Against an elaborate, three-story stage that re-creates Jerusalem in Lexington, a dozen men rehearse their lines for the church’s annual Passion Play.
In a climactic scene just after Jesus’s betrayal and capture, Bill White as Peter runs offstage toward the pews shouting, “He’ll never forgive me!” while Mark Giurgevich as Judas desperately tries to undo the deed he’s done. “Take this money back! I don’t want it! I made a mistake!” he pleads.
The Gardenside Baptist Church group represents the role of Jesus and his disciples, and with just a little over a week until their first performance, the men are ready — right down to the freshly grown beards they are sporting just for the occasion. In several area churches, preparations for Easter season performances begin shortly after Christmas, with hours of rehearsal and planning needed to pull together special musical and dramatic representations of the Passion story.
Berea United Methodist Church’s annual Easter play titled Lord, Is It I? has been the “dramatic punctuation of Berea’s Easter season” for the past 25 years, said Lea Schultz, the church’s secretary.
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“Most folks have no idea all the hours that go on behind the scenes,” said pastor Mike Cox of Danville’s First Church of God, which will perform a Passion play with a cast of 60. Their play is told through flashbacks, with an aged disciple John as the narrator, Cox said.
At Gardenside, play coordinator Carol Marshall takes to the phones by mid-January. She is lining up volunteers for 18 committees, including parking, costumes and makeup, lighting, sound and special effects. Building the stage itself for the cast of 106 actors is a huge undertaking, said Gardenside’s set coordinator, Roger Kincer. It takes his crew of 13 men two weeks of full-time work to assemble the set, which has “hundreds of parts” as well as electrical wiring for special effects. The set is stored in a semi trailer when not in use.
“It would be the equivalent of you going home and taking your house apart and stacking it in your yard, and coming back in a year and putting it back up,” he said.
Altogether, it takes more than 150 people to put on Gardenside’s play, now in its 15th year. With an average of 10 performances a year, the play brings in an audience of 5,000 to 6,000 annually — many from across Kentucky and out of state. “This is one ministry of the church where everybody gets involved,” Marshall said.
“What I enjoy most is that it draws our church together,” said David Dale, music director at Gardenside Baptist Church. “It’s a project that the entire church family feels a part of.”
At Safe Harbor Baptist Fellowship in Georgetown, the story of Jesus’s Passion will be told almost entirely in music.
The church’s 20-person choir, led by volunteer choral director Ken Lewis, will perform an Easter cantata titled Then Came the Morning. During the 35-minute program, roughly 25 costumed actors from the church congregation will silently act out the scenes described in the cantata.
The cantata didn’t come with plans for a dramatic accompaniment. That idea was added by church pastor Dwayne Russell and his wife, MaryAnn. But the result has been inspiring, said choir member Teresa Morris.
“You can feel the spirit uplifting everybody. It’s just absolutely awesome every time we practice,” she said.
Safe Harbor’s choir has been rehearsing for an hour each Sunday since January to prepare for their performances of the cantata at their own church and as guests at Dry Run Baptist Church in Georgetown.
Even after weeks of practice, there’s still one scene that gets to Lewis every time.
During the second to last song, Rise and Be Healed, the actors appear out of costume as themselves, bearing signs with their own prayer requests. Then, as the song plays, the actor playing Jesus walks by and takes the signs and throws them aside, Lewis said.
“The song talks about bringing our burdens and our sins to Christ and he will take those from us,” Lewis said. “Seeing that, I have to be careful not to get choked up.”
Lexington’s Macedonia Christian Church also will perform the story of the Passion with a cantata. Theirs is a brand new choral cantata, just published this spring, titled In Christ Alone, said director Bill Cooper. Their choir of 10 members has rehearsed since January, and with the “wonderful acoustics” of the church they sound twice as large as they are, Cooper said.
At each of the churches, all the hours of preparation are about one goal: celebrating the story of Jesus’s final hours on Earth and his ascension from the dead on Easter Sunday. Program organizers say they hope their efforts help their audiences feel the significance of the Passion story in their modern lives.