Step back in time to walk in Jesus' shoes

As the sun turns golden on the shore of beautiful Lake Moogerah, in southeast Queensland, you are invited to step out of the 21st century and into the first century for this year’s Moogerah Passion Play – a dramatic account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Its co-directors Michelle and Bernard Wright are taking inspiration from the realism of The Chosen – the television blockbuster about the life of Jesus – to help the audience step back in time.

The opening scene will feature a boat on the lake, people fishing in the lake, a donkey coming around the lake, goats coming around Calvary, a first-century cart and a market scene.

“We’re not trying to do The Chosen, but we’re trying to take some little pointers, like the amount of detail that they have in their sets and try and make it as real as possible,” says Michelle.

This year, an innovation is adding a trio of female disciples who will act as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the action.

Moogerah Passion Play cast members rehearse their lines.

Michelle says this occurred because of stiff competition for the female parts at the January auditions.

“Several girls went for the part of Sarah and two of them were so good, we just couldn’t split them. So we decided to create another role. And now we have three sisters instead of two – Susanna (who Jesus healed), Hannah and Sarah.”

The trio represent women who travelled with Jesus, watched the crucifixion from afar and went to the tomb after his death.

Instead of opening the play just with John the Baptist as in previous years, this year’s first act also showcases leading figures such as Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.

“Usually, we follow Jesus’s baptism, the calling of Jesus, his first miracle, and we try to have a scene where we showcase some of his miracles as well.

“So in that first act, you feel the tension building with the Pharisees and the religious leaders. This year, we’re starting act two with the triumphal entry. So that’s the tipping point with Jesus and the religious leaders. And from that point on, it goes downhill towards the cross. And then our final act is the resurrection – the good bit!”

The play’s founder, Kosti Simons, was honoured with an Enduring Impact in the Arts Legacy Award last September by Christian Media and Arts Australia for 30 years of staging the play. The first Moogerah Passion Play was held in 1993 on the magnificent lakeside site where the sun sets behind the stage. For years, Kosti would adapt the script to suit the incoming director. Since he stepped down in 2012, the script has continued to evolve, sometimes focusing on a particular Gospel and other times a combined Gospel narrative.

Moogerah Passion Play crew assess the site.

With no understudy for the Christ figure, Michelle asks for prayer for the protection of Andrew Irving, who has played Jesus since 2019.

“We’ve just got to make sure he stays fit and healthy and look after him when we’re practising getting him down off the cross,” she says.

“We have a very experienced team of people who have done it many, many years because safety is paramount. Your feet are on a ledge to hold you up, and then you’re holding on to nails. Holding that position for any length of time is not fun, but nothing compared to what Jesus suffered. It’s quite a profound experience for everybody who’s done that.”

With a cast and crew of up to 100, the actors take their roles very seriously and often research their characters by digging into the Bible, allowing it to become a vibrant experience.

A scene from last year’s Moogerah Passion Play.

Michelle said her richest experience was playing the woman taken in adultery, a role that begins with a big scream from backstage. At first, she doubted whether she could play this character because she had never experienced anything similar.

“I prayed about it, and I felt like God said she probably would have seen other people who had been stoned to death, so she would know what was coming, and she would have been terrified. So I approached it from that perspective,” she explained.

“Our director said she may have even been not guilty. The Pharisees may have taken her as a way of trapping Jesus, and it may have even been one of the Pharisees that had done the deed.”

The feeding of the 5000, Moogerah Passion Play, 2023

The other side of the coin is the impact on the audience, many of whom find the experience emotionally overwhelming.

“Especially on Good Friday, that’s our biggest night. We often have the hill covered with people and you hear people crying and wailing when Jesus is up on the cross. So it’s quite a moving experience for people, especially for the person playing Jesus,” says Michelle.

“At the end, our actors come out of the stage into where the audience sits and that’s often where lots of conversations happen – especially with Jesus. People do get their photos taken with the cast but then they also have the opportunity sometimes to share some deep stuff with people. People have gotten saved through this. We don’t do an altar call per se, but that’s our opportunity to talk to people and meet them where they are.”

This year, the organisers hope to raise enough funds to rebuild their acting shed, which was demolished as unsafe last year.

Performances will be on 23, 24, 29 and 30 March. For bookings, click here.