The Thorn: Behind the Scenes and Beneath the Makeup

Note: I wrote this literary journalistic piece in 2014, when I was trained in airbrush makeup for The Thorn. Some of the information included may be out of date as the production has only continued to evolve and expand its outreach.

A long, unwieldy string of costumed dancers begins in the airbrush room, snakes through the door, and ends somewhere down the hallway. A row of three girls, hair at their temples pulled back, dresses flowing in bright colors—yellow, pink, blue—sit in folding chairs and close their eyes as we spray golden yellow bands of paint from the corners of their eyes into their hair lines, like the tails of shooting stars.

When their makeup is finished, these dancers, ranging from children to women in their late twenties, will go back to stretching their legs and chatting about last minute stage directions before rushing through the mega church to backstage, where they’ll wait for their cue. Then, they’ll scamper downstage when music gushes from speakers blaring through the auditorium that seats 10,000 people, referred to by New Life Church regulars as “The Living Room.” This space, which usually holds church services, has been transformed into a theatrical heaven where rows and rows of overwhelmed and intrigued eyes view dancers and aerialists, martial artists and stage actors.

The Thorn is a dramatization of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The emotional performance starts with the creation story and the fall of man, ventures into the politics of the Roman Empire, and opens onto the story of Jesus with Mary rejoicing over her immaculate conception. The rest of the story unfolds in graphic detail, and it ends with a montage-like scene of the disciples sharing the Gospel throughout the world.

As youth pastors, John and Sarah Bolin created The Thorn in 1997 in order to share the Christian message with high school students in a new, relatable way. By 2014, the performances have grown to include hundreds of cast and crew members, performing not only in Colorado Springs at New Life Church, where The Thorn originated, but also in cities around the country, such as in Denver, Fort Worth, Dallas, Kansas City, Sacramento, and Nashville. The audiences have grown to include over 20,000 people per show.

The dancers, along with the rest of the cast and crew, have been training and rehearsing their parts since at least January, preparing for the Easter performances, where they usually spend entire days at the church or other venue, switching back and forth between stretching, rehearsing, performing, and taking breaks to pray and eat snacks. Sometimes the Dancing Angels return to the rehearsal room and their ballet slippers have stains from the artificial blood that flies from the Jesus actor’s body suit when he is lashed by a whip. The girls laugh it off—by now, their shoes are a mess with the stickiness of such a production.

The representation of angels brings an awe all its own to the play. When the meta-narrator, John the Beloved or Doubting Thomas (the roles alternate every year or so, just as the play itself evolves), finishes the introduction, the auditorium darkens until all attention is centered on the Globe Angel, who walks under a spotlight with a glass globe, representing Earth. As she walks, the haunting soundtrack plays and a woman’s voiceover speaks: “In the beginning was the Word.” The globe is lifted into the rafters by a pulley system, and a bell tolls twice, leading into the “heaven” music, a beautiful orchestration that matches the soaring of acrobats on silk cloth that spills from the ceiling to the floor. I have always gotten goosebumps at this point in the production, whether I was in the audience or dancing on stage as an Angel.

But there’s a darker side to this supernatural representation when spiritual warfare is enacted by the actors casted as Demons. They wear torn up black t-shirts and sweatpants, and the makeup artists airbrush every inch of their skin in white paint and shadow their muscles and bones to look gaunt. In the play, the demons are always crouched at the side of the actor who plays Satan; they are like his minions, always present to fight the angels. They descend from the rafters in nets, writhe down the aisles and make gutteral noises at the audience, or leap on the stage with spring-powered stilts. They look inhuman, as we imagine demons would.

A twenty-something girl with hair teased into a burst of frizz, next in line for airbrush, plops down in front of me and waits for instructions. I tell her, “Raise your chin up to the ceiling for me.”

She turns her head up, and I spray a “V” shape from her earlobes to her collarbone. I use a plastic board to cover part of her cheek as I airbrush a shadow across her jaw line. Then I paint a black ray into her hair, blend the darkness onto her eyelids and into the crooks of her nose. One Demon tells the artist beside me, “They won’t let us go up behind people and scare them anymore. It’s so stupid. That’s part of the fun!”

Representing spiritual warfare in The Thorn is undoubtedly part of its appeal. While it strikes the fear of God in some, for many it has the effect of a haunted house. After all, evil is thrilling—it’s sudden and mysterious. I once watched the auditions for the children’s version of The Thorn, called The Crown, which several years ago played alongside The Thorn so that a less mature audience had the opportunity to experience the story in a way that wouldn’t be too intense. The casting director had to warn the teenagers and children auditioning that it’d be better for them to show that they could perform well as an Angel; everyone wants to be a Demon. It’s more competitive because it’s more glamorous. Everyone wants to be intimidating; being the villain gets you more attention than being the hero sometimes. Additionally, though the whole Supernatural cast gets the coveted full-body makeup, the Demons don’t necessarily have to have martial artist, acrobatic, or dance skills to qualify for the role, so there are always more people trying out for the Demon cast.

