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Passion of the Amish

A rehearsal shot from the 2016 edition of "The American Passion Play," with Paul Veselak in the role of Jesus Christ. The play's 95th anniversary season begins March 17 in the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

BLOOMINGTON — God bless the Amish, say the producers of the Twin Cities' longest-running theatrical tradition.

If it wasn't for their ongoing passionate support, the annual retelling of the life of Jesus Christ, "The American Passion Play," likely wouldn't be celebrating its 95th anniversary this spring.

Facing a final curtain in recent years due to a declining local audience and other factors, the play has eked along on a season-by-season basis, with the long-term future forever in doubt.

"We are still getting the bulk of our business from the Amish in Indiana, which began about three or four years ago," says Lars LaBounty, president of the board of trustees of American Passion Play Inc. and a performer in the production for 28 years (he's played Malachi for 18 seasons).

"Somebody over there who promoted us brought a busload here ... and that just began expanding every year after they found out we were in a hurting situation," he adds.

A frequent questions is, "Is this your last year? We want to come."

They now bring a bus- or vehicle-load to every show, says LaBounty, all the better to help bolster each performance's attendance (this year's five performances in the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts are March 17, 24, 25 and 31, and April 7).

"So, yes, I guess you could say that the Amish have saved the Passion Play," says LaBounty. 

To further ensure that contingent keeps coming back for more, the play's longstanding start time of 2 p.m. was moved up by an hour several seasons ago, to 1 p.m., to better accommodate the long road trip required to get here (the Amish travel from the Eastern time zone, which, in effect, makes the start time still 2 p.m. for them).

Despite the Amish support, "we're still basically living from year to year," says LaBounty, with the decision made at the annual board of trustees meeting each July whether to continue for another season.

The 95th was given the go-ahead in July 2017.

With the 100th anniversary within reach, the group is doing everything it can, he adds, to make that historic milestone by cutting costs wherever they can, happily accepting donations (which have been vital in recent years) and stimulating renewed interest on the local churchgoing front.

But it hasn't been easy for the production that premiered in 1924 in Bloomington's Scottish Rite Temple, built in 1920 for the purpose of housing the play and now known as the BCPA.

In addition to rising costs (at an annual loss of $20,000 to $50,000) and declining local attendance (only 250 local tickets sold in 2017), there's the wages of being around for 95 years.

The group that stages the production has experienced a thinning of the ranks from the 200 cast and crew needed to mount the 3½-hour pageant.

"We need some new blood," LaBounty confesses, noting that the aging of the baby boomer generation that has filled the ranks could result in "a mass exodus" in the near future.

These days, he says, there are more women participants than men, which has forced the recasting of a lot of the smaller parts from male to female.

Even this close to the opening, LaBounty says the production can use some more actors to fill the production's mob, wedding feast and other crowd scenes.

"We'll put you in a costume and have you yell 'crucify him!'," promises LaBounty of the chance to become an "Passion Play" extra (just call the ticket number included with the information box to this story if you are interested).

As for that 100th season still five years away, LaBounty says his hopeful the milestone will not only be reached, but passed.

With the 95th season just a week away from opening to an uncertain reception, "I'd say we're not panicked ... but we are very concerned." 

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