Play director Christian Stückl explains who is allowed to participate in the Oberammergau Passion Play. Because not everybody is allowed to participate. Only those who were born in Oberammergau or have been living there for at least 20 years have what is known as the »right to play«.
Who is allowed to be on stage at the Passion Play?
The right to play was introduced in Oberammergau in 1910. Until then, anyone who wanted to play was allowed to. But at one point, the village had become too large and a right to play was invented that allowed those who were born here or had been living here for at least ten years to participate. After the Second World War, a high number of people arrived in Oberammergau so that the ten-year-limit was extended to 20 years. About 3000 of the 5000 inhabitants hold the right to play; last time, more than 2000 people participated, that’s more than 60 percent. I don’t know yet how many will take part this time.
In 2020, Christian Stückl will be the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play for the fourth time
Who decides who will play which role?
In early 2018, everyone will receive a questionnaire in which they can express their wishes: I want to be on or behind the stage, I want to be a scene shifter or I want to receive people outside - all these requests can be made. I will collect all of them, but the final decision will be made by myself and the conductor, because this is the second important aspect: Of course, the conductor will choose his musicians. I will decide on the rest. We have the tradition of letting our hair and beard grow long for the Passion Play. This rule seems to be a challenge for some 30 to 40 year old men because they think that these might be the last years that any woman will look at them, so they all want to be Romans, because for those roles the beard decree doesn’t apply ...
What will change in the village once the Passion Play begins?
What’s so interesting is that we constantly argue about the Passion Play. It shows that we really care about something here. Everyone in the village is somehow involved in the Passion Play and we are in a constant state of argument - this can even lead to real conflicts. So when the Passion Play is approaching, these conflicts become bigger and bigger. You look and struggle to find the right form. When it’s time to choose the actors, the big question is: Who will play which role?
But once you enter the rehearsal phase, once you go to Israel for the first time, once you stand on stage together, the entire village suddenly comes together. Suddenly, all the generations are there. A seven-year-old will be sitting next to a 70-year-old in the dressing room. Suddenly, everyone is less formal with each other, because this is really our biggest social event. And I think that’s what draws people to the Passion Play time and time again: They feel that people are coming together to create something great.
Frederik Mayet and Andreas Richter, the two actors who played Jesus in 2010. The 21 most important roles are double casted.
Frederik Mayet played Saint John the Apostle in 2000 and was one of the two actors to play Jesus in 2010.
He talks about the Passion Play and what it means to the inhabitants of Oberammergau. Futhermore he looks back on his experiences as Jesus-actor in 2010.
How important is the Passion Play in your family?
Frederik Mayet: I grew up here in Oberammergau and my family has been living here for a hundred years. But when I was young, we moved away and only came back in 1990. At that time, the Passion Play was already going on, but I wasn’t allowed to take part because you must have lived here for at least twenty years or grown up here to be allowed to play. So I basically hung out in front of the Passion theatre constantly, all my friends used to go in - and somehow, I was left out, that shaped me. My uncle, my aunt, my siblings always participated. But I don’t come from a family that can look back to the Plague mentioned in the death books of 1633 - that’s when the pledge was made to hold the Play. I think my family came to Oberammergau in 1890. For many people, we are still the new ones.
What do you think makes the Passion Play special?
This long tradition of almost 400 years, that’s what’s special to me. To this day, half the village comes together and tells this story. You are cobbled together and rehearse together for half a year, even with people who you never really knew before. And it’s something really beautiful, coming together on stage and seeing 5000 people every day coming from all over the world to the Passion theatre to see what we here in Oberammergau bring to the stage. And then there’s what’s going on behind the stage…
What happens there?
It’s difficult to put it into words, but it makes you proud, it makes you happy. Our son Vincent will participate in 2020 as well, he will be six years old then. He grows up with this as a normal part of his life. This is how we pass this on within our families, that’s also something quite beautiful.
In 2010 you were one of the two actors who played Jesus. What was your experience when you were given the role?
