Passion Play stirs audiences in Eureka Springs
September 09, 2013

The audience at the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas watches as Jesus is surrounded by his loyal followers.

By Mari Winn Taylor

Not everyone may be able to take advantage of an opportunity to attend the Passion Play held abroad in Oberammergau beginning in 1633 and since the early nineteenth century every decade thereafter. But so far over 7.7 million visitors in the know took advantage of attending The Great Passion Play performed in Eureka Springs, Arkansas at 935 Passion Play Rd.

Run by a non-profit foundation , the Great Passion Play boasts a cast of over 150 actors who perform on a 550-ft. historically accurate multi-level stage surrounded by trees and capped by a starry sky. To add to the realism, the 2013 performance features Arabian horses, donkeys, goats and dozens of birds (some doves didn't remember where home was) as well as three camels donated by the Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari of Gentry, Arkansas. Musical accompaniment, an original musical score composed by Phil Perkins and performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London adds to the dramatic effect.

The cast of characters of the Great Passion Play includes these well-behaved camels as well as other animals that complete the street scenes.

According to Christian Stickl, the Oberammergau Passion Play's director, in 2010 he wanted created a Jesus "who with unflinching steadfastness stood for the belief he had in his god who is also the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob--namely the God of the Jews." The Arkansas Bible belt version, with a focus on the scriptures that show that Jesus triumphed over Satan, conveys the belief that Christ died for the sins of the world.

As the sun sets the first members of the audience settle into front row seats at the Great Passion Play.

Before the play's performance that takes place from about 8:30-10:15 p.m., visitors mill around the grounds, tour a museum with a collection of 7,000 Bibles in 625 languages and dialects or a sacred art center featuring the work of artist Jack Dawson and a diverse mix of mediums portraying Christ and Christian life. They enjoy a concert in Smith Chapel, take The Living Holy Land Tour, or have opportunities in the early evening to watch free presentations of the story of David the Shepherd and the Parables of the Potter on a mini stage near a replica of Jerusalem's Eastern Gate.

Kent Butler as the good shepherd demonstrates his skill using a split-pouch shepherd's sling. With six years of experience he can reach a distance of 180 yards.

In a Potter's Theatre performance Joe Smith demonstrates how character is formed like pottery. The Parables of the Potter is a free performance at the Great Passion Play.

Donning a shepherd's cloak, Kent Butler, one of the play's biggest promoters, captivated the audience with his expertise using a split pouch shepherd sling. "Scripture comes to life with a sling in my hand, he said, after he had told the story of David and Goliath. He added that if parables are for children, then "in the age of eternity we are all children."


Interspersing his monologue with current humor like when he tapped a Sooner fan with his rod (Razorback territory, remember?), Kent said he wanted to convey that no problem was "too big" for their God. "I want the audience to take that home with them," he said. "Because Jesus lives we can face tomorrow" was his comment that brought a lot of "amens" from the audience.

At the potter's wheel was Joe Smith, a long-time supporter of the outdoor drama. With tremendous emotion, Smith uses Parables from the Potter to convince people to hold on to their faith.

And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me--John 12:32 - So stands the Christ of the Ozarks on the grounds of the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It was sculpted by Emmet Sullivan and Adrian Forrette in 1966. Chief engineer was McKinley Weems and chief mortar artist was A.C. McBride. The project was initiated by Gerald L.K. Smith and completed by the Elna M. Smith Foundation. Today money is desperately needed to make repairs to it.

"This place kinda grabs your heart," said Keith Butler, Kent Butler's Dad, who ministers the Berryville First Assembly of God. Driving a motorized cart to cover the property's 677 acres, Keith showed off the statue on the grounds that he says draws international attention--Christ of the Ozarks, a 65-foot statue erected in 1966 and whose finger repair bill in 2006 was several thousand dollars. A rendition of this seven story figure is used in the Great Passion Play logo.

Visitors also are surprised to see an actual 10x10 foot section of the Berlin Wall. One of the most important symbols of the Cold War separating East and West Berlin, it was torn down in Germany in 1989. Written on the fragment are the words, "Ich habe keine angst--Psalm 23" or "I do not have a fear."

Christ is seen leading his following during the Last Supper in a scene from the Great Passion Play.

One of the most dramatic and uplifting scenes in the Great Passion Play is when Jesus appears from his tomb.

Photos by Vince Rosati


To order tickets for the Play, the Holy Land Tour, the backstage tour, the tabernacle teaching, and other events and performances on the grounds, visit here, call toll free at (800) 882-7529, or visit the box office. The Great Passion Play’s 2013 season runs through the end of October although specials are being planned for the Christmas season.

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