Relational Theatre: ‘Boxing God’

by John Ellis

Opening the card from Mrs. Doris Harris, my Intro to Dramatic Interpretation professor, I had no idea how consequential a role her words were going to play in my life.

“Misguided people have convinced you that you do not possess talent as a performer and storyteller. They are wrong. You are wrong. You are talented, and the lies that you hide behind whenever you stand before the class and perform are unable to mask that talent. I want to help you move in front of your fears and those lies and become the performer and storyteller God has created you to be. Please come see me during my office hours. I would love to talk with you.”[1]

After meeting with Mrs. Harris, I changed my major to Interpretative Speech[2] and decided to become an actor. Consequential, indeed.

For the sake of answering a potential question of why I was even sitting under Mrs. Harris’ teaching to begin with, I was only in the class because my current major, Pre-law, required at least one more speech class beyond the obligatory freshman speech. The thing was, I hated speaking in front of people, and I hated that class. One of my earliest memories comes from inside the pulpit in which I was hiding while my family was being introduced to the church. The laughing men on sitting in the foreboding chairs on the high platform were finally able to coax me out with candy. Throughout my entire childhood and teen years, standing in front of people and being seen, much less heard, was way outside of my comfort zone. Changing my major to Interpretative Speech was the last thing anyone who knew me would’ve expected. Becoming an actor had never been on anyone’s John Ellis’ Future Career Bingo card.[3]

Like all theatre programs, BJU’s had its weaknesses while I was a student. But it also had its strengths. One of those strengths was the emphasis on serving the story and the audience. I took that with me into my career, although, at the time, I was blissfully unaware of the seeds that had been sown, much less the fruit those seeds would produce later.

As much as I would love to recite the history of my theatre career and my evolution as a theatre artist, those interrelated tales must wait for another day. For now, though, and skipping ahead about a decade in my story, my theatre career, which had been progressing nicely up to that point, began to take a turn, owing to my evolution as a theatre artist. More importantly in many ways, as a new Christian my faith and evolving worldview began affecting my theatre theory, too.

I’ve written here, here, and here in a little more detail about the intersection of my theatre theory and my faith, if you’re interested in reading about it. While an unbeliever (and I’m speaking for myself, not for all unbelieving theatre artists, to be clear), I started out making theatre mainly for myself. I loved being on stage. I loved exploring characters and taking risks in rehearsals; it gave me a charge. And, yes, I loved the thought of potential fame and riches, even crafting my Oscar acceptance speech in my head while driving. Frankly, and somewhat unapologetically, I loved the attention; I loved seeing my face and name splashed across newspapers and on the evening news (far removed from the young boy hiding inside a pulpit). And yet, especially after I fell in love with theatre and letting go of my desire to become a movie star, I began to feel a dissatisfaction with what we – my fellow theatre artists and I – were accomplishing. In fact, I began to wonder if we were accomplishing anything beyond giving rich white people an excuse to dress up and go out for the evening.

While, at the time, I wouldn’t have attributed it to BJU, I loved stories for many reasons, and one of those reasons involved the communication between storyteller and audience, which began to rub against my self-serving motives. It also began to rub raw against prevailing/traditional theatre forms, purposes, and established, mainstream theories. After shows, I began to be bothered that all audience members would say to me was how much they loved my performance or the set or the costumes or the performances of one of my castmates. But never, not once, did an audience member talk about how the story resonated with him or her and how the experience affected him or her on an existential/spiritual level, or even a cognitive level, for that matter.

I began to ask myself, “Why am I doing this?”

To be sure, and by necessity, some plays were mainly for a paycheck, but even performing those I began to long for substantial conversation from audiences beyond the obligatory congratulations and gushing acclamations. I wanted someone to tell me that my art mattered to them beyond mere entertainment. I wanted someone to comment on the substance of the story and not my acting ability. What I had yet to realize was that I was beginning to long for a communicative and personal relationship with my audiences. We are all storytellers, reflecting our being made in the image of the Storyteller, and I believe that stories are one of the most impactful ways that we relate with one another.[4] Of course, repeating myself, I was years away from that realization, not to mention the ways in which that realization drastically altered my making of theatre.

Ironically, my dissatisfaction’s growth paralleled the rise of my professional success. As I began to love treading the boards in ways that transcended my own individualistic definition of flourishing, I threw myself into studying theatre theory. Stanislavski, of course. The Group Theatre: Strasberg, Adler, Meisner, and Clurman. Even a little Brecht, although he confused me in ways, thankfully, that prompted further curiosity. The usual theatre theory suspects, meaning that it didn’t take me long to discover Peter Brook.

The first two sentences of Brook’s The Empty Space stunned me.

