Last night I dreamt of my Colorado hosts and today I am wearing the sweatshirt (photographed left) they gifted me upon visiting them a few weeks ago. I was in Colorado Springs over Good Friday to see The Thorn, a passion play of an acrobatic order. The Thorn has been performed since the mid ‘90s at New Life Church, which Ted Haggard founded and then left in 2006 amidst scandal. (meth amphetamines, alleged prostitutes).
The Thorn started off scrappily enough in New Life’s church basement with nothing more than standing lamps for lighting effects. Today it’s an ever changing multi-million dollar production, complete with pyrotechnics, dance sequences and song. Each year aspects of the show change—old iterations had John “the Believer” narrating the events, while the version I saw had Doubting Thomas describe the rise, fall and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Recently “branded,” The Thorn now has versions that happen at Seacoast Church in Charleston, South Carolina and North Heights Church in Arden Hills, Minnesota. More Thorns are on the horizon…
At New Life, a mega church that is “three feet short of a football field,” the audience holds up to 5,000 viewers and the night I experienced The Thorn there weren’t many empty seats. The performers, who are all volunteers, total around 1,000. With nine performances that means roughly 45,000 people saw The Thorn in Colorado this year alone. Before I left New York City for the Rocky Mountain state, these numbers and facts had been drilled in my head and were continually repeated to me throughout my stay by my lovely hosts, the director and producer.
I like facts and figures as much as anyone. And though immensely impressive, I kept wondering: why the number obsession? Hank Willenbrink, a friend who did his dissertation on Hell Houses and now teaches at the University of Scranton, told me that for Evangelical Christians numbers are very important. “The art comes second. What’s important is the amount of people who witness the event.” To that end, The Thorn’s producer/director Rob Stennant told me “What we want most is to communicate is the story of Jesus Christ. We just want to get the message out.”
In the case of The Thorn that means treating those bloody whipping and cross carrying scenes with full out force. There’s a method to this message. The Jesus character carries a 175 pound cross. When I joked, “Why so heavy?” I was sternly informed that Jesus suffered and so should the actor playing him.
The question I keep mulling over is how to best to write about this experience. (A complete article will appear in one of American Theatre’s fall issues). Snarky comments about Christianity are a dime a dozen and come off as cheap and mean. Why would I take pot shots at what is clearly an important cultural/spiritual event for many people? Nevertheless, I chafe at the thought of being some pipe-horn/mouthpiece regurgitating the fun facts and figures my hosts made sure I wrote down and repeated back. I think in the case of The Thorn, the medium is the message… and the message is a medium and there’s a lot of method acting … and it’s a great mess of art and agenda. In the meantime, I will wear the Christian sweatshirt and hope more articulation comes my way.
Your Two Cents: I grew up in a slightly religious family but in a highly secular town… The Thorn was my first-ever passion play. For many, I imagine Christmas pageants are first forays into theatre. Is that true for you? How have theatre and religion intersected in your life? Is theatre your house of worship?
Eliza Bent is an Associate Editor at American Theatre Magazine. When she’s not writing about theatre she likes making theatre.