Unfinished Theatre Business

empty theatre

by John Ellis

The first time I truly stepped through the fourth wall while acting, merging the world of imagination with the world of reality, I was terrified. So much so, I almost didn’t make it to my seat at the table where expectant, half-smiling audience members sat, staring at me. Every instinct I had was screaming for me to stay behind the door jamb serving as a stand-in for the proscenium arch.

No bright stage lights. No break between seats and stage. No flimsily constructed set where I lived and which the audience was only allowed to observe from a distance. No tacitly agreed upon relationship that kept me over here and the audience over there. There was nothing to hide behind as I sat down and began the play, making eye contact with the audience as I spoke directly to them.

Not long into that opening performance of Notes From Underground, I was taken aback by an audience member, a teenage girl, who got up from her table and sat on the floor beside me. Shortly after she changed her seat, her companion, a teenage boy, still sitting at the table from where she had moved, spoke to me.

I don’t remember his exact words, but he asked about “my” sickness. As the Underground Man, I answered, and then continued with my lines, seamlessly, I’d like to think.

That performance jarred me, even though it’s what I had worked towards and wanted. Leading up to the opening, I made it clear in promo materials that I wanted the audience to interact with me. I preached my belief to anyone who would listen that traditional fourth wall theatre is dead and that theatres need to explore ways to combine the world of imagination with the world of reality. Leading up to that night, I believed that I was fully prepared to take the next experimental step in my transition as a theatre artist, leading the way for others to follow.

Except I wasn’t as prepared as I thought.

The thing is, after reflecting on that opening performance, I realized that my own existential failures that night and my fumbling moments of storytelling when thrown by the surprising insertions of my own desired storytelling devices was important for my evolution as a theatre artist. In acting, doing is more important than feeling. Being prepared was less important than moving forward.

Those who studied acting under me heard me say over and over that faith in the process and faith in yourself in the moment are vital to honest theatre. On the flipside, fear is the enemy of honest theatre.

To be clear, experiencing fear isn’t the enemy. All actors fear. Allowing it to inform the process and your instincts are when fear becomes the enemy. As the famed improvisational teacher Mick Napier is fond of saying, “[Forget] your fear.”

The opening night of Notes From Underground revealed a few things to me: 1. My growing understanding of theatre and theatre’s relationship with the audience as well as my continued evolution of the application of my theatre theory was on the right track. 2. While my fear of letting go of old theatre habits and safety nets was more entrenched than I had realized, I also possessed the artistic courage to continue moving forward and away from fear, away from deadly theatre, to steal a description from the great theatre director and theorist Peter Brook. 3. Audiences, while being uncomfortable with being asked to evolve too, possess far more courage than most theatre artists give them credit for. 4. I was no longer stumbling along in the complete dark; my artistic risk was being rewarded and the artistic path forward was becoming clearer.

I learned a lot during the run of Notes From Underground. Some of the most artistically fruitful times in my life occurred during the discussions that I would have with the audience after the performances. The performances themselves stretched me and grew me, confronting me with weaknesses in my own craft coupled with the choice to keep stretching and growing out of those weaknesses, no matter how much fear screamed at me to stop. I closed that run with the excited confidence that I was creating compelling theatre that was going to evolve in ways that I couldn’t yet imagine. As the show closed and I prepared for my next venture, I believed that I had found my artistic home – an artistic home that was going to grow.

Even now, I hear from people who tell me that my productions during that period are some of their favorite theatre going (and making) memories. A common theme is that I opened the door onto a form of theatre that none of us had really experienced prior to The Bird and Baby Theatre. What’s more, they were willing and wanting to continue to follow me further inside that door. Except before I got too far through that door, it was slammed shut on me.

As disappointing as it was to no longer be making theatre, something I love doing, the greater disappointment lay in the growing realization that I would most likely never get to look any further inside that door, much less enter the room. Knowing that I was going to be denied the opportunity to see where my experimentation could lead was incredibly painful.

However, it is not to be. Yet God is still good, and I am still incredibly blessed (spiritually, materially, and existentially) far beyond what I deserve. That doesn’t mean, though, that I still don’t wonder, still don’t feel the deep longings to make theatre. I don’t think that will every go away.

In the winter of 2017, I did have the opportunity to dust off my theatre theory and acting skills in service to an apologetics class for a group of high schoolers in South Carolina.

