The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is adding an extra season-ending performance to benefit a trio of Assemblies of God ministries.
The 150 cast and crew members involved in the production have agreed to waive their pay for the Oct. 29 show, according to Kent Butler, director of marketing for the play, now in its 49th season. Such a plan has been discussed for several years, says Butler, who also is children’s pastor at Berryville First Assembly. Around 40 of the actors attend the church.
Discount tickets for adults, youth, and children are available for the performance in the 4,100-seat amphitheater in the midst of forested hills, one of only three Sunday evening shows for the year.
The Great Passion Play depicts the last week of Christ’s life on earth, including the Crucifixion and the Ascension. The panoramic 550-foot-wide, three-story set is the size of two football fields. As many as six scenes occur simultaneously. Women gather water from a well. Men mingle in the marketplace. Pharisees debate in the temple. Roman soldiers guard prisoners. In addition to roaring chariots, bustling streets are filled with camels, horses, donkeys, and sheep.
Altogether, the show features 150 actors from a multitude of area congregations. Some are retirees, others have full-time jobs. The Great Passion Play has a $2 million annual operating budget, which covers everything from feeding animals to lighting the amphitheater.
Butler’s father, Berryville First Assembly Pastor Keith Butler, has been involved with the play for a quarter century, and is now its chief administrator.
“We look at it as an outreach ministry,” says Keith Butler, who has been pastor of First Assembly for 36 years. “I believe in the ministry thrust of the Great Passion Play as a spectacular demonstration of the greatest historical event ever.”
Kent Butler says seeing the suffering and resurrection of Christ at the Great Passion Play as a 5-year-old Royal Ranger helped him grasp the veracity of the gospel. Now 28, Butler has performed in the play for a dozen years.
“I turned 16, got my driver’s license, and became a Roman soldier,” he remembers. He graduated to the role of Judas Iscariot, but now is one of two players who rotate as Jesus Christ. Butler’s wife, Mallory, has been in the play since depicting a lame girl at age 5. Today, she is wardrobe manager. Her father, Rick Mann, spent years portraying Jesus before aging out and becoming Satan. It’s a true family business, with even Kent and Mallory’s dog, a pharaoh hound, involved in the production.
Keith Butler, 66, himself sensed an array of emotions the first night he witnessed his son being flogged while portraying Jesus.
“It gave me a whole new understanding of what God the Father must have felt when he saw His Son beaten,” Butler says.
Since it opened in 1968, more than 7.8 million people have watched the Great Passion Play in the hamlet of 2,000 residents. Attendance peaked at 289,212 in 1992 during 140 presentations.
Four years ago, the number of annual performances (May through October) decreased to 80 from 110, yet attendance has held steady at 50,000. Kent Butler is convinced the Great Passion Play will continue to find an audience amid a high-tech culture.
“Even in an internet and movie-driven world, people still want to see the spectacle of a play come to life,” he says. “Actors on stage plus live animals brings the realness of the passion story to the forefront.”
Butler has implemented more aggressive marketing strategies, including convincing seven church youth groups to spend a week working at the camp over the summer in exchange for hearty meals and dormitory lodging.
“We’re trying to reach this younger generation to see the Word of God come to life on stage and in their own lives,” Butler says.
Debbie Peeples, youth pastor at Harrah First Assembly in Oklahoma, brought 10 teenagers on a mission trip to the Great Passion Play in June. The youngsters did everything from landscaping to painting a horse barn. For a couple of evenings they portrayed extras, much to the delight of the 35 adults from the church who made the five-hour drive to see the play.
“Even though they had heard the story before, when kids see Jesus close up hit with a whip, it makes an impact,” Peeples says. “We would love to make this an annual trip.”
Kent Butler believes the 50th season next year will be as relevant as ever.
“In a world with so much pain and sorrow, we need this play to show people hope,” Butler says. “We pray that people come as they feel led by the Holy Spirit to renew their Christian faith.”
Source: AG News