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German Theatre
Act III: Corona Passion Play

 Corona Passionsspiele
© Schauspielhaus Zürich

The Corona Passion Play: Nicolas Stehman and the Schauspielhaus Zürich’s work in progress and immediate theatrical response to the outbreak of COVID-19 and its implications.

By Lena Kuhnt

The Passion Play of Oberammergau is the most known passion play in the world. Their founding myth is as follows: In 1633, while the Black Death rampaged through Oberammergau, the citizens of the village pledged that they would perform passion plays on a regular basis—reenacting the last five days of the life of Jesus Christ—if they only would be spared by the plague. After this oath, not a single citizen of Oberammergau died of the Black Death. Without a single exemption, the Passion Play of Oberammergau has taken place every ten years since 1680. Ironically, 2020 was the first year they have canceled due to a pandemic.
 
Oberammergau and its passion play must have had a lasting impression on Nicolas Stehman, current director of the Schauspielhaus Zürich, when he initiated the Corona Passions Play as a work-in-progress shortly after the closure of Swiss theatres in mid-March, with reference to the Passion Play of Oberammergau: “In the past, epidemics were explicitly fought with theatre.” The idea that theatre has a healing effect is certainly not a new one and Stehman plays around with this thought also in reference that some may consider the production of a passion play dedicated to COVID-19 inappropriate.
 
But it was also an immediate response to the question of how to deal with the closure of the theatres, adapt to the situation, and trying to find different forms of theatre apart from the classical performance with physical auteurs in a physical space. The result of the Corona Passion Play is a combination of different art forms, not only acting but also video art and the recourse to various music genres, like punk, folklore, and Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave). The songs in each episode were composed and written by Nicolas Stehman, performed by actors of the Schauspielhaus Zürich, and produced by video artist Emma Lou Herrmann.
 
The number of videos (14), in reference to the 14 stages of the cross depicted in most passion plays, as well as episode 5, in which Tabita Johannes Zooms in as Jesus Christ in quarantine, are the only specific references to a Christian passion play. The Corona Passion Play rather presents how differently COVID-19 collides with our life, mentalities, and world views.
 
The first video cynically tells about how the virus was only taken seriously once it had spread to every countries’ doorstep—Stehman starts with singing “There is a virus in China, who cares?” Over the course of the song, the virus comes closer and closer from China to Northern Italy, (“There is a disease around—but it’s not in our town, no, it’s in… Northern Italy”), until it becomes worrying because the virus has actually arrived “...in the next town from ours,” but “information is pretty unclear.” Another video shows the ambivalent relationship to the internet, acurse and blessing in this time of lockdowns and quarantine. There are videos about COVID-19 slanderers, hymns on the security aspects of Plexiglas performed Neue Deutsche Welle style, songs on how the lack of physical contact between humans messes with each of our mental states and emotions, but also punk pieces on how we treat the elderly in times of this current pandemic: “You are old-You have to go-It was lovely-Goodbye”.

Both aesthetically and formative, the Corona Passion Play is an interesting example of a theatrical response to COVID-19 and its implications on a societal, emotional, and psychological, but also an economical level. Well worth a look!

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