A village way beyond the ordinary
GROWING UP IN OBERAMMERGAU MEANS GROWING UP LIVING AND BREATHING THEATRE. SOME VILLAGERS MAKE ART EVEN THEIR PROFESSION.
Oberammergau might have remained a perfectly ordinary village in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps to this very day. But then fate intervened when the plague struck in the 17th Century. But unlike everyone else, the Oberammergauers responded to the disaster by turning to drama. To keep safe from harm, they made a solemn vow promising to henceforth stage the Passion of Christ every ten years. And it worked. In 1634 they performed their Passion Play for the first time. And they having been doing it ever since. Over the centuries Oberammergau has become synonymous with theatre. The Play leaves an indelible imprint on the villagers' biographies. Growing up here means growing up living and breathing theatre. Nearly half of all villagers become actively involved in the Passion Play every ten years. They either act in the Play or work backstage. Some of them have made theatre their career: Thomas Dashuber as a (theatre) photographer, Ursula Burkhart as an actress and Gabriel Raab as an actor, Markus Zwink as a composer and musical director, Stefan Hageneier as a set and costume designer, Abdullah Kenan Karaca as a director, and Christian Stückl as a director and artistic director of the Münchner Volkstheater.
"Oberammergau's affinity for theatre is so powerful that you can never really get away from it," says Lorenz Stöger, who is currently a student of stage design at Weißensee Academy of Art in Berlin. Not surprisingly, one of his Weißensee professors is Stefan Hageneier. In 2000, Stöger first appeared in the Passion Play as a child and loved being in the theatre while everyone else was in school. He appeared again in 2010, right after graduating from high school. "Those were probably my last laid back days until the day until I retire, when I do my last Passion Play at age 90 or so," he says and smiles. Back then, he played one of Caiaphas' Servants, and an Angel, shared his wardrobe with the High Council. He enjoyed how in Oberammergau, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, how everyone young and old pitches in to create something wonderful. He did not yet have any specific career plans at the time. "But I never wanted to be an actor because I seem to turn beet red every time I am on stage", he says. "But I had a talent for paining, so I seriously considered going into painting or stage design. But as a painter, your world is very small. In a theatre setting, you get to work and create things with others, which is why I decided to go into stage design."
Lorenz Stöger (in the middle) with Stefan Hageneier and Christian Stückl (Photo: Andreas Stückl)
He did an internship at "The Threepenny Opera" at the Münchner Volkstheater under Stefan Hageneier and several internships at the Oberammergau Theatre Summer, which takes place in the years between the Passion Play. His next step was to enroll in college. He decided to take a sabbatical for the 2020 Passion Play to assist Stefan Hageneier for a year and a half. "When you tell friends in Berlin what we are doing here in Oberammergau, it really does sound strange: Staging the story of Jesus Christ every ten years, for the last 400 years, with everybody joining in...", Stöger says with a smile. "But you're just born into it." It was the Passion Play, this extraordinary event, which awakened his passion for theatre. Stöger loves it because "you get to do things that you could never do in normal life". When the Passion Play was cancelled, a new job was right around the corner: Stöger assisted in Christian Stückl's production of Tabori's "Goldberg Variations" at the Münchner Volkstheater. He is currently working on his diploma thesis, developing a virtual space on the issue of death, "a kind of simulated Heavenly Kingdom".
Cengiz Görür (Photo: Gabriela Neeb)
Stöger is not the only young professional whose roots are in Oberammergau. 20-year-old Cengiz Görür, who had been cast as Judas for the 2020 Passion Play, went down in the Play's annals as the first Muslim to play a leading role. In 2010, he served as a child extra, which he loved but did not consider very unusual: "It's pretty normal for just about everybody to join in. You can't help growing into and as an Oberammergauer, the Play is always a part of you."
Back then, he still wasn't sure if acting was quite his thing. But Christian Stückl, who is always on the lookout for new talent in town, wanted to see him on stage and invited him for an audition. Stückl was impressed by his voice and his presence. That is how Görür came to join the cast of "Kaiser und Galiläer" in 2016, "Wilhelm Tell" in 2018, and "Die Pest" in 2019. When the cast for the 2020 Passion Play was announced, it came as a "huge surprise", Görür recalls: "None of us expected this when the cast was announced, not my family, not my friends, and certainly not me."
Görür was happy and left his technical college to devote all his time and energy to the role. An then Corona struck. "Suddenly I was left high and dry", he says. It was Stückl who come to his rescue. "Dude, what are you gonna do now?" After some brainstorming, Stückl asked him if he could imagine auditioning at a drama school. So Görür quickly decided to apply to Otto-Falckenberg School in Munich with three roles in his audition repertory: The Marquis de Posa of "Don Carlos", Benedict of "Much Ado About Nothing" and the Worm of "Volksvernichtung oder Meine Leber ist sinnlos" by Werner Schwab. It was his first -and only- application. He advanced from one round to the next made it all the way to audition finalist. "When somebody called me from an unknown number and told me "You got it" I burst into tears," he remembers with a big smile. "It was all very spontaneous, but I had realized by that time how much I wanted it. It simply had to work out."
But even before that, he already had a role in his pocket. Stückl had requested him for his "Goldberg Variations" at the Münchner Volkstheater. "He told me to come anyway, whether I passed the exam or not. But of course it feels so much better this way!" Görür tells us with a big smile. He tells us about the challenge of rehearsing with a professional cast. But he showed a knack for identifying with his roles and impressed everyone with his poise, whether as the snake in paradise or the "tender brat" Isaac, dazzling everybody with his stage presence even next to experienced colleagues. By the time the Passion Play is performed in 2022, he will be quite the professional. He hopes to juggle his big role with school, but is confident that it can be managed. "I'm sure it will work out somehow for me to be in the Passion Play."
Oberammergau surely doesn't suffer from a lack of new talent. It seems to have become a tradition for professionals to keep their eyes peeled for new talent and to promote it. When a student like Stöger talks quite naturally about being in the Passion Play even at the age of 90, you can image the depths of Oberammergau's roots in its theatre tradition to this very day. It is this passion which structures and shapes the life of the community. No: Oberammergau is not just any little place in the Bavarian Lower Alps. Oberammergau is a theatre venue to the core.
Cengiz Görür as the Snake in "Goldberg Variations" (Photo: Arno Declair)
Text: Anne Fritsch
Photos: Andreas Stückl, Gabriela Neeb, Arno Declair