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Passion Play 2010 Vertreibung der Handler aus dem Tempel Foto Brigitte Maria Mayer TB

Behind-the-scenes at the 2020 Oberammergau Passion Play

Morgan Hughes Author PIC
by Morgan Hughes

July 22, 2019

7 minute read

The decade-long wait is nearly over for the 2020 Oberammergau Passion Play -- a world-famous, once-in-a-decade theater production about the last days of the life of Jesus.

The play is the famous product of a 1633 pledge made by the villagers of the tiny Bavarian hamlet of Oberammergau, that they would act out the suffering and death of Jesus Christ every 10 years in exchange for being spared from the Plague.

Preparations for the 42nd play include much more than scriptwriting and dress rehearsals. It’s a village-wide process that begins years before the play. Nearly half of the village population will participate in the production.

Here are just some of the interesting ways the people of Oberammergau have been preparing for the upcoming Passion Play.


The cast of the 2020 Passion Play was announced in October 2018, with chief roles selected by Lord-Mayor Arno Nunn. More than 2,000 of the villagers will participate in the production, either on stage or behind-the-scenes.

There are some restrictions on who can participate in the play. Only residents who were born in Oberammergau or have lived there for at least 20 years can join.

There are 120 speaking parts. More than 1,000 people and entire herds of animals will be seen on stage at any given time.

All of the approximately 20 major roles have 2 actors playing the part, such as Jesus, Mary, Pontius, Pilate, and Mary Magdalene. This allows the stars to maintain their everyday lives. It also allows Oberammergau to ensure that no one would develop any sort of star quality with these roles.

However, these actors are, largely, not professionals. The production is backed by hundreds of years of experience, but the actors are fresh-faced amateurs trained from scratch. A handful of participants go on to pursue work in the world of theater.

This year, there are some milestones relating to the cast. One of the actors playing Jesus returns to the same role as 2010, and the other is one of the youngest to play Jesus in the 400-year history of the play at 20 years old. The two actors playing Annas have participated in the play since 1950.

Working Around Everyday Life

Preparations for the 2020 play began in 2014, and rehearsals will begin in November. The play itself opens on May 16 and closes Oct. 4, with showings five days a week. The production is divided into two parts, totaling five hours on stage.

The village weaves the play into its everyday life. Rehearsals are an acceptable excuse to miss work – even for extended periods of time.

Historically, the play was performed in the morning and afternoon. Classrooms would be emptied out so the children could march down to the theater, dress in costume, appear in the Entrance to Jerusalem mass crowd scene for an hour, and then return to class.

In recent decades, the play was moved to the afternoon and evening. Now, participants can work some of the day – a concern in the past – and the director can take advantage of dramatic nighttime lighting.

Handcrafted Costumes

A lot of effort goes into making sure Passion Play costumes are authentic and historically accurate. For example, the crown of thorns worn by Jesus is decades old and comes from the Holy Land.

All of the costumes are made by hand in the village, and it is no small feat. Hundreds of costumes must be made, dyed, and aged, beginning in fall 2019. A number of them are historic, some over 200 years old. In some cases, donning the costumes is no small feat, either – the one worn by Herod weights over 35 pounds.

While the costumes are getting sewn, actors are hard at work growing their beards and hair at home. By tradition, many of the actors are required to stop shaving on Ash Wednesday of the year prior. The only exceptions are Roman soldiers, who require a clean shave, and the apostle John, who was too young to have a beard.

 Passion Play   Jesus enters Jerusalem TB

Set and Music

The Passion Play Theatre was built specifically for the production. As it stands today, it can host over 4,700 people.

The stage itself was custom-built to hold at least 800 actors on it. In recent years, a roof was built over the stage, making it an indoor-outdoor venue. The theater is partially heated, to keep onlookers warm in the Alpine cold.

The cross on which Jesus is ‘crucified’ in the play was handcrafted in the village by its world-renowned woodcarvers.

The music score of the production was composed over 200 years ago, a local music teacher. He has a very prominent grave in the courtyard of the village church. It has been adapted over time, but the score is still largely based on his composition.

For the 2020 play, the orchestra will consist of 70 musicians, and the choir of 120.

The score is so popular, that it is sold on CD from local vendors to visitors. Villagers listen to it even outside of Passion Play years.


The director of the 2020 Passion Play is Christian Stückl, a local from a very prominent Oberammergau family. In 1987, at 27 years old, he was selected to be the director of the new and completely revamped 1990 Passion Play.

As a young man, Stückl apprenticed to become a woodcarver in the village. But that wasn’t his calling. In the early 80’s, at the age of 21, he founded a small local theater group in Oberammergau. He has been involved with the play since he was a child.

In the intervening years, Christian Stückl has become widely known in Germany and in greater Europe at large. In 2006, he created and director the 1,200-performer opening ceremonies for the World Soccer Championship (FIFA) series hosted by Germany.

 Passion Play Crucifixion TB

The Script

Passion Plays are not unique to Oberammergau. They are performed around the world to tell the story of the last days of the life of Jesus Christ. They became popular in the 16th century. In the 20th century, Oberammergau is the most famous, with others in northern Spain and the Netherlands following in suit.

The Oberammergau play is performed in German, with English subtitled shown on a screen off to the side.

Director Stückl is often credited with much of the play’s reinterpretation based on historical texts and modern evolution. The music director modernizes the music simultaneously. Throughout history, changes to the play have been widely debated among its villagers.


Oberammergau expects at least 450,000 visitors across its 103 showings. Tourism is the area’s main economic stronghold. The Passion Play is advertised in 27 markets – but North America, Great Britain, and Scandinavia continue to outnumber other regions.

The region thrives off of tourism, especially during Passion Play years. Many theater-goers will turn their trip into a European tour.

The Oberammergau Museum tells the full story of the Passion Play and its traditions. It is home to costumes from past performances, historic photos, exhibits about the changing text, and the earliest available original script from 1662.

Aside from the play, the village is well-known for its world-famous woodcarvers – called dievdirbys. A number of 18th century masterpieces are also housed in the Oberammergau Museum.

With Collette, you can choose from several European tours including tickets and accommodations for the 2020 Oberammergau Passion play. For more information, click here.

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