Meet John Bolin, the Guy Behind a Most Unique Cirque-Themed Passion Play

If you’ve ever attended a passion play at your local church during the Easter season, I am almost positive that you didn’t see any Indonesian tigers there. That is unless you went to see The Thorn. Well, in the early days anyway. The show has ran for 25 years now and since then, it has changed significantly.

“Back in the day, we would build these massive three story sets that were literally 80-100 feet wide. It would take us three months to build the set,” says John Bolin, Executive Producer and Creator of this immersive production. “We would hire contractors and volunteers that would do all that. And I would just think to myself, ‘What can I do that I’ve never done before?’”

And that’s where the tigers come in.

I thoroughly enjoyed my recent conversation with John, who at the time, was on this year’s tour of The Thorn. He’s looks younger than his years. He’s passionate about this production which got its start many years ago in front of a youth group meeting. That first showing went so well, his pastor ask John to perform The Thorn again for their Easter services. From there, the stage production got bigger and bigger. John, with all of his zeal, was driven to continue to not only make the show better, but provide something that could keep the attention of teens.

“I remember being in a meeting discussing the gladiator scene and I thought, ‘what would you have in an arena in a Roman colosseum’ and of course, there were all these stories of lions and tigers in the arenas,” says John. “And I thought, how cool would it be to have tigers? And so I started Googling ‘Colorado Tigers’ and I found this large cat rescue outside of Colorado Springs. I emailed them asking, ‘Hey, do you have any Indonesian tigers that we could use for our performance?” That must have sounded crazy. I think a lot of it sounded crazy. But the guy said, ‘Yeah we do have these tigers, but we can’t let them off the property.’ And so, I said, ‘What if we built iron cages for these tigers and he’s like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So, we built these massive circus-style cages with wheels. He brought the tigers out and we had them on stage. Thinking back, that had to be crazy. The liability had to be through the roof. But we fortunately had no incidents and it’s a great memory now.”

The New ‘Thorn’

There are no tigers – of any kind – in today’s production of The Thorn. In fact it’s almost completely different. In the early days, it was mostly a large Easter pageant with nearly 600 people participating. Today it has become more like a show you might see on Broadway or a large theatre. For the uninitiated, The Thorn is an incredible show and one unlike any you’ve ever seen.

“Some people ask, ‘What is The Thorn? Is it a movie? Is it a stage play? Is it a musical?’ It’s not really a musical. Peter doesn’t sing from the garden and there’s no Jewish line dancing.” Explains John. “It is an immersive, live experience that’s been compared to Cirque du Solei meets The Passion of the Christ.” In fact, John says that he was inspired to change The Thorn after watching a performance done by Cirque du Solei. “The Thorn uses movement arts, dance, music, big visuals, special effects, performance arts, martial arts, acrobatics and acting to tell the narrative about creation, the fall, the birth of Jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus and the resurrection. And then it ends with a New Testament call to make an impact in the world.”

John tells me that in the early days of the show, they would take anyone that they could get. Today’s production features a much smaller cast and crew but is now filled with really talented people in the area of aerial acrobatics, dance and music. And they have come from all over from Seattle to L.A. and from Miami to New York.

“When really talented performers discover that there’s a way that they can use their talent and combine that with their faith, they are so excited. So now, our recruiting net has gotten much wider and we use all of the typical recruiting methods. Besides that, we recruit from circus performers, actors, live stage and even television and film actors.”

The Thorn for All People

For years now, the touring show performed only at large churches big enough to present it. This year, however, the focus has shifted.

“My wife and I decided that we want to bring this story to the public square because we think that the story about God’s love is for everyone,” says John. “We don’t anyone to [miss] The Thorn because it’s at a local church.”

Sometimes a church building itself can be a turn-off. Some people don’t feel comfortable viewing a performance at a church that is not their denomination. Others who don’t consider themselves to be religious, would feel uncomfortable there. And then there are those who have their own baggage of bad experiences at a former church.

