Being in Oberammergau Passion Play is stressful, but pulls people together

Next time, Jesus would like to be a villain. That is a role one of...

Being in Oberammergau Passion Play is stressful, but pulls people together

Next time, Jesus would like to be a villain.

That is a role one of the two actors portraying Christ in the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany would be interested in playing.

Frederik Mayet will play Jesus for a second time when the world-famous Passion Play begins its 2022 season May 14. The play will run five days every week until Oct. 2, during which Mayet will alternate in the role of Jesus with 25-year-old Rochus Rückel.

Mayet, who was born in Oberammergau, will be taking part for the third time. In 2010, he played Jesus for the first time; in 2000, he portrayed St. John.

Interviewed in German by video from Oberammergau, the father of two said the role of Jesus is demanding.

“Physically, the scenes with the scourging and the Way of the Cross, and hanging on the cross for 20 minutes, are quite exhausting,” he said. It is necessary to find distance from the role offstage, he noted. “It’s important at the end of the evening to leave that role behind, and chat with friends about football or whatever over a beer. In the context of acting in the play, one shouldn’t overidentify with Jesus, but see it as a role which one tries to interpret as well as possible.”

Mayet said a person grows into that role. “You try to just play your part well and do it justice, because you know there are people coming from all over the world to see the play. So that gives you a ‘positive stress,’ which carries you. I concentrate on playing my role well and on speaking clearly.”

To get the role of Jesus, “you must have some acting talent, and a good voice. There’s also the physical appearance — to play Jesus, you must have a certain look, and be of the right age, between your mid-20s and early 40s. I’m now 41,” Mayet said.

Since almost all cast members are amateur actors, it might have helped that Mayet has a professional theater background — he is an art director and media officer at the Münchner Volkstheater in Munich. “But we also perform stage plays in years in Oberammergau when there are no Passion Plays, so people get to know one another, and the director gets a sense of who is capable of what.”

Every role is cast with two actors, who perform on alternate days. Initially, there may be some disappointments with the casting decisions, Mayet said.

Yet soon there is unity in purpose. “When it comes to the time when we prepare for the play and perform it, everybody sticks together. It’s the Passion year, and everybody puts their differences to one side in order to concentrate on the common goal: to stage a great Passion Play,” Mayet said.

Many friendships are built in that process, also across generations, he noted.

“The youngest of our actors is 8 years old, and the oldest is 80. People across the generations are sitting together, get to know one another, and share in a mutual experience. That is precious.”

The Passion Play, whose history goes back to 1634, is normally staged only every 10 years. It was originally planned to be performed in 2020; due to COVID-19 lockdowns, it was postponed to 2022.

Only natives or long-term residents of the picturesque village in the Bavarian Alps, about 58 miles southwest of Munich, may act in the play.

While the parts were already cast in 2019 in anticipation for the postponed 2020 play, rehearsals for this year’s run began in January. For the 2,100 people who take part in the Passion Play as cast members, crew or chorus, the event requires a lot of individual sacrifices.

“Everybody has a day job, so rehearsals take place in the evenings or on weekends,” Mayet said. “Many people take leave or work short hours during the Passion Play season between May and October.”

He said that it used to be easier, when almost all cast and crew lived and worked in or around Oberammergau, where everybody understood the culture and needs of the Passion Play. However, now some participants work as far away as Munich, where employers may not understand the Passion Play culture.

Mayet lives with his family in Oberammergau but commutes frequently to Munich.

Scheduling changes have helped to reconcile professional demands with those of the Passion Play, Mayet said. In the past, “the first half of the play was performed before noon, and the second in the afternoon. Now, the first part is in the afternoon, and the second in the evening. That enables people to work half-day. And some parts, such as the Romans, are required to be on stage only in the evening sessions. So, during casting, people can say that they’d like an afternoon or an evening role, and that enables them to make the necessary arrangements.”

Like most men in the cast, Mayet currently sports long hair and a beard. His last visit to the barber? “That was on Ash Wednesday in February 2021. It’s a tradition that the men in the Oberammergau Passion Play let their hair grow as of Ash Wednesday the preceding year.”

He said some cast members “could keep our beards shorter for the safe wearing of facemasks, for example those in medical professions. But I hope that the virus will recede to allow us to have more biblical beards.”

Oberammergau is traditionally a solidly Catholic village, where many of the famous murals on house facades depict biblical scenes or Mary. But in more recent times, the village has become more pluralistic.

“The Catholic faith characterizes Oberammergau, but we also have Protestants and Muslims in our community, and everybody gets together and participates in the Passion Play,” Mayet said. “This year, for the first time, we have Muslims taking part.”

Prayer is still an important feature behind the scenes, Mayet said.

“Before every performance there’s a group prayer, led by either the Catholic or Protestant chaplain, and the Our Father is also said. Of course, there are some who have left the church, and they might not take part in the prayer, but at the Passion Play the religious is always present, and the churches are always involved.”

This year’s run of the Passion Play will be the first Mayet’s sons, ages 7 and 3, will experience.

“I’m looking forward to sharing that experience with them. I hope that they may grow into this tradition. This year, on days when I’m not playing Jesus, I’ll introduce them to the stage.”

And how long does Mayet want to take part in the play? “I hope until I’m over 80, but obviously I don’t know. As long as possible. … I hope to be on stage every 10 years; it just is part of my life.”

He will be too old to play Jesus in the next run, but “there are many other interesting roles I’d like to play after having been Jesus twice — maybe I could play a villain for a change, like Pontius Pilate!”