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"Sweet & Lucky" was Denver's first large-scale foray into immersive and experiential theater. Photo courtesy of Adams Visual Communications

Immersive Theater Takes Off In Denver

Upcoming productions ask the audience to move with the actors—and, sometimes, participate.

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“Experience” is the buzzword of the millennial generation. We want experiences over things; we create Honeyfund accounts instead of traditional houseware registries for our weddings; we book Airbnbs instead of hotels because we can live like a local in whatever city we’re visiting, instead of being, well, a visitor.

That trend has tipped over into the world of theater, too. Immersive/experiential/site-specific (whatever you choose to call them) performances are becoming increasingly popular across the country. There’s no set definition, but typically these productions are held in nontraditional spaces and the audience, in some way, becomes part of the story. These shows aren’t new—Sleep No More and Third Rail Projects‘ Then She Fell have both been running for about five years in New York City, and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has brought the experience to Broadway—but the Mile High City got its first big taste of the concept when Sweet & Lucky premiered last spring. (The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) commissioned Third Rail Projects to create the work.) Held in a warehouse on Brighton Boulevard, audiences moved through the space as the sets and performers immersed them in the story with all of their senses. The 48 originally scheduled performances sold out, and DCPA extended the run by six weeks. That was followed by Travelers of the Lost Dimension, which ran earlier this year.

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“People in Denver and Colorado love experiences. We love hiking; we love going to Red Rocks. To be able to provide theater that is more active, I think, is really appealing to a lot of people who have either grown up in the Colorado lifestyle or have chosen it,” says Charlie Miller, curator of Off-Center, DCPA’s experimental arm. “Sweet & Lucky was so successful on so many fronts that it really encouraged and inspired us to keep developing working this format.”

Off-Center has been playing with performance—where it’s held, how the audience experience it—since it launched seven years ago, and this year it’s tackling a new challenge: musicals. The Wild Party, a reimagined take on Michael John LaChiusa’s jazz musical of the same name, opens in October at the Hangar at Stanley MarketplaceAttendees are “cast” as guests at the party—they’ll be seated on couches and furniture—in an apartment in the Roaring Twenties. (Costumes are encouraged but not required.) “We’re fleshing out the world in three dimensions and putting the audience right in the middle of it,” Miller says.

But it’s not just Denver’s biggest theater organization taking theatrical chances. Patrick Mueller, artistic director of Control Group Productions, has a long history of presenting dance and movement beyond the stage. (He also acted in Sweet & Lucky and is choreographing The Wild Party.) Most recently, Control Group presented Neverhome, a site-specific contemplation on migration and displacement that took audiences on an outdoor walking tour of downtown Denver. “People in this area take great pride in the natural environment,” Mueller says. “Having an opportunity to both see art and take a lovely walk through their city was a real treat.”

These types of experiences are becoming “more valuable,” Mueller says, adding that the reduced spending on set design and space rental also makes these shows more budget-friendly. “Arts funding really has not recovered since the recession—it has not regrown along with the economy and the stock market,” he says. Experiential productions like neverhome allow him to stay on budget while paying performers more. “I don’t think we will never perform in a theater again,” he adds, “but I think the public site and found environments that we can create immersive experiences within are at the heart of what we’ve been doing and where we’re headed.”

Beyond theater and dance troupes are organizations like Moxie Luxe, a new “immersive events company” that is introducing itself to Denver with “Ordinary World” on Saturday, September 16. Founder Kara Duepre, a Las Vegas native, wanted to create an exciting night out for adults who are over 30 and over the club and bar scene. “Ordinary World” is a sophisticated, five-hour sensory bomb of performances and moments, including light shows, dance, and aerialists—some of which will be presented to the whole group, some of which will only happen in specific areas. There’s a bar, too, of course. “It’s choose your own adventure,” Duepre says. Unlike Sweet & Lucky, “Ordinary World” is “more party meets performance,” she says. “It’s almost like somebody walking into a haunted house and being able to explore every room on their own and there being all these surprises.” Duepre would like to hold regular events, and even purchase a venue for Moxie at some point, but for right now, you’ll need to watch the website for future dates. Look out for an entirely different show to be held in November.

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More people jumping on the bandwagon doesn’t seem to be tiring audiences. One of the most intriguing aspects of these productions is that no two experiences are alike. You may attend with a friend and both be taken to separate parts of the performance, or your attention may be drawn in one direction while his is called in another direction. It fosters conversation long after the show. It’s a social outing—drinks often included!—without having to go to yet another bar.

“What we create is a live moment that is totally authentic and unmediated and that you can’t replicate on the screen,” Off-Center’s Miller says. “I think people crave that kind of emotional and intense human interaction because so much of our day is in front of a screen, or communicating with people from a screen. It’s a rarity to have these two-hour experiences where you don’t have that—and you don’t want to have that—because what’s around you and the world you’re thrown into is so interesting and compelling.”

So far, these organizations say that audiences—of all ages—are responding. (One of the goals, of course, is to diversify and broaden the theaters’ reach.) By knocking down the fourth wall (that invisible boundary between actor and audience), theater companies have found a new way to nurture a sense of wonder and novelty. In that sense, it’s not all that different from the theater of your parents’ and grandparents’ time. We’re just calling it something different.


Upcoming Shows

Ordinary WorldSeptember 16, Mile High Station; tickets start at $75, and some proceeds will benefit the event’s nonprofit partner, the Matthew Shepard Foundation

The Wild Party, October 11–31, the Hangar at Stanley Marketplace; tickets start at $45. Attendees must be 21 or older.

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Watching Night Falling, a continuation of the ideas Control Group Productions explored in Neverhome; details have yet to be announced, but it’s expected to be held in the fall. Also keep an eye out for Rausch, a collaboration between Control Group and the Catamounts slated to run in the spring.

Daliah Singer, 5280 Contributor

Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.

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