“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.”[5]

Reading Brook’s claim for the first time, I sat and stared at the page for minutes. “What does he mean?” I tried to puzzle out.

Among theatre artists, The Empty Space is as sacrosanct a book as can be found. Yet, after many conversations with a wide range of theatre artists, I’ve concluded that many if not most of us do not fully understand how iconoclastic the book’s opening sentences are. We read those opening lines, and promptly forget them as we shoehorn our own theatre making into Brooks’ definition of “the Immediate Theatre.” For me, after years of making “deadly theatre” followed by years of longing for something better, at the moment, while reading Brooks’ words, even though I didn’t understand them, I knew that whatever he meant it was the proverbial overturning of the tables in the temple to theatre. I began to suspect that I didn’t really understand theatre.

By way of shortcut, I eventually figured out that Brook had distilled theatre to its essence: two humans in a relationship. What’s more, any story worth anything is in the relationship. As I alluded to above, it was only after I repented of my sins and placed my faith in the work of Jesus that I began to really understand the depths of relationship and the vital importance of storytelling for relationships. And, most importantly, how the Story is present in all stories, either through reflection or rebellion.[6]

Dominoes began to fall, aided by a deeper dive into theatre theory, especially the theory of artists like Artaud, Piscator, Meyerhold, Brecht (who slowly began to unfold for me), Augusto Boal, Richard Foreman, and Mick Napier. Eventually, the question(s) driving my work became, “How can I integrate the world of imagination (the actors) and the world of reality (the audience)?” Or, worded somewhat differently, “How can I foster real relationship between actor and audience via the touchstone of storytelling?”

Again, I’m skipping over quite a bit because I haven’t even gotten to my purpose for writing this article (If you’re curious to learn more about my theatre theory, click the links provided above or reach out to me. I love talking about theatre, if you haven’t noticed). The above question(s) drastically reshaped my approach to making theatre. And I grew, as a theatre artist and as a Christian. As consequence of that growth, I began questioning the forms of theatre, which allowed me to search and explore ways of making theatre that were as exhilarating and rewarding as they were frightening.

And that brings me, finally, to 2021.

I have begun booking performances of my one-man play Boxing God (I have four performances tentatively booked). I was prompted out of my artistic slumber by a theatre professor friend who reached out and asked if I’d be interested in performing for his graduate students. The students are taking his class on solo performances, an obvious intersection with what I do. To spell it out even more, what I do, how I believe theatre is best served, is to perform with a minimal audience (between 10 and 12) in spaces that engender a shared experience – a friend’s living room, a coffee shop table, a back patio around a firepit, etc. Traditional costumes and sets create artificial divides between the world of reality and the world of imagination. The fourth wall construct, a fairly new phenomenon in theatre, has contributed mightily to the disembodiment of the art as well as having created a long list of constraining rules and expectations for both actor and audience when engaged in the making and watching of theatre. As a general rule, theatre has devolved into a meaningless diversion stripped of its power and ability to reflect the Storyteller and His Story.

Viewing my audience as my castmates, I engage them directly in the process. Fully embodied. Fully invested emotionally, spiritually, and cognitively. While Brecht recognized many of the same flaws and problems inherent in “traditional” fourth wall theatre, he went the opposite direction than me. I applaud him for that, for pushing as hard as he could against the walls of rules and expectations that have been erected around theatre. Interestingly, and missed by many who claim to follow in his artistic footsteps, towards the end of his life Brecht lamented how misunderstood and misapplied his theories are. In a note added by the translator and editor John Willett, it’s pointed out that, “The doctrines laid down in the ‘Short Organum’ were by all accounts neither discussed not put into practice in the Berliner Ensemble. Regine Lutz, one of its principal actresses from 1949 on, told me in 1957 that she had never read Brecht’s theoretical works.”[7] In fact, (I’m unable to find the quote to cite it, but I’ll keep looking and add it when/if I do), Brecht pointed out that he never fully succeeded in putting his constantly developing theory into practice, which prompted a reflective eye-roll from him at how his theories are cited so absolutely by others.

I empathize, which, if you’ve studied Brecht, you find ironic.

I used to call what I do immersive theatre or interactive theatre but have decided that what I do doesn’t fit under either of those interchangeable monikers. I’ll explain.

I stopped making theatre about eight years ago, and not entirely by choice. For sure, I’ve had the occasional improv or movie gig, but all in all, I transferred my storytelling energies and desires elsewhere (the why’s and how’s deserve their own telling). A few years ago, a good friend, Michael, came up with the idea for interactive apologetics (you can read about that here), reigniting my love for theatre. A little over two years ago, based on the counsel of my wife and a trusted friend, I decided to throw myself into building on my interactive apologetics classes and create an experimental theatre company rooted in a Christian worldview. I put together a new website, published articles, and began working on Boxing God, which was to be my first show. I also envisioned myself as the go-to for theatre artists who are also Christians and who question the dictates of fourth wall theatre and desire to create meaningful, embodied theatre that glorifies God while building community through relational conversation via the making of theatre.

