Passion on the Prairies This year marks the 19th edition of an outdoor production near La Riviere that defines 'community theatre' by bringing hundreds of Manitobans together in faith... and to collectively break a leg

LA RIVIERE — The Passion Play, performed outdoors in the carved up hills of the Pembina Valley for almost two decades, has been halted just twice by bad weather. Unexpectedly, the play had to be stopped at the close of the climactic crucifixion scene on both occasions.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/07/2018 (1665 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LA RIVIERE — The Passion Play, performed outdoors in the carved up hills of the Pembina Valley for almost two decades, has been halted just twice by bad weather.

Unexpectedly, the play had to be stopped at the close of the climactic crucifixion scene on both occasions.

It was as if someone forgot to tell the heavens it was just a play. Ominous clouds gathered, lightning flashed, thunder growled and the sky unleashed its wrath with a torrential downpour.

A crowd is gathered to witness the crucifixion.

The angry throng that gathered at the crucifixion, including the Roman centurions, suddenly turned benevolent and rescued the three nearly naked men, Jesus and the two thieves, off the crosses.

One performance continued after a lengthy delay but the other one had to be cancelled. Audience members were invited back to see the resurrection at a later date, free of charge.

Stay for the crucifixion, come back for the resurrection.

The Manitoba Passion Play near La Riviere keeps coming back too. After more than 100 shows, Oak Valley Productions launches its 19th season Saturday about two hours southwest of Winnipeg. Five shows over this weekend and next will present what is often called the greatest story ever told.

But just putting on this annual event is a pretty great story. It requires an extraordinary community effort, from the person who loans out Zippy the donkey, to the gift of the 80-acre site in Pembina Hills, to the sewing bee that made the costumes, to the folks who camp on the property to guard the sets, to the five dozen amateur actors and 12 musicians who donate their time and talents.

Jesus, played by Bill Teissen, delivers a sermon during a dress rehearsal of the Passion Play, an account of Jesus Christ’s final days.

“It’s a pleasure, but it’s a big job,” artistic director Belita Sanders says during a rehearsal.

Sanders helped launch the Passion Play here 19 years ago and is still directing it. It’s a family affair. Her daughter, Jacinta, 21, has been in the show since she was seven, and now plays Mary. Sanders’ husband, Roger, plays multiple roles: a jurist, Pontius Pilate and a centurion at the crucifixion.

Sanders is of Portuguese descent and has a background in community theatre, as well as performing at the Portuguese pavilion during Folklorama. She met Roger, a farmer near La Riviere, and that was that. She became a country girl.

But she still loved theatre and after arriving in her new community, she helped form the Manitoba City Theatre Troupe that staged one or two plays a year. She took on the role of Manitoba suffragette Nellie McClung in a 1997 play, a role she has reprised several times since.

Artistic director Belita Sanders delivers some final words of encouragement and prays with the cast members before they take to the stage for dress rehearsal.

As the clock was ticking down on the 20th century, the mayor and council in Manitou — about 10 minutes from La Riviere — were looking for ideas to attract tourists to the area. Richard Klassen, who was in the local theatre group with Sanders, suggested staging the Passion Play at an outdoor site.

Other communities perform the Passion Play as a blend of religious conviction and tourist attraction. The Canadian Badlands Passion Play in Drumheller, Alta., is staged in a natural amphitheatre not far from the nearby dinosaur exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The Black Hills Passion Play ran for decades in South Dakota until it closed in 2008.

So the La Riviere-Manitou theatre community began searching for a site. One otherwise attractive location meant the audience would have to contend with the setting sun; other candidates were too far off Highway 3.

The ideal setting was close by, about a kilometre-and-a-half from La Riviere. It was just the sort of thing farmer Arnold Wiebe was happy to see happen with the scenic property, which had long served as pasture for his cows. The production could even incorporate the surrounding hillside in the performance.

So Wiebe, whose father was a minister, donated the 80 acres to Oak Valley Productions. Then some farmers got out their earth-moving equipment and filled in the swamp where the cows gathered to cool off when the weather was hot; that’s where the stage is located. The “crew” also landscaped a gentle slope for audience members to view the performance. Some grandstand seats were added.

The elaborate set and natural amphitheatre of the Oak Valley Outdoor Theatre, La Riviere.

Next, they needed period costumes. Women from several church denominations spent a couple of weeks in the Manitou Opera House sewing the outfits.

The actors are from various hamlets, towns and cities across southern Manitoba. Rehearsals start the first weekend in May and are held every Saturday and Sunday, save for the Victoria Day long weekend.

“When we first began, we started rehearsals in February but now we can manage with a little less because many people come back from year to year,” Sanders says.

 


 

Bill Tiessen is a bookkeeper by day, living on his family’s original homestead outside Crystal City. But for two weekends each year for the past 11, he takes on a different role.

Tiessen laughs when asked whether he feels pressure playing Jesus. Maybe he’s having a beer in a bar and someone says, ‘Hey Jesus, what are you doing in here?’

“Actually, Jesus didn’t mind hanging out with people you typically find in a seedy bar. He was an everyday man,” Tiessen says.

But, he adds, “you’ve got to be able to separate the role from the guy.”

Bill Teissen, who portrays Jesus Christ, hangs on the cross.

Tiessen rehearses his lines while going for runs along the property lines of the section he owns. He has also spent time alone at the performance site, where there is a trail cut into the hillside for walks and meditation in solitude.

