The Birmingham Passion Play 2019 was a huge logistical project but after time we won favour with Birmingham Council. We choose to inform all the businesses, cafes and retail shops that we were going to pass on the processional play route prior to the event. This was extremely beneficial and they waved and cheered us on, up New Street during the performances. Many people from the Businesses around the Cathedral grounds came out and watched the Crucifixion scene.
We raised £9,083 from 23 different churches, which was a bit disappointing in the end, but gifts from 92 individuals amounting to £19,858 was the biggest blessing and surprise. We are extremely grateful for the funding we received from you which went towards the technical bill for sound. Overall this was a big expense but everybody could hear the narrative which was crucial and well worth all the equipment and staff. It was especially important because, we learnt during the process, as a result of the unexpected large audience numbers, we needed more staging re sight lines.
In Birmingham, there are unfortunately a lot of homeless people on the streets and we wanted to be a blessing to them as we processed nearby and in the Cathedral grounds. Accordingly, we purchased 120 hot drink vouchers from Greggs and gave them away with a Kitkat. These were gratefully received and resulted in some encouraging conversations in sharing Jesus’s story.
The Community Cast was an incredible blessing with over 90 registering on the first day which ended up with a committed 65 for weekly rehearsals and all three performances. The ages ranged from 14 to 78 years, with ethnicity from White British, Black Caribbean, Black African, Indian and Chinese. We had an older homeless man who sleeps on St Martins Church floor in the Bull Ring, we had a disabled lady in a wheelchair, people struggling with mental illness and someone who has recently become a Christian while in prison to name but a few. We had a Muslim guy who even though is on a different page than our faith has felt included and valued. We had people from over 21 different churches, people with no faith and people with a Muslim faith. It was such a joy to see them all work together and support and care for each other.
The Play was unprecedented in scale and ambition, not only in artistic vision but also in demanding the time, energy and commitment of a huge team of professionals and amateurs to bring this vision to life. Ultimately it provided a powerful glimpse of the reality of God on the streets of Birmingham, empowering the community to transform their city with immediacy and, hopefully, long lasting impact.
Rehearsing two separate casts with different directors was also interesting in terms of narrative cohesion. As we only had occasional weekends and one evening a week, it was necessary to begin community cast rehearsals two months before the professionals were even fully cast. BPP absolutely depended on the driving framework of the community cast; and it was essential that all members felt valued and invested in. Overall, the BPP was truly by the city, for the city. Not just the city of Birmingham, but also for everyone involved, around (160+) who dedicated their time and talents to the project. From the people in the café lining New Street who came out to watch, to the builders who turned off their machines during the Victoria Square scenes, the project served as a celebration of the power of collaboration.
There was a palpable atmosphere of riotous expectation from the moment crowds began to gather around the buskers, gaining momentum as we processed down New St as people danced, sang (God on the Street, God on the Street, The Liberator is here, The Liberator is here, Jesus, Jesus) and jumped with real freedom. The relative stillness of the Last Supper and increasingly sinister Gethsemane scene provided a natural breathing point before the crowd began to turn at the point of the trial. Again, the community cast were excellent in altering the collective emotive mood, and using the backdrop of the council house provided an authentic authority to proceedings. Although the community cast took some encouragement to chant for Jesus’ crucifixion, the effect of the same team of people who had celebrated his appearance following him back down New St calling for his death was harrowing. Seeing this crowd fill the cathedral to witness Jesus’ crucifixion was extremely powerful; we also gathered people who had been passing through the grounds. Although the logistics of getting the actors on the crosses were quite complicated, the time it took added to the torturous drawn-out nature of Jesus’ death, providing time for reflection.
Having to perform the Resurrection scene twice on the Wednesday and Thursday because the cathedral was full to bursting was an amazing indication of how the audience had journeyed with us, physically and emotionally. There was an audible gasp as Marcel re-appeared as the resurrected Jesus, and a genuine eruption of joy as we closed the play with “Joyful Joyful”. We cannot imagine having performed the Passion without the resurrection as is traditional – after the initial excitement and subsequent tension, anger and mourning, the elation of the final scene meant the audience left the cathedral carrying a sense of real transformative hope for the city.
We could never have foreseen the way God superseded all our wildest expectations for The Passion Play. All of the risks we took paid off and considering all the things that could have gone wrong, it was a genuine miracle that nothing actually did. It was an absolute privilege to have been part of such an amazing project; and one which we believe will continue to inspire change, in the spiritual landscape of Birmingham.