Disclaimer: This post is about my experience seeing the Canadian Badlands Passion Play in Drumheller, Alberta. A Passion Play is the Biblical story of Jesus Christ, and as such holds significance for many people. Characters and situations within this post are referenced through the context of a theatrical performance, and not through religion or any other theist, deist, atheist, or agnostic point of view.
My Birthday Trip to Drumheller
When I turned 30 last year I didn’t plan anything exciting for my birthday, but this year, despite lack of time I wanted to go somewhere for my birthday. I only had a few days to work with, and a pretty small budget, so I wanted to go somewhere I could easily drive to within a few hours. Being that I love theater and the performing arts I also wanted to go somewhere that I could indulge in some of my favourite activities.
So it might be a little surprising that I went to Drumheller, a small town in the Canadian Badlands known more for its fossil discoveries and geological treasures than theater or any arts and culture. I had also visited Drumheller a couple times before, but only short visits – my last trip I basically stopped in at the Royal Tyrell Museum and then left. I wanted to spend a couple of night in the region and get a better feel of what to do in the region.
Enter the Canadian Badlands Passion Play
The Canadian Badlands Passion Play is held just outside of Drumheller every summer. It’s the Biblical story of Jesus (specifically the resurrection story). As such I know this experience isn’t for everyone, but for it’s an important event for many people, and it was something I wanted to see, for the theatrical experience of the event. Passion Plays are held in many places around the world, usually around Easter. What makes the Canadian Badlands Passion Play interesting is that it’s outside and the backdrop of geological rocks and hoodoos is somewhat reminiscent (or what many people would imagine it to be) of Ancient Israel, where the play is set. Of course is it actually the same? I don’t know – I haven’t been to Israel yet.
I have been to Drumheller and it’s a pretty cool place.
You’ll notice that I wrote most Passion Plays are usually held around Easter (which is in March or August depending on the year). The one in Drumheller is in July. Why? Because weather in Alberta is a fickle bitch in March and April, and likely holding an outdoor Passion Play during these months involves rain/snow/sleet/hail/super cold weather/any combination thereof. And while July isn’t always perfect, it’s usually pretty close.
That being said when I got my ticket I also got a pamphlet warning me to prepare for weather variations and bugs. I brought along
- Rain Poncho (umbrellas aren’t allowed because the block the view of audience members behind you)
- Baseball Hat
- Water bottle
I saw an evening performance (began at 6pm) and it was really nice out. Still pretty hot, although my wrap definitely came in handy when the sun started going down and it got cooler. The sunscreen and hat were very handy. It didn’t rain so I didn’t need the poncho, nor did I need the bug spray (which is pretty rare in the summer, but no complaints from me). For outdoor events you gotta be prepared for almost anything. Sunglasses would have been nice, but wasn’t necessary the evening because the sun is behind the audience during the show. For a matinee performance, when the sun is higher in the sky I’d definitely wear sunglasses.
The venue is outside, but it is at an amphitheatre, which is also used for other events in the summer like the Shakespeare in the Badlands. It’s actually a really cool venue. There is a stage, which is used, but the set goes out way beyond just the main stage. The seats are wooden benches, but I was pretty surprised at how nice they were. These are not the most comfortable seats ever (and indeed you could buy seat cushions to sit on), but I’ve definitely sat in worse seats than than these. The seating is assigned (there’s a marker showing each seat number), but there was also quite a bit of room between each person sitting and between each row. I’m tall and I often find my knees cramping up because of a lack of leg room between each row, but that wasn’t an issue here.
This was the Easter story of Jesus’s crucifixion death and resurrection. And again this is something that is very important to some people, but I’m not going to summarize the full story here. I will say that they use the Gospel of John version (as confirmed in the program), and it isn’t just the Easter part of the story. The story begins when Jesus was a teenager and goes to his death. What’s interesting about the Canadian Badlands Passion Play (aside from the cool setting) is that a new script is done every year, so even though the story is the same how it is told varies every year. This is a play, but there is music and some singing for a few scenes. This version had a narrator, which was an interesting choice. I did feel like in some scenes the narrator wasn’t really needed though. The show was close to 3 hours with the intermission. Overall I thought the story was engaging and easy to follow, even for those who wouldn’t be familiar with the story.
The setting of the ancient geological rocks and earth of the Canadian Badlands makes this a really cool experience. Being that this is an outdoor show weather changes, like thunder and sudden rain storms, can occur, which I think would add a really interesting element to the show (the weather was beautiful and calm during my performance). While there is a main stage used for a lot of the show, it’s not the only thing to focus on. During several parts the performers would run up from behind the hills – at one point I thought “damn these actors run a lot in this show.” I won’t spoil the finale, but the setting definitely helped add a really unique and possibly impactful element to the show.
The People Involved
The scope of this play is pretty huge. There are a few professional actors in the show, but most are volunteers and some are students who are part of the Canadian Badlands Summer School program. The cast is huge, there’s over 170 people in the show (including understudies and musicians). Of course there are also several people in behind the scenes roles (director, stage manager, there’s even a fight director, ushers, gift store clerks). A few animals are also used (a couple of horses, and some donkeys) in the show. There are also hundreds of donators and volunteers who help to make this show possible. The scope of the Canadian Badlands Passion Play experience is pretty amazing.
The gift store aspect was odd. Look I’ve been to shows before and I’m familiar with merchandising, and I did know that there was a gift store at The Passion Play. Some of it was local artisan items, other was official Canadian Badlands Passion Play merchandise (like a DVD of the show). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with selling show merchandise, but it was a little odd to see that I could buy a Jesus bobblehead to commemorate my experience here. It’s like having a gift store in a church, I know it happens (I’ve seen before), but it’s still kind of weird to me.
What was even weirder was the photo ops with the actors. During intermission several actors, playing Roman soldiers, were standing around the perimeter of the main stage, and I can’t tell you how many people in the audience went up to take photos standing next to the actors. Same thing happened after the show (lots of people wanted pictures with Jesus), which just seemed weird to me because these people are just actors. I’m all for going up to performers after a show and telling them that you enjoyed the experience, but standing in line to get a selfie of me and some actor playing Jesus seems so weird to me. To each his/her own though.
I think if you identify as a Christian or as someone who finds the Biblical story of Jesus interesting then the Canadian Badlands Passion Play would be a great event to attend. Even if you are just someone who loves theatre and storytelling in a unique setting the Canadian Badlands Passion Play would definitely be worth checking out.
The Canadian Badlands Passion Play begins performances on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in July. Ticket and show information can be found here. Ticket prices range from $29 (for youths) up to $64 for adults. The venue is located at 605 17 Street in Drumheller, Alberta.
While I was not require to write about my experience or share it my ticket was covered by The Canadian Badlands Passion Play and I am very appreciative they were able to help me out with this experience.