Supporters of Eureka Springs' Passion Play Work to Keep Hope Alive

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Mar. 4, 2013 12:00 am  

Since 2005 Kent Butler has held a part in the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs. His acting debut came at 16, when he played a Roman soldier. This season Butler will star in the production, which tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As key as playing the character of Jesus is to the story, it’s the role Butler plays off stage that could be most critical in reaching audiences in Eureka Springs. Butler serves as assistant executive director and handles marketing efforts for the financially troubled tourist attraction.

Money raised in December helped keep the Great Passion Play from shutting down in the short term. But with what one production official estimated is $2.5 million in debt, the challenge extends beyond keeping the doors open in 2013.

While the show will go on — a new season begins May 3 — Butler and others are working to ensure there is a long-term future. Impacting audiences through the “the greatest story ever told” is a noble cause, but one that can’t happen much longer without a better handle on finances, Butler said.

“We understand that we are both a ministry and a business,” Butler said. “Our business is ministry, and we can’t minister without taking better care of the business side. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now.”

News that the Great Passion Play was in financial trouble led to fundraising efforts that generated $75,000 over 10 days late in 2012. That money allowed interest to be paid on a loan and kept Cornerstone Bank from taking the 700-acre property in Carroll County.

As it became clear money was drying up, Butler told the Tulsa World on Dec. 15 that he was praying for a “miracle.” Things looked bleak.

A miracle came through the work of Randall Christy, owner of the Gospel Station Network in Oklahoma. Christy, whose network includes 22 stations, led a fundraising drive that brought in enough money to keep the bank from taking the property. It bought enough time to allow for a restructuring of leadership.

Christy, who said he grew up as a preacher’s kid and often attended the Great Passion Play, now heads the board of directors. He and the administrative team, including Butler, have raised an additional $50,000 in hopes of keeping the operation going through October.

Administrators, directors and crew and cast members are all working on a volunteer basis currently in an effort to keep expenses down. Some animals were donated while others were bought at discounted rates.

It all helps this year, but Christy, like Butler, is trying to think beyond this year.

Christy notes the need for a renovation of the 4,100-seat amphitheater. He’s hopeful an underwriter can be found for what he estimated as a $500,000 improvement project. Eliminating volunteer status for workers is something that the board would like to do in the future.



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