An awed and reverential silence descends over the 4,000 seat amphitheater as audiences watch the events of Jesus Christ’s last days unfold at The Great Passion Play. It has always been this way at this outdoor production nestled in the Ozark Mountains, which has attracted over seven million visitors since it debuted in Eureka Springs, Arkansas in July of 1968.
This year, the power of this story has become even more moving, thanks to a beautifully balanced and richly colored lighting design by Chandler Mann and Cameron Edwards of Momentum Lighting.
“Having grown up in Eureka Springs, I have a special attachment to The Great Passion Play,” said Mann, who now works out of Houston. “The production has captivated visitors season after season, but its lighting needed to be upgraded. Our previous system had no LEDs or color mixing and was operated from an old dimming console.. It was time for a change.”
Mann and Edwards brought that change to The Great Passion Play, which runs seven months a year, with help from 40 COLORado1-Quad IP65 fixtures and eight DMX-4 dimmers from CHAUVET Professional, along with a new ChamSys QuickQ 20 console. They placed 15 of the RGBW COLORado washes on the front wall of the stage, replacing 20 old Par64 fixtures. The remaining 25 COLORado 1-Quad units have been positioned in various points on the set, such as rooftops, trees, and boulders.
“The COLORados on the front wall are not only excellent color mixing fixtures, but their RGBAL engines are also good replacements for tungsten daylight colored fixtures,” said Mann. “The ones we have sprinkled throughout the set bring a new level of emotion to scenes that should have been lit in color all along.”
To illustrate his point, Mann tells of the impact that color has had on the scene where Jesus carries the cross up the Via Dolorosa to the site of his crucifixion. “This is a point of intense passion that becomes even more powerful with color,” he said. “The flogging scenes and the travel up the Via Dolorosa are now being cast in rich crimson and violet, which awes the audience and creates more vivid memories for the families who have come to witness this story.”
Then there is one of Mann’s favorites: The Garden of Gethsemane. “I was particularly moved by how this scene was enhanced with the addition of color mixing,” he said. “It’s a deeply moving sight with the rolling clouds coming across the hills of the Ozarks, serene fog seeping from custom built fog ports in the ground, along with soft moonlight shining through the garden, coming not just from the actual moon, but also from the soft blues and rich purples of our lights.”
The eight DMX-4 dimmers controlled by the ChamSys QuickQ 20 also played a pivotal role in transforming the show. “Since this takes place in the times of ancient Rome we wanted to control lights to reflect different realistic situations, by doing things like having smoke machines mimic bread ovens, fog machines seeping low clouds, and having candlelight effects,” said Mann. “Having the dimmer packs placed across the underside of the set allowed all those pieces to be controlled via DMX and timecode as opposed to the past when they were manually operated by cast members.”
Designing and installing the new lighting system was not without its challenges. Mann and Edwards had to get weather-rated power boxes installed and route IP65 DMX cables, completing work on the project across the four acre hillside in just under five days. The two of them put in 16 and 20 hour shifts in an effort to complete the project before severe weather hit.
They wound up having to program over 200 Timecode cues on the QuickQ 20 overnight from the spotlight tower to avoid the rain. In the end though, it was a success and the play now radiates more brilliantly than ever, which fills Mann with a great sense of satisfaction.
“My dad, my brother Kent, and Joe Smith not only brought me up and raised me at the Passion Play, they also gave me the love for lighting that I have grown into a profession,” he said. “I am honored that it has come full circle back here and that I have been able to give back creatively to something that has given so much to me.”