“Whatever the thing is, I want them to feel really free to come to The Thorn,” says John. “This year, we are performing in all secular performing arts centers and arenas and it’s been awesome to watch. It’s really want we want to do moving forward. That’s kind of our model.”

And it appears to be working. Performances have sold out in Dallas, Denver, Houston and San Antonio. John tells me that he’s been pleasantly surprised just how well-received the show is. Some people who have seen the show already has season tickets and The Thorn was part of that package. Others showed up out of curiosity. Even the ushers and ticket-takers have been moved by what they’ve seen.

“I’m telling you, there have been several times at each venue where I was cleaning up after a show, and an usher or ticket-taker [has come over to me with] tears in their eyes expressing gratitude,” shares John. “We had one venue manger in one of the cities who was a really great Jewish guy, so he’s clearly not a Christian, but he was so grateful for the way that we presented this story of love.”

There’s no bait-and-switch either.

“There’s no signing up to go to a church, there’s no alter call environment,” says John. “We’re presenting this story and letting people respond to it the way that they want to. It’s the most inclusive story in the world. And that’s what we want it to be.”

This year has been big for The Thorn crew for another reason as well. In addition to the traveling show, the show has been presented in theaters through Fathom Events and currently (at least through the end of April) you can watch the movie version in your home through what they call “virtual cinema” which you can watch on your TV using Chromecast, Apple TV/Airplay, Roku, or HDMI. I’ve seen the movie myself and was really impressed. In some ways, it’s better than seeing the show in person.

In 2022, John and his team filmed the production in Denver for three days with five cameras capturing close up scenes that wouldn’t be possible if they were shot with a live audience. And then they shot an additional three days in Los Angeles filming a new storyline featuring John the Beloved and Asher, a young thief, living in exile. During their discussions, John tells Asher the story of The Thorn serving as a narration to the story.

Carter Rockwood as Asher (The Thorn)
Jim Miles as John the Beloved (The Thorn)

While Jim Miles (John the Beloved) is really good in the movie, it is Carter Rockwood (Asher) who almost steals the show.

“He kind of came out of nowhere,” says John. “We must have auditioned 25 or 30 kids and it was coming down to the wire. [Carter] had the right look. There was a little bit of mischievousness in him. He wasn’t so old that he seemed too mature. He was young enough that he was still a kid who still had that sense of wonder but could carry the weight of his own story. He did a phenomenal job. Hopefully this will become a breakout role for him. This was his first big screen opportunity even though it’s a limited run, it’s still a big opportunity.”

Not Just for Easter

Given the fact that John doesn’t see The Thorn as just an Easter tale, his team will be hitting the road again this fall traveling to the Northeast (Washington D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Minneapolis) and again next spring hitting the west coast from San Diego to Seattle.

“And it’s changing,” says John. “It’s a living, breathing thing. I think that in five years, The Thorn will look different than what it looks like now. And that is part of the joy asking how we can continue to evolve and tell the story in new and creative ways. How can we continue to engage a young, sometimes skeptical, sometimes cynical generation to really stop and consider this story of God and how it could maybe intersect their story?”

I ask John if there were any elements that they’ve tried that just didn’t work. He laughs and tells me that every year they find that there has been at least one decision that later makes them scratch their heads and ask, “What were we thinking?” I ask him for some examples. He tell me how they lit a guy on fire once.

“One year we got a guy on fire – on purpose. We had a whole flame suit and we put him on fire. And then we thought, why are we doing this? It’s doesn’t make sense. There’s no reason for that. Just because we could, you know? There’s music that will only last one year because it just didn’t hit the way that we wanted it hit. I could probably make a list of a dozen things that we tried that didn’t work. It’s kind of like those Indonesian tigers. I would probably never do Indonesian tigers ever again. I think that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Find out more information about The Thorn traveling tour shows, virtual cinema and more here.

Main image: John Bolin; all images courtesy of “The Thorn”

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