The students’ Bible teacher and I have been friends for over a decade, and he asked me to come down and lead apologetics classes. I agreed to do it and asked him to let me know what he had in mind. After a couple of weeks, he got back to me and said that he wasn’t going to tell the students much about me other than that he and I are old friends. At the beginning of the class, he would simply introduce me. At that point, he wanted me to slip back into my old atheism and challenge their faith. The goal, he said, was to hopefully get them to engage an “unbeliever” when they thought the stakes mattered.

After the initial “debate,” I would tell the rest of my story about how God revealed Himself to me and saved me from my sins through faith in Jesus. We would then go back through the “debate,” and I would help them improve not only their answers but their overall communication techniques, if needed.

To be honest, when he first told me his idea, I was skeptical. For one thing, I didn’t see how we could keep the “reveal” a secret after the first class. Secondly, and, from my perspective more importantly, I didn’t think they would engage in a robust way. I foresaw me standing in front of a classroom with bored teenagers staring past me as they daydreamed about being anywhere else but in that room. It’s a good thing I trusted my friend.

As I began working on it, I quickly realized that I was essentially producing a theatre performance using the same theories and objectives that I had used years earlier. In fact, in this instance, the world of reality and the world of imagination would be so blurred as to be indistinguishable. Still somewhat skeptical because it had been a while and I would be “working” with kids (never work with kids or animals), I began to allow a little bit of positive expectation to creep into my prep work.

When I was finally in the classroom, I took my knowledge of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed’s theory and techniques while massaging Boal’s Marxist dialectic out of it and threw myself into the performance.

To my surprise and joy, it worked.

In short, the few days that I was there reconfirmed my dormant belief that when the audience is asked to step out of a passive role and into the role of participant, theatre is a powerful tool. The students transformed from students into equal participants in an important conversation. In fact, when I went back to the school a year later, the students were still excitedly talking about those sessions.

In coaxing them into the “story,” the students were not just presented with information, they took part in it, taking ownership over their part of the story. In doing so, the “lessons” were embedded deeper in their mind and soul than if I had just stood there and lectured.

Humans, made in the Image of the Great Storyteller, are wired for stories. Stories are woven into the very fabric of our being. Sadly, much of evangelicalism has been hijacked by the Enlightenment philosophy called Scottish Common Sense Realism, a philosophy that believes that facts speak for themselves. That, of course, not only circumvents but denies the importance of how context shapes facts (not to mention that knowledge is revealed and not a product of human discovery). Because of the idolatrous worship of Enlightenment epistemologies, many Evangelicals view stories with suspicion. The pejorative “post-modernism” is frequently used when the importance of stories is mentioned.

I’m so very tired of hearing Foundationalism (the epistemology of Scottish Common Sense Realism) feted and promoted by fellow Christians. I long to be able to talk about stories and the power of stories with brothers and sisters in Christ without feeling like I’m speaking a foreign language or having to worry about being accused of being a post-modernist. Thankfully, over the last few years, much ink has been spilled by many different people lamenting the lack of appreciation for art, for aesthetically excellent storytelling, amongst Evangelicals. Lord willing, I want to continue to add my voice to that small choir.

While I don’t know what God has prepared for me moving forward, I do know that whatever it is, I can cheer, cajole, and push my fellow Christians to embrace their part in God’s Story, and, in so doing, embrace the importance of storytelling. I believe in the power of stories, and, no matter how much I try to deny it from time to time, I believe in the power of theatre. I pray that God would raise someone up to take the baton and continue to explore ways in which theatre glorifies God and confronts humans with their sinful condition and their need of a Savior. We need artists who are willing to step through the fourth wall and engage fellow Image Bearers instead of merely performing at them.

Soli Deo Gloria


5 thoughts on “Unfinished Theatre Business

  1. Stories are not “post-modern” as some would suggest. Stories are instead of a deeper, older magic – the magic of pre-modernity. The power of the story is to build the world-view – the interconnected web by which we learn to navigate the universe. That world-view built by story is then how we interpret the facts – certainly the context of the facts help the interpreter – but facts are always interpreted not by the context itself – but by the interpreter, through the world-view (built by the story) of the interpreter.

    It is why a Christian can look at the biological world and say that God must have made that – because he is looking at the facts through the world-view built by story. The atheist looks at the facts through the story of materialism, and comes up with another story to explain the facts (evolution).

    You are speaking my language.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John, I am ashamed that it has been months since I last read one of your pieces, and it was only that Michael Murphy drew our attention to this entry that I visited (and I am now commenting). As always, your writing is well-crafted, perhaps even more skillful than last I read. I love the depth of your ideas. I especially loved that you gave props to our high school in this entry. Keep up your great writing and Kingdom work, sir!

    Liked by 1 person

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