Act of faith New actor embraces role of Jesus Christ in Badlands Passion Play
By Stephen Hunt, Calgary Herald
Photo courtesy Dallas Lammiman -- Aaron Krogman and Passion Play co-director Royal Sproule
discuss the motivation of Krogman’s character, Jesus, in rehearsal
Actors spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes their characters tick.
That’s why the very best parts — Willy Loman, Blanche Dubois, Hamlet — tend to be complex, morally ambiguous, troubled people.
Rosebud native Aaron Krogman’s big summer role doesn’t feature a character who’s morally ambiguous, but maybe that makes playing him that much trickier.
That role would be Jesus in The Canadian Badlands Passion Play, which kicks off Thursday in an amphitheatre carved out of the Badlands near Drumheller.
Talk about a title role!
While playing a saviour in a massive production that features a cast of 200, in front of close to three thousand audience members nightly who — no doubt — have strong ideas about his character themselves might freak out lesser men, Krogman — in his first year playing Jesus — does his best not to become overwhelmed by the part.
“It’s funny,” Krogman says. “I’m not really conscious of that (audience expectations) at this point.”
He can’t be. He has a group of critics to contend with at every single rehearsal — namely, the show’s longtime cast and crew.
“There is a group of 200 actors who have been involved with this play for years,” he says. “I feel like I’m more aware of their expectations. They’ve experienced different actors playing Jesus.
“I feel like their opinions are ones I’m more aware of, just because of what they think.”
Whether he’s played in Hollywood by Willem Dafoe or Jim Caviezel, or in the Badlands last year by Stephen Waldschmidt or this year by Krogman, Jesus is almost as reliable a draw as Jean Valjean, the saintly hero of Les Miserables.
This year marks the 20th production of the Canadian Badlands Passion Play.
It’s a unique production that combines a 40 person professional production team with several hundred committed amateur actors, who donate a generous chunk of their summers in order to perform in the play (there are several hundred other volunteers working front-of-the-house duties).
It’s a massive undertaking, featuring two directors, a crowd wrangler, fight director and a musical director, working in tandem to create a theatricalized story of Jesus that in 2013, is pulled from the Fourth Gospel of John.
For both Krogman and the show’s co-director (alongside Royal Sproule), Barrett Hileman, those amateurs put the passion in The Canadian Badlands Passion Play.
“The volunteers are inspiring,” Hileman says. “They give up eight weekends of their summer, they come out there, and they’re fully committed to the thing.
“They’re doing it for the love of it,” he adds, “and we have to remember when we were doing it for that too, and find that. A lot of professional staff are attracted to this environment because it’s a good reminder of why we do it.”
For Hileman and Sproule, directing a show the size of the Passion Play presents unique challenges theatre directors don’t usually face, starting with the massive stage.
“It’s about a kilometre wide, so it’s giant,” Hileman says.
Throw in natural rather than theatrical lighting, unpredictable weather and scenes that sometimes feature hundreds of actors, and you have an undertaking that might resist the best efforts to give it a narrative focus.
In other places, such as the German home of the Passion Play in Oberammeragau, Germany, the show is presented in tableau vivant, where its essentially presented as a series of living snapshots of some of the most iconic moments pulled from the gospels.
In the Badlands production, Sproule and Hileman take a more theatricalized approach.
“What we’ve learned,” Hileman says, “is that what tells stories in that space are big visual gestures, (and) movement.
“Really nuanced dialogy scenes play terribly in that space,” he adds, “It’s like two little crickets talking to each other.
“And everything’s a wide shot, so it’s really difficult to get a close-up.”
While the sheer vastness of it all creates a different sort of storytelling template, it also presents opportunities few theatrical productions enjoy.
“We can do stuff that we can’t do in say the Motel,” Hileman says.
“We can run 50 people (throughout the amphitheatre),” he says. “and the (natural) elements play such a huge part in that too.
“The sky is vast, and the dirt and water and all of the elements — we try really hard to incorporate all of that.”
The 2013 production marks the third year the show has incorporated the Fourth Gospel of John, which are as filled with ideas as they are with action.
Much of those flow from Krogman’s Jesus, which means the actor must work overtime to make a lot of dense, liturgical dialogue come to life onstage.
“It’s tricky,” Krogman says. “It’s not text that is necessarily easy to live out.
“It’s not even just a speech,” he adds. “There’s things that are said to specific people, but it’s text that’s been used in so many ways already that it’s not necessarily spoken to one individual in the moment.
“I think even when it was written, it was written for a specific audience, as someone’s memory — so it’s not like actual life, captured, so to make it feel that way is a challenge.”
All of which is actorspeak for one of their main objectives: finding the motivation behind why a character says what he says.
Jesus might have been the Son of God, but that doesn’t change the fact that Krogman has to dig into the dialogue to figure out what made him tick in order to present him as a living, breathing character.
“It’s easy to be proclamatory and to know that whatever you say is going to quoted by people forever,” he says, “but it’s not for that in the moment.”
And lest you think Krogman might be losing himself in the trees of the Fourth Gospel rather than taking the whole big forest of ideas that was Jesus into his arms, he’s not.
Just as he focuses on visualizing and animating those big ideas, he does the same when it comes to visualizing the reaction of audiences who will be measuring their idea of Jesus against his interpretation of him.
“There’s my dad,” Krogman says. “He’s going to come and watch it you know.”
The bottom line for Krogman, Hileman and the rest of the production team is that as good a read as the Bible is, bringing the stories in it to life in a dramatic natural environment will enhance the entire experience for audiences.
“Hopefully it will complement or add to what people already experience (reading the Bible),” Krogman says. “Maybe for some it will be challenging, but hopefully it will complement and add to their experience of that character.”
The Canadian Badlands Passion Play in the Badlands Ampitheatre near Drumheller through July 21
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