Dennis Elkins - Life in a Cardboard Box

Dennis Elkins was leading a humdrum life – a straight, married, middle-aged, white father from the conservative Midwest. But the death of his son, coming out as gay at 50 and throwing in his career to find a life outside of ‘normal’ changed all that.

His resumé includes performances at the Colorado and Utah Shakespeare Festival, Thingamajig Theatre Company, and Single Carrot Theatre, among others. No stranger to solo shows, Elkins delights audiences with his five-star performances in original works such as Tipping A Glass with O Henry and An Evening with Poe.

I asked him about the personal experiences that inspired A Trilogy – the musical, the comedy and the work of political theatre he is bringing to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Your shows seem to reflect on your own journey away from being an ordinary aging, white, straight, US dad. Tell us about the life experience they are based on.

I grew up in a rather conservative Midwest farming community where church and school activities were strongly encouraged. It was assumed, I guess, that children would grow up, get married, have children and take over the family businesses - a cyclical process - like the crops we grew. My hometown, population 2,500, was not racially diverse. Even the closest McDonald’s or Pizza Hut was 40 miles away. By the law of averages, as a white middle-aged man with roots in such an environment, I should be politically, fiscally and spiritually conservative with a wife and family.

In fact, I tried. And life came crashing down around me.

My life’s dream was teaching in a small Christian liberal arts college, to be married to my college sweetheart, have four boys, design my own home, have dozens of grandchildren, play golf and die in my sleep in my 80s. But life doesn’t play out based on ‘dreams’. In reality, I’ve taught at six institutions (only one was a Christian liberal arts college), am divorced, my one son died of a drug overdose at the age of 20. No grandchildren. I have no time to play golf and I’ve yet to die. I did design my own home, but after all the other losses, I couldn’t stay living there. Plus, I’m politically and spiritually liberal and I look forward to the day I can draw Social Security.

And, I’m actually gay and have been gay all my life - but have only ‘come out’ a little over 10 years ago when I turned 50. Yikes!

So, A Trilogy is my attempt to comes to term with my being an anomaly - it doesn’t upset me, but it does make me wonder if life would have been easier (or better) if I hadn’t deviated from the norm. Then again, A Trilogy is also my celebration of being an anomaly.

How come A Trilogy embraces several genres - a musical, a comedy and a political drama?

Good question! Writing and performing a trilogy was not my initial plan. But as we were developing the first one, box., my director, Karla Knudsen, was impressed with the number of random life experiences I’d had, many of which are humorous, and tossed out the idea, “You should write a trilogy ... three shows ... and one should be a musical”. I laughed, but here we are!

And, although I’ve always exercised my civic responsibility by voting and doing jury duty, I’ve never been one to involve myself actively with a cause. I’ve never participated in a protest or volunteered for a campaign - not that I didn’t want to, I just never sought out ways to engage in those efforts. But, when writing bag--, I felt compelled. At least once in my life, I needed to take a political/social stand and challenge my listeners.

There are things that intrigue me about each of the productions - With box., what is it that fascinated you so much about our relationship to physical possessions?

When my son Isaac died, my ex-wife had already moved to another state. So there were random cardboard boxes in the attic and basement that she didn’t take and I didn’t want. Isaac was cremated and when the mortuary brought his ashes to the house, they came in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box - I asked, “Where’s the urn?” “You didn’t order one,” was the reply. And when I started putting his stuff away, more cardboard boxes were needed. Sitting on the floor packing away books and trophies and stuff that held little value to me, I was struck with how much of our lives end up surrounded in cardboard - even our ashes. I knew I needed to explore some sort of theatre piece about our relationship with boxes - it was so bizarre.

Did you take the trip across India depicted in bag --, and did you find the epiphanies you sought?

Yes, I took a month-long trip through the very middle of India - from New Delhi to Pondicherry. Three weeks of travel and one week attending a voice workshop in Auroville. How random is that?!?!? I travelled with friends - two Belgians (one of whom studied in India for a time) and an Indian saddhu. One Belgian, Leo, I met in Vancouver a few years before at a conference for voice teachers. I hadn’t met the other two until I landed in Delhi.

Yes, I really was searching for a “sign” – anything that could help me decide if I was going to continue teaching or try something else. I’d been teaching college theatre for 25 years. I could continue, but it meant I’d stay teaching until they rolled me out on a gurney with a pen clutched in my dead fist. I knew there were lots of things I’d like to try while physically able. I just didn’t know if or when I could make that decision. I hoped India would provide a hint.

Nothing happened. There was no epiphany. For six months - long after I’d returned home - no epiphanies. Then, I wake up one morning, sometime in July (the trip was over Christmas), bemoaning the fact that I was stuck with no solutions and a new term starting in another month and thinking, “My god, Dennis, you went to India for a month traveling by tuk-tuk, train, bus, car and camel and you came home safe and sound and you can’t make one lousy decision about what to do with your life!”

Yes, I realised right then: that was my epiphany. I turned in my resignation the next day. I have never regretted that decision.

In blood (line) you celebrate breaking free from normal. Do you meet a lot of people who've got stuck in ruts they should escape?

One of my favorite cousins - ever! - once shared with me many years ago that after he got married and they had their first child, he was so happy and “satisfied” with his life. And I thought, “satisfied?”, is that like being “settled?”, that sounds so “stationary”. And somewhere else in my life I’d been told, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re automatically moving backwards”. That sort of scared me.

I tend to think of being “normal” in the same way. I always thought my life would be “normal”. Then I realised my life was going to be a lot of things, but it certainly wasn’t going to be “normal”. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve met many students having the same kinds of frustrations as myself - trying to find that “normal”- and I spent a lot of time trying to convince them, and me, that perhaps “normal” is a relative term. If everyone lived the same “normal,” life would be rather beige - yes, it’s a colour, but not a very exciting color.

And when you’re working, or teaching in theatre, you learn rather quickly that beige is important - it compliments so many other colors - but it doesn’t “pop!”.

Related Listings

A Trilogy: box.

A Trilogy: box.

Mr Dennis wants to know: why is our identity so bound up in our possessions? Are we throwing away our loved ones with their things when they die? Combining childlike wonder, adult … 

A Trilogy: bag--

A Trilogy: bag--

Refusing to join the Old-White-Guys Club, master storyteller Dennis Elkins travels through India searching for a divine life-affirming epiphany. 

A Trilogy: blood (line)

A Trilogy: blood (line)

‘I’m normal! I gotta be normal!’ Mr Dennis is convinced hard work and a god-fearing obedience to the rules is rewarded with a happy home, good job, white picket fence, and 2. 

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this article has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now