(Note: I originally wrote this article for my previous blog and am reposting it as a companion piece for a new article. You can read that new article by clicking here.)
by John Ellis
The brilliant director, acting teacher, and theatre theorist Peter Brook opened his seminal book The Empty Space with the well-known sentences, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
To be fair, those sentences are probably not well-known to most people. But most people aren’t theatre artists. And in the world of theatre, those sentences hold a place of prominence and respect bordering on sacrosanct. Sadly, in my experience, while many of my theatre colleagues expressed love and admiration for Brook’s opening sentences, few took his teachings in The Empty Space with them as they entered in to the making of theatre.
In fact, it took me almost ten years as a theatre artist before I began working towards an understanding of Peter Brook’s words and theories, and ways to put them into practice.
Two questions haunted me and drove me deep into the thoughts of theatre teachers and theorists like Meyerhold, Brecht, Artaud, Grotowski, Barba, Boal, and Richard Foreman. Puzzling over the question, “why should people spend their money and time on live theatre instead of the movie theater?” and being artistically stymied by the constant refrain from directors and teachers to “trust my instincts” I began questioning almost everything I had been taught about the making of theatre.
When asked, “why should people spend their money on us instead of at the movies?” my theatre colleagues would counter with some version of, “because live theatre is immediate; it’s alive.” Except I couldn’t escape the reality that most live theatre seemingly does everything possible to erase the immediacy, embracing what Brook coined as “deadly theatre.”
The sets, the costumes, the lights, the very nature of the staging only serve to separate the world of reality from the world of imagination. Furthermore, the fourth wall concept has been almost perfected by TV and movies. For lack of a better description, traditional theatre competes in a market space containing options that are far better equipped to deliver a compelling experience within the framework of the methodology of the fourth wall construct. It’s no wonder that theatres are almost utterly dependent on taxpayers for their continued existence.
Continuing the challenge of my theatre theory, the droning direction from teachers and directors alike of “trust your instincts” brought with it the question, “how do I know that my instincts are trustworthy?”
My Meisner training combined with my love and understanding of play analysis gave me a solid foundation to begin successfully answering that question. As I did, it didn’t take me long to embrace improvisational acting, a skill and exercise that I mostly dreaded during the first few years of my acting career. However, I quickly fell in love with improv. More importantly, for the purpose of this post, I began to see improv’s value for non-actors.
Speeding through the rollercoaster that was the next decade-plus of making theatre, I concluded that God no longer had the art form in my future.
And, so, in 2016, when a friend asked me to come to South Carolina the coming winter of 2017 and conduct apologetic classes using role playing as the primary teaching vehicle, I had swept much of my theatre theory as well as my theatre knowledge gained through experience into the dustiest corners of my brain. As far as I was concerned, my theatre knowledge and experience were useless and acquiring them had been a waste of time.
This at least partly explains why I was skeptical of my friend’s idea. I initially failed to connect the dots with my dormant theatre theory. However, it didn’t take long before my inner theatre artist began to awaken and stir. As soon as the initial “performance” began, my love and understanding of theatre began to flood back.
Those two days at Southside Christian School ended up being two of the most rewarding days of my life, both spiritually and theatre wise.
Setting it up a few weeks ahead of time, my friend told the students in his Bible classes that an old friend of his was coming to talk to them. Combining with one of the other Bible teachers, almost the entire high school was involved in the sessions (I’m still not sure if I want to call them “performances”).
As the first day began, I sat silently at the front of the classroom watching the students file in for the first class. Since it wasn’t a normal class, the students’ energy was high, and they entered with a level of cautious expectation. Due to my friend’s premeditated vagueness leading up to the whole thing, many of the students quizzically stared at me, not really sure what to make of the long-haired bearded dude as they attempted to puzzle out what I would be doing.
After a few cursory announcements, my friend gave a very brief introduction and then turned it over to me. Most importantly, he cautioned them about telling their classmates about what was about to take place. “You don’t want to ruin this for others,” he cautioned. “The element of surprise is important.”
Somewhat surprisingly for me, over the course of the two days, the students actually followed his instructions.
I began by telling them about how I was born and raised in a strict Christian family with a pastor father and a Christian schoolteacher mother. Briefly explaining the “struggles” I faced being raised in a such a stifling environment, I peppered my memoir with some of the worldview questions that I had as a young kid that pushed me to atheism. After about ten minutes (may have been a little less), I concluded the first part of my memoir by confessing that I left Bob Jones University as a twenty-two-year-old atheist.
At that point, after again listing off some of my questions about God and Christianity, I asked, “How many of you have had similar questions?”
Most of the class raised their hand.
“Okay,” I continued. “How many of you have found answers to those questions?”
