A Lyrical New Voice for the Passion Play
Coming up with a new way to tell a 2,000-year-old story known the world over is no small feat — but Ambrose University’s Barrett Hileman has done just that.
The Badlands Passion Play was performed in musical theatre form for the first time in 2018, giving audiences a new perspective on a story inspired by the Bible. Hileman, Chair of Arts and Director of Theatre at Ambrose, wrote the script and lyrics, and Luke Ertman from Millet, Alta., composed more than 20 new songs. Performers, including Ambrose alumni, told the story through song by singing dialogue to one another.
The Play is presented annually on weekends in July in a stunning outdoor amphitheatre in Drumheller, Alta., that seats up to 2,500 people. Making changes to the Play every season ensures it remains fresh for people who return time and again to share in this one-of-a-kind experience.
“Our tradition in Drumheller is to be dynamic and to find different ways to tell the story,” explains Hileman, who has been part of the Passion Play creative team for the past 15 years. “This makes it unique.
“We’re always trying to tell the story better, and also to stay true to the core of the story,” he says. “Many people are repeat visitors, and the Play is also a destination event for people from around the world.”
Story through song
Hileman began developing his script in 2014, when he was commissioned to look into telling the story based on the Gospel of Luke. Intensive reading and exploration of various themes — including fire, the nativity, the role of the Holy Spirit and the trinity, and angels — led to a new story in 2016.
Two years later, following a number of rewrites and the addition of Luke Ertman’s compositions, the story debuted as musical theatre.
“Much of what I do professionally focuses on new works,” Hileman says. “So I felt ready to do this, but also a bit scared. This isn’t the Gospel of Luke in a strict sense, but looking, thematically, at what he was trying to say.
“The vision was bigger than providing an account of Jesus’ life, and I’m trying to include that in this telling.”
Hileman’s script was the foundational guide for members of the Passion Play creative team, who worked from his lyrics to develop the emotional language.
“Music has always been part of the Passion Play,” Hileman notes. “We’ve had choirs in the past, but they were used more as underscoring to create the emotional palette for live action.
“Sometimes the choir would be on stage, but this is the first time we’ve taken scriptural stories and translated them into lyrical form.”
Bigger in the Badlands
Developing a script for the world’s largest outdoor stage presented Hileman with a unique set of challenges.
“The space itself is so big and so visually oriented that giant monologues don’t work that well,” he explains. “Everything is a ‘wide shot’ because you rarely get a close-up.
“So how do you communicate the emotional intimacy that the story demands when the audience is at a distance from the performers? What I write is influenced by where the Play will be performed, so I write clearly and succinctly.”
Audiences have responded enthusiastically and, given the investment of time and resources, the musical theatre edition of the Play is planned to continue its run until 2022.
“Our biggest aim is to tell the story as truthfully as we can in a way that our audiences can relate to,” Hileman says. “When a story has cultural context, you need to invite the audience to come in and be part of the journey. Musical theatre works very well for that.”
Ambrose Acting alumna Lindsay Carpenter performed in the 2018 Badlands Passion Play. Read how her experience in telling a story of faith, hope and love became her own emotional journey of faith in the Winter issue of Anthem magazine.