As the term immersive art becomes ubiquitous in Denver, many of the creatives touting their high-tech methods for these digitally engineered and augmented installations are forgetting about one of the most effective ingredients in creating these experiences: reality.
That’s precisely the medium that Denver-based immersive theater company Control Group Productions plans to tap—albeit somewhat unintentionally, as artistic director Patrick Mueller describes it—with the debut of its upcoming interactive bus tour, The End: A Bus Tour of Denver’s Climate Future. The “expeditionary performance,” taking place from June 4 to July 31, will whisk away two-dozen viewers on a roughly 20-mile journey around the metro area aboard a bio-fueled, renovated school bus outfitted with a state-of-the-art, six-channel speaker system.
On board, cast and crew members will blend elements of dance and theater—with music from local avant-garde classical group the Playground Ensemble—while ushering passengers on a tour of Denver as they’ve never seen it before. “We’re treating it as if they have purchased a one-way ticket to a place called The Refuge, where they will weather the coming climate apocalypse and survive and rebuild civilization,” Mueller says. “It’s all a bit shiny and mythical, and we run into some challenges along the way that derail us from that mission.”
The End’s theme feels remarkably timely, given the urgent and ongoing impacts of the climate crisis that are currently affecting Colorado. But the performance has actually been years in the making, Mueller notes. After the group dabbled in its first bus performance—centered around the ideas of nature’s resurgence in a post-human world—in 2013, it formulated an original rendition of The End, dubbed a “bus tour of the apocalypse” that was slated to debut in summer 2020. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the group eventually had to cancel due to what it called “the defictionalization of events.”
During the pandemic detour, the group, which had become known for its unique approach to site-specific theater, spent two years pivoting to adaptations like self-guided performances and virtual collaborations. But the long-awaited debut of the now revised The End production marks Control Group Productions’ return to creating the in-person, immersive theater and dance performances.
The group is offering the experience with rotating weekly starting locations (all accessible via public transportation) across four counties and six neighborhoods, ranging from West Highland to Westminster. And while Mueller describes the three-act narrative that takes place across seven sites as a fun, approachable, and adventurous way to experience live art, it will also embody “what daily life would feel like living in a resilient community—sort of an emergency shelter,” Mueller says. “You know, what it might be like to spend most of your time sourcing food and cleaning water, for instance.”
The experience is obviously meant to play in the realm of an imaginary world, but in order to harness that not-quite-so-distant-anymore dystopian reality, the group partnered with a variety of environmental experts and activists to identify sites that hint at that future. Mueller says they were intentional about selecting areas that already look like the rest of Colorado likely within 10 to 30 years due to climate change. These areas, Mueller says, are already “environmentally highly damaged or have serious water issues on display.” Places like the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, and the areas around the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City, are unfortunate microcosms of what a statewide climate apocalypse could look like.
“It’s a part of Denver that we all benefit from, and very few of us go to,” Mueller says. To properly convey the detrimental effects of pollution on those communities, Control Group partnered with community members and environmental justice organizations— such as Cultivando, GreenLatinos, and the Green House Connection Center, a community activist group founded by a former Suncor employee—during the research process. “What we’ve heard pretty strongly across the board [from our partners] is, ‘Please make people smell the air. Please make them breathe next to Suncor. That’s the air in my home; that’s the air at my place of business,’ ” he says.
The lessons in reality don’t stop there, though. At the conclusion of each show, audience members will be joined by a rotating cast of those same environmental experts and organizers, who will help facilitate a group discussion on the bus ride back to the start location. It’s something Mueller says is not only a nice way to decompress and talk about the art riders just experienced, but it’s also an opportunity to prompt Denverites to take action. “If we would’ve done this [show] in 2020, we would’ve blown people’s minds,” Mueller says. “Now, everybody’s going to think, Yeah, of course, dude! But it feels like there’s a really rich conversation that we can be part of. I feel more optimistic than two years ago that we can actually create fundamental shifts in people, because I think that we, as a community, are really ready and scrounging for an answer to How do I respond?”
If You Go: June 4–July 31; times and locations vary; tickets starting at $70, subsidized tickets available for $48. Food and beverage included. The bus and all performance stops are wheelchair and limited-mobility accessible; showings available with additional ASL and sensory accommodations. Find more information on showings, locations, and accessibility online.