The stage is concrete and built on top of it is a two-storey set of wooden panels made to look like old stone buildings in Jerusalem. The original stage was built by volunteers, but Oak Valley Productions hired professionals when the sets needed upgrading in 2011.

Actors being crucified hold onto hooks fastened to the cross to simulate real nails.

Crucifixes lie on the ground to the right of the stage. They are raised using a pulley system for the climactic scene. Left of the stage is sepulchre and rock covering its entrance where the resurrection takes place.

To the left of that is a small gazebo. It doesn’t look possible, but somehow the 12-piece orchestra crams inside. The gazebo has trestles for walls to let the music escape. The orchestra is conducted by 24-year-old Jason Vanwynsberghe, a graduate from the Brandon School of Music two years removed, who is from nearby Crystal City.

However, top billing could go to the lush, verdant setting. It’s difficult to imagine it could have been any greener when the real Jesus was crucified on a hill in Golgotha, near Jerusalem. The surrounding hillside that serves as the backdrop to the production is populated by oak trees, with a ground cover of shrubs and wildflowers.

Angels appear to shepherds tending their flocks with news of the birth of Jesus.

It’s especially hard to outdo the aerial show put on by the swallows. Unperturbed by the actors, the swallows dart and dive and sharp-turn and brake around the stage and in an out of the stage doors and arches.

Then there are the coyotes.

“There are nights when we have the crucifixion and you hear the hammering of the nails and all of a sudden the coyotes across the valley will hear that noise and they’ll start to howl,” Klassen says.

All of it adds to the experience of watching the story unfold outdoors.

 


 

Zippy the donkey has appeared in the past half-dozen productions and provides the transportation in three scenes: for Mary when she and Joseph travel to Bethlehem; taking a couple to a market; and carrying Jesus into the triumphal entry to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

And he’s a pro, waiting coolly between scenes. He stands off to the side during rehearsal, barely moving, apart from partaking in a snack of shrubs and grass.

It wasn’t always so. The donkey owned by Stan Hiebert of Altona was very stubborn in the beginning.

“At first, you’d pull and pull and he wouldn’t move,” says Abe Hoeppner, 80, a retired farmer who plays Simeon. With his raiments and bushy white beard, he looks like he made the trip here from the depicted holy days via a time machine. He appears as a prophet who holds the baby Jesus shortly after birth. He is also plays a Jesus disciple.

Mary (Jacinta Sanders on Zippy the donkey) and Joseph (Matthew Hein) search for a room at an inn.

Hoeppner drops in daily to ensure his friend has enough hay, water and grazing time. He says he tried everything to train the animal until his daughter intervened, suggesting he treat Zippy the way he would treat a horse.

“If you get a horse to like you, he’ll do what you want,” he says. Sure enough, Zippy began to take a shine to Hoeppner.

Roman soldiers raise the cross holding a crucified Jesus into place.

The production also includes homing pigeons released during the temple scene where Jesus overturns the tables of moneychangers operating there.

Prayer shawls worn by the actors were purchased from a Jewish organization whose members expressed concern when they learned what they were to be used for, Klassen says. Some productions have revived ancient grievances against Jews.

There are, however, no references to Jews in this play, he says. Rather, the essence of the story is how Jesus threatened the hierarchy at the time — not any particular group — and how he might do the same today. Jewish people invited to watch a performance for themselves came away satisfied the play was not anti-Semitic, he says.

“The priests wanted to protect their way of life. When Jesus shows up, that’s a threat to them,” Klassen says.

 


 

Since 2016, the production has recapped the early life of Jesus in highlight-reel form in addition to the Passion Play itself, which ostensibly spans the last week of Jesus’s life.

As opening night draws near, local churches from the area kick into action. Before each show, congregants from churches of different denominations in Morden, Winkler, Manitou, Somerset, St. Leon and Crystal City take turns preparing meals for the actors and musicians.

The play could not happen without the many humble acts of charity from a volunteer force of hundreds of people across southern Manitoba, most of whom never set foot on the stage. 

Costume designer Elise Sanders, helps Curtis Shupenia, who plays John the Disciple, get into his costume before dress rehearsal.

“That’s the beauty of it. It’s such a large population base of participation,” says retired Roman Catholic bishop Noel Delaquis, who has seen the production twice.

“I think this is remarkable.” 

It’s a labour of love and “a privilege” for Sanders.

“As we give, we receive so much,” she says.

Joseph Deschambault adjusts his Roman Centurion costume backstage.

Organizers estimate some 42,000 people have seen the Manitoba Passion Play over its first 18 years. The venue can accommodate an audience of 2,000.

Performances Saturday and Sunday are at 6:30 p.m. (doors open at 4:30 p.m.). Performance times next Friday, Saturday and Sunday are 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the gate and $10 for youths ages 12 and under. There is also a family rate of $50 for parents and children under 18. More information is available at www.passionplay.ca.

There is some grandstand seating, but audience members are advised to take lawn chairs, as well as proper attire in case of inclement weather.

In its 19th season, Oak Valley Productions Inc. will be presenting Passion Play, an account of Jesus Christ’s final days. The play is staged in an outdoor theatre located 1 kilometre east of La Riviere. Performance dates are July 7, 8 and 13 through 15.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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Updated on Wednesday, July 11, 2018 11:23 AM CDT: Name fixed.

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