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.
"We have every denomination represented at our service," Handley said. "Mormons, Baptists, Pentecostals. No one stands out above the other."
When he's not attending Body of Christ worship services, Handley attends a Pentecostal congregation back home in Cold Lake, Alberta. He said being a part of the Passion play has enriched the spiritual convictions he's always had.
Growing up in British Columbia, Handley knew what fisherman were like, but didn't associate the fisherman he knew with those who followed Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
"You forget that a fisherman is a fisherman," he said. "James, John, Andrew, they weren't just saints. They had real emotions, real lives. They bled. They had questions just like we have questions. The experience has taught me that biblical figures were human beings. It's made them real to me."
Another outdoor drama, "The Living Word," produced on an acutely historically accurate set on a Methodist couple's farm in Guernsey County, Ohio, resists the notion of the uncommitted spectator and aims for every audience member to experience some level of personal conversion like Handley. Before the performance starts, the directors invite any audience member who feels inclined to go backstage, be fitted in costume and participate in the show as an extra.
Annette Ellwood, who has been involved with the production since it started decades ago, remembers one man from years ago, a nonreligious bus driver getting a bite to eat at the concession stand while his passengers went to watch the performance.
"Someone asked him to come and be in the play," she remembered. "He was huge man, so big that we couldn't find sandals big enough for his feet. They asked him to carry the cross up the hill in the crucifixion scene."
After the play, he told her that with every strenuous step, he thought about the pain Christ suffered.
"Now he's a minister at one of the larger churches in Cleveland," she said. "God works in mysterious ways."
A family focus
The relaxed, communal nature of these outdoor amphitheaters draws people to attend the productions as families, said Michael Hardy, director of the North Carolina-based Institute of Outdoor Drama. The majority of ticket sales for religious dramas are for family groups — religious and nonreligious alike.
In fact, Neudorf has noticed a growing number of nonreligious parents bringing their children to see the Badlands play.
"They say that they're not regular churchgoers, but they still want their children to know who Jesus was and what he did, so they can decide for themselves about religion," he said.
The best way to get these children's attention is to make a splash, according to Linda Goldner, founder of the Picture in Scripture Amphitheater in Disney, Okla. In its production of "The Man Who Ran," the story of Jonah, a 20-foot mechanical whale emerges from an on-site pond to swallow the actor playing the biblical character. In another production, the actor playing Christ uses a mechanical apparatus in the pond to "walk on water." They also employ pyrotechnic effects for their "chariot of fire" and "fire from heaven" scenes.
"The audiences love it," said Goldner, who wrote the plays to help fund a home for troubled girls she ran with her husband, Bill, until 1996. "This is a sight-and-sound generation, and you really have to appeal more to the senses."
Power and Light Productions, located just outside Wauchula, Fla., includes more than 100 live animals in their production of "Story of Noah," another sure way to attract the attention of children. But the play is not about the animals, said Pastor Mike Graham, the playwright and founder. "It's really about the people. It's about Noah's family and the struggle they have building the ark."
The production company is about the people, too. It organized Club Forty 31, a companion youth center, and Real Life Church, a nondenominational congregation, to reach out to young people. More than half of the cast and crew are under the age of 20.
The cast of the Hill Cumorah Pageant is also filled with young people. This year, the pageant accepted 800 of 2,500 applicants, most of them in family groups. With attrition, the final cast of 760 included families from United Arab Emirates, Japan and Kazakhstan — and the Stewart family from Lethbridge, Canada.
"I had seen the pageant as a youth and decided that I wanted to do it with my family someday," said Karri Stewart, mother of four. "It was kind of a bucket-list item."
Stewart, along with her husband, Dave, and their children, lived in dorms with the other cast members, experiencing an efficient, effulgent week of casting, crash-course rehearsals, missionary training sessions, spiritually uplifting devotionals and recreation.3 comments on this story
Sara, age 12, survived long hours of staggering heat in her costume and found that participating in the play enhanced her personal belief in the Book of Mormon, the story the pageant depicts.
As Sara and the other members of Christianity's rising generation grow up and decide what level of commitment they want in their religious life, pageantry's place in their worship will continue to evolve. But for now, its effect is simple.
"In the scriptures, they don't use the same words we do, so it's kind of hard to understand," she said. "Seeing the scenes performed made it more real. When I saw it, I could understand it better."
A graduate of Brigham Young University's communications department and former editor at Utah Valley Magazine, Samantha Strong Murphey now works as a freelance writer based in Atlanta.