There is a long tradition, going back to the Middle Ages, of hosting religious plays outside the walls of the Catholic Church.
Regular theatre had been banned by the church, but producing plays in medieval Europe is believed to have begun as part of the Christian worship service. By AD 1200, the performances had moved outdoors in the summer and were performed in vernacular language by laymen.
That long-forgotten custom is being revived at, of all places, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival.
For the first time, a theatre production has been allowed to set up in the ruins of St. Boniface Cathedral, which serves as the backdrop for Quo Vadis, an ambitious new musical adaptation by Winnipeg composer Olaf Pyttlik and Angus Kohm.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Albert LeGatt gave his personal approval for a secular theatre production to work in the shell of the 60-year-old basilica that burned to the ground in 1968. It will represent Rome, which was torched during the reign of Nero in AD 64.
"We thought there was no better venue in Winnipeg," says Pyttlik, whose best known musical is The Wave, which played the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in 2001. "The setting is inspirational. We are very privileged to be there."
The church is not only allowing 150 seats to be assembled in the bring-your-own-venue, but has agreed to open the door to the church's washrooms and its basement to accommodate patrons in the event of inclement weather, as it did Friday night.
"We were very open to the idea," says Pascale Dalcq, who was asked by the archbishop to read Kohm's script and made a recommendation of its appropriateness for the site.
"There is a centuries-long relationship between the church and the arts," Dalcq says. "This may sound new to a lot of people, but if you look at history, it's not new whatsoever. It's also a way for the church to welcome people who wouldn't come in any other circumstance."
In 1895, Poland's Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote Quo Vadis (Latin for "Where are you going?"). It's the question the apostle Peter, who was fleeing Rome, asks Jesus, who was headed to the city. The bestseller chronicles early Christian glory and persecution at the hands of Nero. The epic historical drama follows the love between a soldier and a young Christian woman that changed Rome.
The book has been adapted for the big screen several times, including a 1951 American version that ran 171 minutes and boasted a cast of 60,000.
Like that movie's director, Mervyn LeRoy, Pyttlik was challenged by the sheer scope of Quo Vadis, on which he has spent $7,000 of his own money.
For a fringe festival offering, his musical is enormous. Its two-hour length exceeds the fringe maximum of 90 minutes. The cast of 33 is huge by festival standards and has a first-rate creative team headed by Pyttlik, Kohm (scriptwriter), and Edmonton-based director Ron Jenkins.
That means a box-office split will not leave anyone with much for their weeks of work.
"I was very up front with the cast in the beginning, saying we would share the house," he says. "Angus and I will not take any, but whatever is left will be split by the actors. I don't think anyone is going to walk away with a lot of money.
"I'm flattered these people are still willing to invest in it. This goes beyond doing me a favour."
Pyttlik came about a copy of Quo Vadis in Germany almost 10 years at a garage sale and it spoke to him in the same way as Todd Strasser's The Wave, a book he loved as a child, and Rich, another tale from his youth that he turned into a tuner for Manitoba Theatre for Young People in 2008.
"It touched me very deeply," says the 45-year-old partner in Da Capo Productions. "It is about the human struggle of love, forgiveness and respect for human life as an alternative to violence and aggression, as told through actual factual history.
"The way I work, I thought it should be a musical."
He and Kohm worked on the script and score for a few years before Pyttlik became ill. After he recovered, they toiled away quietly to the point where they finally just wanted to see what their Quo Vadis looked like on stage. The most accessible venue available is the non-juried, first-come, first-served fringe festival.
"We thought, 'Let's just do it so the world can see it,'" says Pyttlik. "Also, any theatre interested could see it. It's not finished."