When I was a Dancing Angel in high school, a fellow dancer told us, when asked what her atheist husband thought of the play, “Well, he liked the demons. He thought they were cool.” In many ways, The Thorn could be seen as an attraction for Christians and non-Christians alike. The play has even been compared to Cirque du Soleil, with the addition of a storyline that’s heart-wrenching to watch. S. Watkins, from Colorado, wrote a review, saying, “My life was changed at The Thorn. I couldn’t stop crying—not a weeping but a gut wrenching sobbing.” However, the struggle to downplay the theatrics of the Demon cast continues to be controversial within The Thorn community. It’s important to ask, Are we drawing in an audience by encouraging them to get excited about, even comfortable with, evil? Do we want to generate chants of “More demons! More demons!” from audience and cast alike?

In some scenes, especially at the end of the play, the demons run, or rather slither and crawl, away whenever the power of God overcomes them. However, the demons are not simply there to be foils for the angels. They have a more complex role in developing the characteristics of evil. In the scene where Judas betrays Jesus, it grows intense with the screams and writhing of Tortured Souls and the demons flit about the aisles making creepy, guttural sounds. This, along with blinding pyros, unsettles the audience, but it’s undeniably a fascinating scene in the way it highlights the chaos of hellishness. However, it can arguably distract viewers from confronting the significance of this evil: Judas hanging himself from the guilt of his betrayal. The music shrieks to a hault, the lights go out, and the audience looks for the Demon who is running on all fours up the aisle, making animalistic sounds.

One girl returns to the airbrush room twenty minutes before the show. “Hey, can I get some more makeup? I saw my friend with lines on her neck. Can you give me that? And can you paint the skin showing through the holes in my costume?”

Jessie, who was a Demon last year, raises the girl’s sleeves and sprays her arms. She turns her around and highlights the spinal cords on her neck in thick, black curves. “Awesome,” the Demon says and then scoots out of the room before the first VIP tour comes by.

The Thorn might seem like a circus when you’re not whispering the Salvation Prayer in your seat during the sermon-filled intermission that follows the scene where Jesus is nailed to the cross, spilling the blood that gets on the dancers’ shoes. There are scenes reminiscent of a haunted house, tours, real tigers (some years back), stuntmen, acrobatics, everyone covered head to toe in costumes and makeup. There are merchandise tables in the lobby, like any business-savvy Christian concert, conference, author visit etc. would include before and after the shows. If the muscular, martial artist Angel and skulking Demons appeal to you, then you can pose with them for a picture. You can also leave with a Thorn t-shirt, water bottle, or bumper sticker. You can buy a DVD of the production to watch on a Friday night. You can get a selfie with Jesus.

“AMAZING! WOW! By far the Best Live Theatre we have ever seen,” remarks Dawn Christiansen, from Washington. With a budget of $175,000, The Thorn creates an experience unlike your average church Easter play. The production is worth seeing whether you are moved by the story or not—the theatrics are impressive and so much professionalism goes into the end product. It’s interactive in a bold way; when you’re finding your seat pre-show, centurions might harass you or little girls might try to sell you flowers. When John and Sarah Bolin set out to create The Thorn, their mission was to allow believers and non-believers to experience God in a powerful way, and this is still the mission of the majority involved. But does the high-quality production persuade the audience of the truth of Christianity, or does it only prove to the audience that even Christians can put on a good show?

John Bolin said in an interview, “The story of God should be done with excellence.” With tickets selling from $20 to $50, the Bolins, with the hundreds of cast and crew members who dedicate their time and energy year-round in preparation for this production, have built what was once a small performance into a major theatrical ministry…and spectacle. If you find yourself in the position of not being able to afford the pricey tickets, The Thorn does offer scholarships to go see the show. However, no longer are there free performances during the final dress rehearsals, where New Life Church members could invite their friends and family or anyone who might have otherwise not attended, who may have especially needed to experience this message of love and grace. Now if you want to invite your atheist coworker, you’ll have to be ready to shell out some cash or really play up the Cirque du Soleil comparison.

Now a tour of children, their parents, and their grandparents are walking by, tugging on their VIP badges and gawking at us as we pretend to paint the demons before the show, as if we hadn’t already finished a half an hour ago, right on schedule. “See? We’re not scary,” a Demon tells a child. The child returns a smile.

Costumes are on, makeup is perfect—everyone playing a role. It’s show time.

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