Cirque Meets The Passion: The Thorn Creator on This Immersive Show
Best described as Cirque meets The Passion, The Thorn is an immersive show that has played more than 25 years on stages around the country. Now you can watch the incredible performance on the big screen in theatres nationwide for a special 2-day, on March 6 and 7. We talked with creator John Bolin about what to expect, the powerful performances and the emotion of it all.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: I’m super excited to talk about The Thorn. Take us back to the beginning, you are a youth pastor in Colorado. How did you create this idea that came into The Thorn?
John Bolin: So Kelli, the way that it began, I was working as a brand new youth pastor. I actually was an kind of accidental youth pastor up, I don’t have a seminary degree, I don’t have a theology degree. My degree is in marketing. My wife and I moved to Colorado. We had a little outdoor retail store. We sold that to go to work with the church here in town, but I wasn’t a great preacher. I wasn’t a great speaker. So instead of doing a lot of preaching, we would do what we called back in the 90s illustrated sermons. So we do a lot of music and video and drama and that kind of a thing as a way to get young people’s attention. I remember there was one Wednesday night and it’s after the youth meeting. I’m sitting on the edge of the stage and there’s a 16-year-old girl that comes up, sits down next to me, and she just starts bawling and she holds out her arms and I could see where she’d been cutting up and down her arms.
And so I looked at her and I said, you don’t have to do that because Jesus did that for you. So I thought, you know what? Next Wednesday night, I want to do an illustrated sermon, a drama to show two things. Number one, I wanted to show the price that Jesus paid. There’s these young people that were going through so much pain in their relationships and their family, in their own mind with their physical bodies. And so I wanted them to know whatever you’re going through, Jesus understands because he’s been here, he gets it and he endured what he endured for us. When he was beaten and bruised and carried his cross and died on the cross, he wasn’t doing that for humanity in general. He was doing it for us in particular. I wanted the young people to know he loves you that much.
Number two, I wanted to communicate the reality of what I call the spiritual battle for the calling, the destiny, and the identity of this young up and coming generation. And so that’s kind of this spiritual warfare kind of side of The Thorn. So the next Wednesday night, we did the very first Thorn performance with those two things in mind, and it was not very good. Like the music wasn’t great, the makeup wasn’t great, the lighting was not existent. We had four people in the corners of the room turning up and down these little lamps trying to light the show. We have an urban legend that Jesus rose from under the grand piano. I don’t remember if it actually happened, but pretty much that’s how it felt. So it wasn’t great, but it worked. I mean, we had hundreds of high school and college kids that encountered Jesus that night for the first time, and it worked because God loves it when we tell his story, just he does.
So the senior pastor looked in the youth room and said, Hey, John, would you do it for the church next Easter? And the first time we did The Thorn, it was October 1996. And so the next Easter for the church, we kind of scrambled and changed some things and improved a few things. My parents were both professional actors at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. So I called them and said, what do I do? How do we make this work? And we did The Thorn for the church the next Easter, and we had thousands of people that came. There was a line of cars that couldn’t get into the parking lot, people were parking on the field and then crawling over and under the barbed wire fence to get into watch The Thorn performance. And that began about 10 years of doing The Thorn every year for this local church.
And we had as many as 40,000 people that would come in a season to see The Thorn. The cast grew to about five or 600. We had massive ceiling to floor sets. One year we had live Indonesian tigers on stage in cages. It was a huge spectacle. And then after that, we decided to tour with The Thorn, and then we can talk about what happened during COVID. But that was kind of how it began was back as a youth pastor to communicate how much Jesus loves young people and the reality of the battle for their choices, their calling and their destiny.
RM: Describe The Thorn for those who just say, it’s a stage play, or it’s a movie. But no, it’s so much more than that. It’s like Cirque meets passion, you say, because there’s a lot of different elements including those tigers.
JB: So yeah, people say, what is The Thorn? I can tell you it’s not a musical. So the characters don’t, like Peter doesn’t sing from the Garden. There are no Jewish line dancing in the show. It was designed for high school and college kids. So throughout all the 25-year history we have, every year we put it through that lens. If I can make a 25-year-old college student interested and lean in and really enjoy and be moved by the production, then that’s a win. I know that younger people will love it. We have older people that think they died and went to heaven already. So across the gamut, people enjoy The Thorn, but so it’s two hour immersive experience. There’s only one main speaking part. That’s the narrator who in the live experience, the narrator weaves the story together. And so you have a narration and then you have a scene or two that unfold on stage.
And the scenes are told with dance, movement, arts, aerial acrobatics, martial arts, actors of course that are going through and doing drama, a lot of choreography, special effects, video, all the different things come together to tell the story. My wife and I, early on in The Thorn years one time, went to Las Vegas and saw Cirque du Soleil their show O, which is at the Bellagio. And I remember sitting in that show and I was overwhelmed with how amazing it was. The music was great, and the costumes were great, and the makeup was amazing, and the set design was just tremendous. And I was like emotionally moved by this performance, and I thought to myself, this is not even a redemptive story and I’m so moved by it. And there were no speaking parts, but the story still was told really clear. So I thought to myself, I wonder if we can tell the Jesus story without having to use so many words and dialogue.