Once again, the majority of the hands went up.
“Good,” I smirked. “Then help me out. Share your answers with me and convince me that there is a God.”
At first, silence.
I pressed further, homing in on a girl who looked like she wanted to engage.
For the next thirty minutes or so, the students in that class waged brave, faithful battle with an “atheist.” Never backing down from my challenges, my far-more polished arguments and dialectic ability, as well as my insults, they pleaded me with to believe that God existed and to put my faith in Jesus. One girl, nearing tears, led the charge. She knew the Bible and she knew Christian apologetics, but she didn’t know them nearly as well as I did. Never once succumbing to anger, her concern for me was evident as she continued to engage, no matter how badly I beat her down.
The classes those two days were flex classes and, at ninety minutes, were longer than normal. At almost the half-way point, I paused and informed them that it was time to take a break. “When we come back,” I said, “I’ll tell you the rest of my story and hopefully we’ll end the class as friends.”
The students nervously laughed as they stood up and began to file out of the room. I was not expecting what happened next.
The girl, the one who had taken the lead, tentatively approached me and asked if she could talk with me. A little unsure of what was coming, I said that was fine. Over the next five minutes, she shared the gospel with me, pleading with me to repent and believe. It was all I could do to not break down in tears over the courage and love demonstrated by this young sister in Christ.
Managing a smirk, I interrupted her final plea, and said, “Break is over, time to get back to your seat.”
For the first time all morning, her face fell, and she looked defeated. Once again, as I watched her slowly make her way back to her seat, I had to muster all my ability as an actor to not break down into tears.
This time the students sat crestfallen, tired and defeated. Their energy was gone and most of them wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I found out later that throughout the two days, during the breaks, some of the students would go to their teachers sitting in the back and demand, “Why aren’t you helping? We need your help debating this guy!”
The teachers later confessed that those moments were difficult for them. They felt like they were betraying their students. I know how they felt.
As I began the second half, I picked up after I left Bob Jones University and told them about my slide into degradation and drugs, about when I walked to the top of a bridge intending to jump off and kill myself. However, as my story progressed, bits of light began to show through. The Holy Spirit’s working in my heart began to be a part of my story. As I continued, I could see the expressions on the students’ faces change from defeat to curious. I watched as the girl who used the time during the break to witness to me sat up straighter as her eyes got bigger and bigger and hope crept back in. By the time I reached the point where I told about how I repented of my sins and placed my faith in Jesus, she was openly weeping.
I concluded by saying, “At the break you left believing me to be an atheist. Now, I am happy to tell you that I am a child of God, repenting of my sins and placing my faith in Jesus.”
At that point, transitioning back to the discussion, I told them that we were going to go back through the questions and discussion. “But,” I promised, “this time will go much different.”
Working back over their interaction with me, I taught them some basics about Christian apologetics and worked with them on finding better ways to communicate with unbelievers. Over those two days, the session shifted and changed a little as the teachers and I analyzed and learned from the preceding sessions. I also stopped being surprised by the students who gave up their break (and even lunch) to witness to me.
After the class, many of the students came up and thanked me. Telling me about family members and friends whom they were concerned about, they shared how the session gave them greater courage and desire to faithfully speak up, as well as a better foundation to engage Christian apologetics.
As I drove back to Arlington, VA, I reflected on the sessions. One of the things that stood out to me was how much the sessions had confirmed for me the validity of my theatre theory and what I had been working towards. By God’s grace, I had spent two days making theatre that not only worked but that also mattered.
One obstacle that I foresee with adults is that I’m not sure that I can allow them to believe that I’m an atheist. I’m afraid that some adults will feel duped and, in their embarrassment, lash out. Also, along those same lines, I’m afraid that some adults (mainly men) will allow their exuberance to cause them to say things and say things in a way that will require an apology after the fact. While in the high school classroom, me being an adult helped tamp down on the desire to be disrespectful that any of the teens may have felt (if they felt that desire, that is).
One way around that with adults, I think, is to frontload the “audience” with the information that I will be stepping into the role of an atheist. As such, I will be saying things, and saying things in a way, that they may find offensive. I will then caution them about being careful how they engage me. By all means, they should be passionate and not afraid to engage, but they should be careful not to say anything they will regret later.
I see much potential value in this kind of interactive theatre. Without giving away my “lesson,” the opportunity to engage an openly antagonistic atheist in a safe-space is valuable. Being able to dissect and go back over the discussion, learning from missteps and mistakes adds to that value.
Moving forward, I’d like to explore developing this as a full program that I can market to Christian schools, youth groups, and churches. If you are interested in me bringing something like this to your organization, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Likewise, if you want more information, please let me know.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre; Deadly, Holy, Rough; Immediate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 9.