Dennis Elkins, the popular Fort Lewis College professor and former chairman of the Drama Department, is coming back to town with his solo show: ‘box.”
Autobiographical in nature, “box.” has been seven years in the making and was triggered by the untimely death of Elkins’ son, Isaac. The young man’s cremains were delivered to Elkins in a box, and it was that shattering experience which ultimately led to the writing and performing of this theatrical piece. Last year, Elkins premiered “box.” in Savannah, Georgia, took it to his hometown in Kansas; then Seattle; Nashville, Tennessee; Cape Town, South Africa; Pagosa Springs; and last fall in New York City as part of the United Solo Festival.
At 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 1, Elkins will present two performances of his work at Durango Arts Center. Co-sponsored by The Grief Center of Southwest Colorado and Durango Friends of the Arts, the program has been organized as a gift to the community and will benefit both nonprofits. Later this summer, Elkins will perform ‘box.’ in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Long before Elkins left FLC, “box.” was well underway and played a large part in his decision to move on.
“If not now, when?” is what Elkins simply said when asked why he left his tenured position at the college.
An Equity actor and director, Elkins was a boon to FLC. He arrived with a doctorate in theater, 25 years of college-level teaching experience and professional stage credits from New York to Denver and abroad. But at 58, he said he came to a big decision: “to tackle an acting/directing career on a big competitive scale. This ‘leap’ has been a big learning curve for me. Every audition I go to now is for people who don’t know me, have never heard of me, have never seen me before – and it can be petrifying. If I ever went back into the classroom, I’d have so much more information to share with my students.”
Elkins now makes the Harlem district of New York City his home base. “That’s where I get my mail,” he said. “And ‘box.’ has proven to be more than I bargained for – to be much more revealing than I ever dreamed. What started as an attempt to answer the question for myself: ‘Is this what our lives are reduced to, just a cardboard box?’ has opened up so many more questions and emotions in the people who come to share in my show.
“I’ve found that regardless where I perform it, whether in the States or South Africa, audiences are drawn to the similarities in their lives: the sense of loss, the physical objects passed down through generations, the things that we need to surrender, the need to move forward after suffering defeat. It’s a very cathartic piece of theater.”
Last fall, when Elkins performed “box.” at the Pagosa Springs Performing Arts Center, a group of Durango fans drove over to see it. In the talkback after the show, Elkins revealed how long the piece had been percolating in his mind, since the death of his son.
“I had to pick up all his things,” Elkins said after the Pagosa performance. “And that’s where the idea about the process of packing and unpacking boxes began. I worked on it (the play), then shelved it for about five years. I didn’t know how to end it.”
Over the next year and a half, Elkins said, the process of figuring out an ending and how to incorporate other losses and life shifts evolved. And, he got wise counsel, he said.
“My collaborator and director for my show, Karla Knudsen, was a colleague from my days at Savannah College of Art and Design. Karla and I had started this piece in the spring of 2012, but due to my commitments at Fort Lewis and her busy schedule, we just couldn’t find a mutual time to complete it,” he said. “I promised myself, however, that as soon as I stepped out of the classroom, I had to finish my play.
“To be honest, I can’t say leaving Fort Lewis was the best decision I’ve ever made – it certainly has not been my worst. I’ve always been of the mind that decisions are made in the moment and based upon the knowledge we have – as well as the dreams we want to fulfill. I look back on a very fulfilling career in high education and figure I still had several years of an active career doing something else.
“Some people might have thought I was crazy, or crazier, but I don’t regret the decision. Not at all. I’ve been having a whole new learning experience – learning about life in a completely different way and loving the opportunity,” he said.
Currently, Elkins is rehearsing a new musical satire based on early black-and-white movie musicals, “With a Song in my Fists.” It will be performed at the Theatre Row Off-Broadway venue at the end of June. In August, he’s off to Edinburgh to fulfill a lifetime dream of performing in the famous Fringe Festival, the largest and most well-known performance festival of its kind in the world, and in the fall, he’ll direct “Oliver” in Tennessee.
“Other than that, my calendar is looking pretty open,” Elkins said.
Fans of Elkins’ many roles with his home-away-from-home, the Pagosa Springs Performing Arts Center, will not see him in the 2019 lineup of Thingamajig musicals performed in repertory.
“It’s because of my August commitment in Edinburgh,” Elkins said. “I wasn’t available for any summer season anywhere.”
But once in Scotland, Elkins said, he’ll start “shopping the show around again, to see where I can go with it. And, in the meantime, I’ve started working on another one-man show that I want to get up and on its feet in the next six to nine months.”
The title or theme will be revealed at a later date, Elkins said, adding, “Getting to do your own work like this is such a scary and yet fulfilling sensation.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.