And to be honest, back in those days we realized that oftentimes in a local church environment or a volunteer theater environment, as soon as you give actors lines it either goes really good or it goes really bad. And so it’s sort of been a really good accidental blessing for us that the actors haven’t had a lot of lines over the years. So anyway, that’s a two-hour performance that includes all those different elements. Now, the filmed version, we changed the narration a little bit because in the live version, the narrator breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience and laughs with the audience and interacts with the audience.
But in the film version, we recorded it that way at first and it just didn’t feel right. It just didn’t feel like I was connecting. So we re-shot the narrator scenes as dialogue between this 85 year old John the beloved on the island of Patmos, and this 12 year old slave boy named Asher. So Asher kind of stands in for the audience perspective, and John gets to tell this little boy the story of Jesus and remembering his moments with Jesus. And then we flash back to whenever John has a memory, it goes to The Thorn live scenes on stage.
RM: I love that. Well, let’s talk about the screen version. So you have a Fathom Event coming out where everyone can have the opportunity to see this, whether we live near a city where you’re performing it or not in March, so exciting that it can be delivered in this format.
JB: Yeah. Kind of what happened with the film is in 2020, COVID hit and the live show, we were at the beginning of our tour, we’re on the West Coast in California, we did two cities live. Came to Colorado and we set up everything at our venue, and then the governor made the announcement that all meetings bigger than 200 were canceled. So the whole tour from there on was canceled. I remember going into 2021 and the whole tour never even started because at that point there were no public events. You remember that? Even sporting events had cardboard cutouts and people weren’t going to concerts. Broadway was shut down. It was really hard. I remember sitting on the couch and I’ve been married to my wife Sarah for 30 years, and really we do this together. And truthfully, she’s the one who makes The Thorn happen. And I’m not exaggerating. I’m like the energizer bunny that like, I’m the spokesman and the creative guy, I cause a lot of problems, but she’s the one who runs the show.
She makes it all happen. But I remember talking to Sarah and saying, I don’t know if we’ll ever do The Thorn again. I don’t know if we can go back on tour. And so that began to happen. It was a really dark season for us in 2021. And then about in the fall leaning into the Christmas season, we saw what Dallas Jenkins did with The Chosen Christmas special, and that was in with Fathom Events in theaters. And I remember looking to Sarah and saying, I wonder if the Thorn could be a Fathom Event. I wonder if we could bring it to movie theaters. That would be a way to capture it. And if we can’t go back on tour, we can still bring this story of Jesus in this creative way across the country. So we called Fathom and they said, yeah, we think it’s great because Fathom Events kind of began as a way to broadcast the performing arts around the country.
So Metropolitan Opera, New York Ballet, Broadway, if you wanted to watch those in Middle America in Kansas City or Omaha or Dallas, then you could watch it in a movie theater and still experience the big city performing arts. So The Thorn kind of checks both boxes of the performing arts, but also the new faith-based inspirational content vertical that Fathom had. So it was a perfect opportunity for us to do a Fathom Event. So we filmed it in 2022 and we just did a two city tour. And on both sides it worked phenomenally. The filming was amazing, and the live shows we had 10,000 people attend in two cities in 2022. So it’s like God was saying, Hey, I’m back in this with you. I know he never left us. We of course had our own fears, but God was there the whole time. And so we recorded it.
And now yeah, on March 6th and 7th, in about 850 movie theaters across the country, people can watch The Thorn live on the big screen. And so we’re excited or not live, but it’s recorded and edited for the big screen. And so we’re excited for that. People that have seen The Thorn before, when you watch it on the big screen, you’ll see it in a way that you never have before. The camera angles get you in the middle of the action. When we were planning to shoot The Thorn, we thought, okay, first of all, it’s always hard to capture a live event on film. It’s just not easy to do. And so I thought Hamilton did a great job on their Disney version, but it’s not easy. So we filmed for three days with no audience in order to get the angles that you could never get live.
So we had the cameras. So during the crucifixion scene, you’re on the stage, you’re around the cross. We have this scene we call the battle scene, which is the Garden of Gethsemane. When we imagine as Jesus praise, there’s this supernatural battle happening. And in the live experience, you just watch it from a distance. But on film, you get to be right there in the middle of the action when it’s all happening. So if you’ve seen it live before, the film version will be a really fun different view of The Thorn. If you’ve never, never seen it live, you’ll love the film version and you’ll want to go watch it live. So that’s our hope anyway.
RM: I love that. I kind of feel like it’s kind of like a football game. Right. When you go to the stadium, it’s so fun because everyone’s there, but nothing compares to when you’re watching it on TV and you can see what’s happening.
JB: You can see the action. That’s exactly right. Yes. Yes.
For more on The Thorn or to find Movie Listings and Theatre Tickets
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