From Calgary to Calvary: What happens when an agnostic is cast in Canada's largest Passion play?

When he was cast as Herod in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play, Richard Kelly Kemick, an agnostic, found himself immersed in conversations about faith and surrounded by believers. Despite their differences, Kemick was startled by how much they had in common.
Richard Kelly Kemick is the author of I Am Herod. He was cast as Herod in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play. (Litia Fleming)

In Drumheller, Alta., author Richard Kelly Kemick discovered that Jesus Christ and the dinosaurs walk together — well, kind of, sort of. 

In the small town of 8,000 people, located 90 minutes northeast of Calgary, tourists flock to the vaunted Royal Tyrrell Museum, Canada's only institution dedicated entirely to paleontology.

What's Drumheller's other main attraction? An annual theatrical adaptation of The Greatest Story Ever Told

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play (CBPP) is North America's largest production of its kind — a dramatic retelling of the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Trailer of the Canadian Badlands Passion Play 

The production, which has been mounted every year since 1994, has a cast of more than 100 volunteer actors, an operating budget of nearly $1 million, and over 15,000 audience members in attendance every year. 

Despite having grown up less than two hours from Drumheller, Kemick, 30, didn't know the play existed. Once he learned of it, his interest was piqued.

"I couldn't believe that such a massive production was happening so close to me, and that I'd never heard of it," he said. 

Kemick, who is a self-described agnostic, said he found himself searching for a spiritual outlet during the summer of 2017, when he was going through a time of "unmet desire and existential dread." 

Kemick was educated in Calgary's Catholic school system, but he was living a secular existence when he decided to resubmerge himself in an environment where faith was paramount. 

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play (CBPP) is North America’s largest production of its kind — a dramatic retelling of the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. (Litia Fleming)

The writer signed up for the CBPP because he wanted to remind himself of religion, and to "wander back to the borderlands of belief."

His experience resulted in I Am Herod, a humorous, offbeat and occasionally irreverent memoir that recounts his curious summer, as he camped in an abandoned baseball diamond at night and immersed himself in a staging of the gospels during the day. 

Author cast as Herod 

After auditioning for the play, to Kemick's surprise, he was cast in the role of Herod, the character who he describes as "the Bond villain of the New Testament."

"Scripturally speaking, Herod is known primarily for his craven abandonment of Christ to the crucifying mob," he said. 

Throughout the summer, Kemick heard cast members repeat the phrase, "Roles come to those who need them." And the more he rehearsed, the more Kemick connected with the character of Herod.

Richard Kelly Kemick was cast as Herod in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play, whom he describes as the Bond villain of the New Testament. (Litia Fleming)

"I believe a lot of his devilishness comes out of the fact of his own struggles with spirituality, his own struggles with faith... wanting to believe something quite badly but also feeling it goes against the grain of who he is," Kemick said. 

Kemick, who divides his time between Calgary and Rossland, B.C., told Tapestry that he was not prepared to tread the boards in Alberta's Bible Belt. It was an immersion into a cultural world far different than the one Kemick was accustomed to. 

"I think the largest change for me was that I went from an environment that's quite secular to one in which religion was the main topic of conversation — the main point of commonality between all parties."

Most actors had 'spiritual connection' with production

The author said at times he felt like he was in over his head, in the sense that all of his fellow actors were believers and he was an agnostic.

"I don't think I realized the depth of the commitment that I was making," he said.

Richard Kelly Kemick documented his experience in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play in his 2019 book I am Herod. (Book cover design by Chris Andrecheck / Goose Lane Editions)

"What we were doing was so absurd — volunteering in the middle of the Badlands in this apocalyptic heat, putting on this play as best we could, pretending to be in the New Testament," said Kemick. 

"There is a belief amongst the actors that because the play is not just an artistic expression but a spiritual one, that there is a larger connection [that] they have with the roles that they are given each year."

Despite how detached and remote the world and atmosphere of that summer were from his own life, Kemick said he was startled by how much he had in common with the other actors.

"We were wrestling with the same theological and philosophical questions, yet we were expressing them in very different ways," he said.

Each Sunday before rehearsals, and throughout the run of the play, cast members participated in a worship service, which entailed people spending an hour saying nice things about one another. 

Kemick described the experience as "unbelievably beautiful."

Ultimately though, it wasn't enough for Kemick to adopt a religious outlook. 

"Every time I felt myself kind of buying into it in earnest — that yes, I will believe in a larger power, I will become spiritual — the absurdness of it all just kind of struck me," he said.

I Am Herod is published by Goose Lane Editions.