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BLOOMINGTON — Prayers have been answered for the imperiled future of Bloomington-Normal's longest-running theatrical tradition.

Thanks to a band of angels coming to the rescue with donations, "The American Passion Play" will continue with its 93rd season starting Saturday at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

Also assured is the play's 94th season in 2017, said Lars LaBounty, president of the board of trustees of American Passion Play Inc.

A year ago, it appeared as if the final curtain might be coming down on the Easter season tradition that dramatizes Christ's life through a marriage of scriptural fidelity and spectacular pageantry involving a cast and crew of 200.

The production premiered in 1924 in Bloomington's Scottish Rite Temple, built in 1920 for the purpose of housing the play, and which is now known as the BCPA.

"I would say that our situation is much improved from what it was a year ago," said LaBounty, who has performed in the production for 26 years and played the role of Malachai for 16 seasons.

"We were very successful with our fundraising effort ... the community, the cast and our patrons all were very generous, and we were able to insure that this would not be our final season." 

One of the oldest continuously performed plays of its kind in America, the production costs $100,00 to stage and has been losing money at the rate of $20,000 to $50,000 per year since 2002, said Andy Bender, a member of the board of trustees, as well as a cast member for three seasons.

A year ago, only 157 tickets were sold in the Twin Cities, he noted, with the rest of the sales coming via out-of-town groups and patrons. Recent season attendance has wavered between 3,000 to 4,000, down from a peak of 10,000 in its heyday. 

"We really need some angels to come in and help us support the play financially," Bender stated last June, when the money problems were first made public via media reports.

A September deadline was give to quell the crisis.

Though a crowdfunding website campaign was implemented, "it didn't really do much," said Bender.

"What brought in the money was a direct mail campaign that made contact with people," followed by in-person meetings and other up-close-and-personal approach, he said.

A prevailing theme among those who donated, said Bender, was the concern that "this is a play that is extremely well-known and that the possibility of it ending was something that was very disturbing to them ... they did not want to this historical play go away."

Other box office incentives implemented, said LaBounty, include partnering with area churches that buy a block of tickets and sells them— and sharing in 50 percent of the proceeds.

Also new is the start time, moved up an hour to 1 p.m. instead of 2 p.m., as it has been for years. The reason, said Bender: to make logistics easier for groups traveling from Indiana's eastern time zone, where a sizable sector of the play's regular audience resides.

"We just want to thank all the people who've come forward with their support to make sure this will not be the last season for this wonderful play," said Bender.  

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft


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