About a week after my new site went live, CITA (Christians in Theatre Arts) notified their members of my website and work.[8] I immediately began receiving emails and Facebook messages from theatre professors around the country. Several of them wanted to talk with me over the phone, and I was happy to oblige. The conversations followed a pattern that I eventually figured out: 1. Excitement about what I was doing. 2. A floated request for me to come speak to their students and/or perform. 3. A further discussion about my theatre theory. 4. The professors attempt to shoehorn what I said/believe into a determined and immovable definition of immersive theatre. 5. My refusal to allow what I do to be hijacked by what I believe is gimmicky, cheap theatre. 6. An obvious, and quick, cooling down on their part about what I believe/do. 7. A goodbye including the promise of a follow up call to discuss my coming to their college to speak to their students and/or perform. A promise I quickly learned was empty. Not a single one called or emailed me back after our initial conversations. Keep in mind, they reached out to me, not the other way around.[9]

At first, as the requests for phone calls rolled in, I excitedly told my wife, “This is it! I’m going to be able to teach my theatre theory and help create a experimental theatre movement rooted in a Christian worldview!”

However, the sudden coolness of previous interested parties overlapped an extreme crisis at the church where I was serving as a pastor which was followed a few months later by my family’s move to the Orlando area. My reinvigorated plans for making theatre was pushed aside, discouragingly so. COVID, of course, was soon to follow. Circling me back to my theatre prof friend’s request. I’ve assumed that theatre, for me, was dead. I guess not. My filmmaker friend Chris has been yelling at me for nearly a decade that theatre is not dead for me. We’ll see. My excitement is tempered by what I believe is an earned skepticism.

This raises some questions. For starters, for some, you are probably asking what is Boxing God? I’ll explain that in a bit. Of secondary importance, but a question I’ll answer first, what name/title floats above what I do?

As I wrote above, one of the obstacles my previous plans have crashed against (including the untold tales of the sudden end – pause? – of my theatre career nearly a decade ago) is my inability to push my theory and vision past preconceived definitions and ideas and the entrenched commitment to forms of theatre making that I seek to run roughshod over held dear by most theatre artists I talk with.

Self-labeling of this sort always makes me uncomfortable because it seems sillily self-absorbed, but it’s hard to ignore, whether I like it or not, that I am an iconoclast in the fullest sense of the word when it comes to the making of theatre. When I use the terms “interactive” or “immersive,” they carry different substance and weight than the growing mass of theatre artists who are glomming onto new forms of theatre because they’re innately dissatisfied (as they should be) with “traditional” fourth wall theatre.[10] Even my use of the label “experimental theatre” is at odds with the images and expectations conjured by it. The fault cannot necessarily be laid at the feet of the hearer. It’s partly the fault of the system in which we all (theatre artists and audiences) have been conditioned and catechized. It’s partly my fault for failing to find ways to adequately articulate what I mean in a way that exposes that system for the deadly theatre I believe it to be. And to be clear, it is partly the fault of those who listen to me. Whether lack of vision, lack of courage, or merely a result of their being at a place in their own evolution as a theatre artist that obscures their perspective, what I’m teaching and calling for requires a paradigm shift that comes with immeasurable costs – professionally and existentially.

With that understanding, and with the desire to better articulate my theatre theory and vision, I am going to tentatively title what I do “relational theatre” with the understanding that owing to Nicolas Bourriaud (whom I need to study more) that term may not work either. I’ve considered the label “incarnational theatre” but that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. “Liturgical theatre,” maybe? “Embodied theatre”? All terms that I believe reflect what I’m trying to accomplish but terms that come with their own linguistic baggage (a problem that exists for whatever terms I choose, I’m aware).

Anyway, and I’ll be writing more theatre theory in the attempt to give flesh to all this, but for now, and as a crass marketing ploy, I’m going to use Boxing God to help explain my theory.

After my move to California (you can read my story by clicking here), I found myself isolated. To make matters worse, from my perspective at the time, the onslaught of thoughts about God and faith increasingly overwhelmed my defense of getting high. I began to have conversations and arguments about Christianity in my head. By God’s grace, those conversations and growing existential angst culminated in my submission to my Creator through repentance of my sins and faith in the work of Jesus. With Boxing God, I want to have those conversations and arguments with an audience. Here’s how it will work/be staged:

In a setting that engenders relationship – friends relaxing in the host’s living room or back patio, etc. – and not a setting that divides, the vocational actor is part of that community (although the play is autobiographical the role can be played by other actors). Most likely being an outsider, not being a member/friend of the gathered community, it is incumbent on the vocational actor to invite himself into that community and organically begin the “scripted” part of the play, all while remaining in character (study improv, theatre students). There are moments in the script in which I’ve included deliberate interactions with the audience-cast members. Of course, maintaining the community’s building of relationship is more important than the script. The vocational actor must be willing and able to engage the audience-cast members when and how they feel compelled.

