Oberammergau put on its first Passionspiele (Passion Play) in 1634 to give thanks for being spared from the plague, and the townsfolk have been staging the same 16-act drama, depicting Christ’s journey to the Cross, almost ever since. The whole town participates, with a cast of 2,000 (actors must be natives or have lived in the town for at least 20 years). Non-actors work behind the scenes to build sets and sew costumes—one thing they don’t do is make wigs or beards, since appearance-altering props are not allowed in this realistic portrayal.
In extreme adherence of the age-old theatrical ploy to always leave the audience wanting more, they stage the 5 1/2-hour epic only once every decade (in years that end in 0) in a much-anticipated season that runs from mid-May to early October.
In the years between Passion Play performances, however, the theater does not remain dark; it’s a much-attended venue for other drama, film, and music. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes tours show off stage mechanics and the costumes and sets used for the big show. Tickets for the guided tours (some in English) include admission to the Pilatushaus workshops and the sophisticated little Oberammergau Museum, where exhibits show off the town’s woodcarving and also include rotating exhibits, often of contemporary German artists working in various media.