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The gospel of the great outdoors: Mormon pageants aren't the only ones looking for a moment

By Samantha Strong Murphey

for the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Aug. 17 2012 1:52 p.m. MDT

An actor playing Jesus holds a child in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play.

Canadian Badlands Passion Play

As the late summer sun descends over walls of bentonite clay, the valley fills with people.

When the audience has settled into place on wood-backed benches arched in rows up the gentle slant of dirt, the music starts. A live, on-stage band, thick with Middle Eastern sounds and peppered with classical elements, accompanies the prerecorded voices of a female East Indian opera singer and the score's composer, a former rock band member from Alberta. The music serves as an emotional guide for the audience in the vast outdoor venue, where the intricacies of the actors' performances can at times be lost in the grandeur. Its sounds pierce through the valley and echo off the hills. A familiar looking man with a thick beard and kind face steps onto the stage, robed and ready to turn water into wine and seekers into believers.

The show has begun.

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play, performed annually in southern Alberta, is one of roughly 20 long-running outdoor religious dramas scattered across North America. As pockets of religion flourishing in what some see as an increasingly secular landscape, these plays are the embodiment of a trend toward worship experiences that make room for both religious enthusiasts and noncommittal spectators alike, according to William Swatos, executive officer of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

While some faithful churchgoers make pilgrimages to attend, other audience members can satisfy their religious impulses without making any long-term commitments.

"The truth is, other than perhaps paying for your ticket to get into the drama, you don't have to contribute very much at all," Swatos said. "You can be an observer. You can be moved by what you see, but your ongoing contribution is relatively small."

But behind the scenes, it's often the dedicated churchgoers preparing to take the stage, hoping for a spiritual miracle.

The Latter-day Saint Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, N.Y., is produced by families of active churchgoers who are committed to oftentimes heavy responsibilities in their congregations. Toi Clawson, a public affairs official for the pageant, said that because of media hype around Mitt Romney and his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this year's audiences were boosted by an influx of curious spectators.

But Clawson, like most of the believers behind the scenes of outdoor religious dramas, doesn't care why audiences come. She cares how they feel when they leave, and how being a part of the play enhances her own faith.

Conversions of all kinds

The number of audience members at the Badlands Passion Play who report weekly church attendance is on the decline, said the play's executive director Vance Neudorf — but then, some of his actors don't attend church regularly in the off-season, either.

"Their participation in the pageant has become their church," he said.

But many involved in the play are still immersed in Sunday services year-round and happy to be a part of a drama that attracts those who might be completely severed from religious experience otherwise. They know that in addition to the scripted action, the play also sets the stage for unscripted spiritual experiences in the lives of actors and audience members, religious and non-religious alike.

Harold Handley drives 12 hours round-trip every weekend from May through August to play "lead Levite" in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play, while his 15-year-old son tags along to work as a tech volunteer and golf cart driver for the show. In previous years, his other son and wife have also been involved.

During performance weekends, Handley and his family stay at a campground "tent city" designated for cast and crew, a community that he said is more like a family. The "Body of Christ," as they call themselves, holds an outdoor worship service every Sunday.