Upon the vocational actors exit, the play continues. The host (who will be prepped beforehand) will encourage the community to explore the question, “Did he make the right decision?”

Several questions remain bounding around in my mind. Questions that I look forward to exploring as I begin performing. Locking yourself into expectations and forms is anathema to my theatre theory. For example, one question I’m looking forward to engaging is whether or not the vocational actor should return at some point and be a part of the ongoing play/discussion. My initial instinct is he shouldn’t. But I can envision communities where it might be helpful. We’ll see, I hope.

One note – word of caution, if you will – for my fellow conservative Christians. While my interactive apologetics class is designed for Believers, Boxing God is written with the goal of fostering conversations between Christians and non-Christians. To that end, and considering the protagonist’s point-of-view, the script is blasphemous at times and contains language that some consider offensive. I make no apologies for that and hope to explain my philosophy regarding so-called objectionable elements in an article in the near future. For now, for those who may be excited about this and want to book it, I want you to know up front that it’s not sanitized in a “Christian art” kind of way, because it’s not “Christian art.” It’s relational theatre.

If you are interested in booking Boxing God, please reach out to me at jellis419@yahoo.com.   


[1] In the issue of full disclosure, I no longer have that note (that I’m aware of). While I can still see it in my mind – I can clearly see me opening my box, finding the card, and opening it right there – and while I remember some of the wording and all of the substance and sentiment, I highly doubt that I have quoted the note accurately word-for-word. I’m not sure it matters but want to be upfront with my readers.  

[2] At the time, Bob Jones University didn’t have a Theatre major, per se. The Interpretative Speech major was a combination of “traditional” theatre and acting classes and Chautauqua-styled performance classes. And there was a deliberate guile attached to the whole thing. Theatre was viewed suspiciously, to say the least, by religious fundamentalists throughout most, if not all, of the 20th century. The more respectable Chautauqua Interpretative Speech discipline made for a handy smokescreen that allowed Bob Jones Jr., the university’s founder’s son, to sneak a theatre program under into the school without causing worry among the pastors and teachers of BJU’s feeder churches and schools, not to mention the university’s stodgily conservative Board of Directors. Bob Jones, Jr. was not merely a theatre aficionado. Having studied at the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon, there was a time when he had been considered one of the top Shakespearean actors in the world. My point is that BJU’s theatre pedigree is legit.

[3] As an acting teacher, it was inevitable on the first day of class that at least one proud parent would inform me that their child was going to be my star pupil. “You’re the teacher, of course, so I’m sure that you can tell just by watching Susie’s exuberant and outgoing personality that she was made to be a star.” Except, I learned early on that it is usually the quiet kid sitting and watching everyone and taking notes with their eyes that is “made to be a star,” if only in the class. As far as the proud (and deluded) stage parents, I lost many students over the years for being honest and letting them know that it would be a waste of a lot of money to take their child to L.A. for pilot season. My theatre philosophy has never been conducive for making money, I guess is the point of this footnote.

[4] If that assertion gives you pause or causes you to raise your eyebrows, bear in mind that your definition of story may be much narrower than mine.

[5] Peter Brook, The Empty Space (New York: Touchstone, 1968), 9.

[6] For the record, a story being in rebellion against the Story doesn’t mean that story is off-limits to Christian theatre artists and Christian audiences.

[7] John Willett, end note included in “From a Letter to an Actor” Brecht On Theatre trans/ed. John Willett (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 12th printing 1976), 236.

[8] Which is ironic since the founder of CITA and I butted heads years ago over theatre theory.

[9] For a brief moment, in their excitement, a group of them concluded that I should be tasked with writing a textbook on Christian experimental theatre that could be used in their classes. An idea I found flattering but one that I knew would be dead in the water owing to the fact that no legitimate publisher would pay someone with only a high school diploma to write a college textbook. Having learned that in theatre you let others say “no” for you, I didn’t do anything to shoot down the idea. As written about in the above paragraph, the idea died along with their interest in me.

[10] For any theatre artists reading, I trust you understand that theatre in the round and even theatre in found spaces is still, by and large, “traditional” fourth wall theatre. It doesn’t have to be. It shouldn’t be. But that’s my point.

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