It's a tough crowd, even for God, as Passion plays cope with shrinking audiences

During his two hours onstage playing Jesus, Allen Garcia preaches to the masses, heals a leper, raises a child from the dead, rides a real donkey, suffers at the hands of Roman soldiers, carries a heavy cross and is ultimately crucified.

On top of that, he is required to belt out several musical numbers in this song-filled Passion play at the Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch. This marks the 20-year-old San Fernando resident's second year playing Jesus, and the physical demands of the role haven't gotten easier.

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"Some nights, I come home with bruises and scratches," Garcia says after a recent dress rehearsal. "It's very tough to play an iconic role. Without God, I wouldn't be able to do this."

Playing Christ clearly takes a leap of faith. And so does the job of producing Passion plays — an annual rite that has fallen on hard times in many towns across the country.

As Fox aims for a ratings bonanza from Sunday's live telecast of "The Passion" — a modern-dress musical production featuring pop stars Trisha Yearwood, Seal and Chris Daughtry — staged Passion plays across the country say they are facing dwindling audiences and a challenging financial environment.

Leaders at Shepherd, a nondenominational megachurch, say their parishioners help keep their Passion pageant well-attended. But for larger productions, many of which operate as independent nonprofits that rely on ticket sales and donations, finding ways to survive can feel like a Job-like burden.

Some are trying to make their shows more contemporary and audience-friendly, with new songs and shortened running times, while others believe that holding fast to tradition is the only true choice.

In the last 10 years, three prominent Passion plays closed their doors for good — the Black Hills Passion Play in South Dakota, the Atlanta Passion Play and the Glory of Easter at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

One of the oldest productions in the U.S. is "The Passion Play" in Union City, N.J. — a musical staging that marks its 101st season this year. Organizers said that they used to mount 18 shows per season, with an average of 1,000 people per performance at their 1,400-seat venue.

But in the last four to five years, that average has fallen to around 600 per show, with audiences consisting largely of people over 55. The production has five performances scheduled this season.

To give it a more contemporary feel, and potentially draw more crowds, the show is enlarging the role that women play in the story, including a new song for the wife of Pontius Pilate, according to Carl Gonzalez, artistic director of the Park Performing Arts Center, where the show is performed.

"We are giving the women in the production a much stronger voice," he says. "They are no longer in the periphery."

Other companies see a more proactive promotional strategy as the key to salvation.

"We have to really get aggressive with our marketing. We can't count on people to just show up anymore," says Philip Hobson, board president of "The Promise" in Glen Rose, Texas.

In recent years, leaders have shortened the run of the annual show to two months from five. The production nearly closed in 2013 when county finances imperiled its outdoor venue, the 3,200-seat Texas Amphitheater, which is county-owned. Show leaders eventually negotiated a 10-year lease.

"I'm optimistic. Whatever we have to do to get people in there, we will," Hobson says. But "there's no doubt this type of entertainment is a challenge."

Some cite the general decline in faith and churchgoing in the population overall.

"There is just not that strong, church-based, family faith-based audience out there," says Tena Fowler, who has seen four generations of her family work in "The American Passion Play" in Bloomington, Ill. "We used to have tons of churches and tour groups coming in. We're not able to entice audiences like we used to."

While some productions have shortened their running times to accommodate contemporary tastes — many now run two hours or less — "The American Passion Play," now in its 93rd consecutive season, clocks in at 3 1/2 hours.

The nondenominational show has stood by tradition and has largely avoided adding contemporary flourishes or vernacular, with much of the spoken text adapted directly from the King James version of the Bible.

"I hope that God's plan is to keep us going," Fowler says. "You just don't know."

With origins dating back to the Middle Ages, Passion plays have often served as a community unifier in villages and cities throughout Europe. Some were extremely intense experiences, taking a full day to enact Christ's final moments on Earth.

But today, the desire to attend has significantly diminished in large part because of the immediacy of digital and the availability of the 2004 movie "The Passion of the Christ" and other Jesus-centric entertainment at home, according to Todd Johnson, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, where his specialties include religion and the arts.

The decline is also generational in nature, he says. "The generation for whom it was important is fading away ... and it hasn't been passed on to the next generation."

The number of Christians, including Catholics, in the U.S. is waning, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped by nearly 8 percentage points to 70.6% in 2014, from 78.4% in 2007.

Millennials have a larger percentage identifying as agnostic, atheist or unaffiliated than any other age group, according to the study.

A drop in attendance was a prime culprit in the near-closure of "The Great Passion Play" in Eureka Springs, Ark., in 2012. The nonprofit reportedly owed tens of thousands of dollars, but a public plea for donations helped keep the doors open.

The outdoor production says close to 8 million have visited since 1968, and that it is more actively courting young audiences through volunteer programs that allow youth to serve as cast extras. It spends about $1.8 million per year to put on the annual show, according to tax documents.

Passion plays remain a highly visible part of Easter celebrations in Latin America as well as the Philippines. In the U.S., Spanish-language productions tend to be small in scale but they draw regular devotees starting at young ages.

"I grew up around it," says Maria Curiel, who has directed, with her husband, Enrique, the annual Passion production at the Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Riverside for eight years.

The production funds itself through food sales, raffles and car washes. "We see each other as a family. We do the hard work, and so we appreciate what we do," she says.

Throughout the country, actors who play Jesus vary widely in terms of acting experience and faith.

"I would say I have some faith but I'm not a religious person," says David Murgittroyd, a 31-year-old stage actor from New Jersey who has played Jesus for eight years in Union City. "I attack the role from an acting standpoint rather than a religious standpoint."

Kent Butler, 27, grew up with the Eureka Springs production, playing bit parts as a young boy before graduating to the role of Jesus. He also serves as the show's marketing director.

"I've been in more than 1,000 performances," he says, adding that some of his family members also participate in the play. "It just becomes a part of you."

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'The Passion'

Where: Fox

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 19, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Annual rite faces its own trials - Across the U.S., staged plays of Jesus' story are struggling with diminished audiences and finances." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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