There’s always this community council session in which Christian Stückl presents the actors to the community council. There’s major church service here at the Passion theatre and after that, the actors are announced. Shortly before the community council session, Christian took Andreas Richter and myself, i.e. the two equal actors to play Jesus, to one side and told us: “Nobody knows, but you will play the two roles”. For the first few days after this, I felt uneasy. And when you see your own name on the actors’ board next to the role of Jesus! How can you even play this role? Everybody who comes to Oberammergau and goes to the Passion theatre has their own perception of Jesus, so how can you live up to this responsibility? And of course, in the village, all eyes are on you if you are in such an exposed position as that of the actor to play Christ.
How did you approach to the role of Jesus?
First, you need to learn how to deal with it all. During the rehearsals, Christian Stückl pointed out to us that everyone has to find their own image of Jesus and then tell that story. For three Passions now, the rehearsals begin with a mutual trip to Israel and that helped me to approach the role more and more over time.
What did you focus on when acting out the role?
There is this phrase in the Bible that says: “Jesus was a complete human being and a complete God”. This phrase spoke to me and we discussed it a lot during the rehearsals. How can you show God on a stage? And how can you show the human being that was Jesus? The way I or we look at it, Jesus has an idea of the world, of how the wold should be. That’s why he wants to bring change, why he fights against old, inflexible structures, that’s why he takes people on board, acts with an open heart towards those marginalised by society. And I found that quite fascinating, focussing on that during the rehearsals and transporting that to the stage somehow.
As for showing the Godly, you can’t really do that. Ultimately, we tried to show a human being who is very, very strong and who has a lot of determination.
Andrea Hecht participated in the Passion Play seven times, playing Mary in 2000 and 2010. She is a qualified sculptress and runs her own handicraft and gift shop in Oberammergau.
How important was the Passion Play in your family?
Andrea Hecht: From a very early age, I learned from my parents that this is a Must. You only realise how much fun it is over time. I first participated in the Play in 1970 as a child and it was very impressive: the masses of people in the auditorium, the hustle and bustle behind the scenes and the excitement that goes along with it all - for me as a child this was a fantastic experience! My father played the flute in the orchestra at the time and my mother sang in the choir. I also sang in the choir in 1977, in 1980 and in 1984, and I really enjoyed it. In 1990 I played Magdalene and in 2000 and 2010 I played Mary.
How does the village change when the Play is approaching?
Even during the rehearsals, you already get to know many people who you used to only know by name but didn’t have much contact with. There will always be prejudice, but that disappears with time, so you basically open up in all directions.
You often hear about the people of Oberammergau being so disputable. But even that stops when the play approaches because you are all creating this huge thing together. And then, of course, it’s an incredible feeling to see this great stream of people coming to the village and the theatre. Seeing all these different peoples, skin colours, traditional clothing is just beautiful.
And when it’s all over, when the last curtain falls?
Then everybody is sad, of course. Even during the last shows, there is a lot of crying behind the scenes. People say goodbye and there is this feeling of sadness, because this time that held so many experiences and that brought everyone so close together is coming to an end. At the very last play, everyone comes on the stage: All actors, the people, all those who worked in the background, the wardrobe women, the tailors - the stage is quite crowded then - and everyone is sad that this mega-event is over.
In 2000 you were elected to play Mary for the first time. How did it feel when you found out?
I was completely surprised. I had applied for the choir because I had not played a lot of theatre at the time. And then I was completely taken aback. Of course, it was good news, it’s a huge honour to be chosen for such a role. But it’s a burden, too…
Why exactly is it a burden?
Because you ask yourself: How can I portray this person - that’s quite a challenge. The Passion Play covers the last week of Jesus’ life and the Bible doesn’t give us a lot of detail on this last week. Shaping this person with so little text to go on, that is quite challenging. And it also puts a strain on you to get out this sadness from deep within yourself and to portray this loss again and again. That was very exhausting.
Did playing Mary twice change your life?
Suddenly, people start to recognise you, especially in the village or the surrounding area. I found the representative side to the role difficult. Because you don’t do that in your daily life, presenting yourself in this way. It was fun, but it was also demanding. And, like I said, the role was psychologically very exhausting. For me, it was always important to remove myself from the situation, to not take these melancholic or sad parts into my normal life. But the fame that comes with this role disappears after a while. You don’t stay famous. Thank goodness!