ski trousers and caps, he takes off his jacket, storms across the stage with a lance in his hand and shows the Romans where to go: from the alley across the stage. "Look out!" he warns. "The lances are sharp! I don't want any injured people here, so keep the lance heads pointed upwards."

The weekend before last in January in Oberammergau. It is cold. And it is crowded. Hundreds of people crowd into the Passion Play Theatre for the first rehearsal of the people of Jerusalem. The "Outrage" and the "Way of the Cross" are on the schedule. Everyone is there at this very special village meeting: the old, the young, the snowboarders, the students and the mountain rescue members. They all share the desire to participate in the Passion Play - and their growing hair and beards.

The audience rows are still covered, the stage is empty. A few sunbeams make their way past the sliding roof. At the edge lie the stage workers’ tools, the prepared column capitals.

Christian Stückl, the play director, is standing on a long table at the forestage, looking towards the stage, holding a microphone in his hand. All participants have to register at the entrance with their chip cards, an individual attendance control is impossible with this large number of people. After the escape routes and fire safety regulations have also been clarified, they are ready to go. Stückl sorts the masses: First, he sends the Romans downstairs. The crowd, which is divided into four groups, is sent to different parts of the stage. Who comes from which alley? Who calls what when? Where all were chaotically running around all over the place just a moment ago and it was hard to imagine that all these people would fit on the stage, everyone finds their place surprisingly quickly. "The Nazarene shall die!“ they chorus. "Die!" When so many people in chorus demand the death of an individual, this does not miss its effect. From one moment to the next, the initial chaos has given way to a concentrated and threatening atmosphere: There it is, the swearing and incendiary mob. The crucifixion is looming. The ski suits and bobble caps are forgotten, the cold is not. Still, it feels a little like Jerusalem.

Then it goes to the front stage (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

This is what the rehearsal at the stage manager's desk looks like (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

"That sounds pretty good," Stückl agrees and explains the situation: "All of Rome comes crashing in during these last shouts! Those who are heavy on their feet, please stand at the edge. I really want something going on there!" Caution comes first when so many people have to move around in the tightest of spaces. There is also a step in the alley "that was not there before". Before, that is, ten years ago, during the last Passion. Since for most people the theatre is a familiar place, they are not involved for the first time. On the contrary: For many in Oberammergau, acting in the Passion Play is a matter of honour. They start when they are children and act in the play as long as they can. These people include all generations. Children, teenagers, parents and grandparents. Many beards are white; some of the participants are walking with walking aids. Every ten years, they follow the vow of 1633, when the villagers promised to perform the Passion of Christ if the plague spared them.

The experience can also be noticed in Stückl, who is in charge of the play for the fourth time. He does not let himself get worked up by the masses and his euphoria is infectious. He runs back and forth, directs and motivates the crowd: "Now the High Council comes out from the middle, you mix with the neighbouring people," he shouts. "Ready, steady, go!" And there it is, the turmoil on stage. Bigger than in any theatre.

The rehearsal continues into the evening hours (Photo: Andreas Stückl)

The rehearsal is an event in the village. Non-actors from the village, neighbours and children, but also tourists that happen to come by, find their way to the open Passion Play Theatre. At the end, the two Jesus actors are standing in the centre of the stage, where the cross will be placed later. Even though it is still a simple wooden slat that the two hold. Even if they are not hanging, but leaning casually against it: you already have an idea of what it will be like. "Now he is about to hang!" shouts Stückl, inimitably conveying the mood of the people, the excitement. And the pain.

Text: Anne Fritsch

Photos: Andreas Stückl