2018 TRUE WEST AWARDS, Day 19
When the Off-Center co-founder has an idea, it means innovation for audiences – and employment for local artists
From the time Charlie Miller first volunteered to work backstage with special-needs actors for Phamaly Theatre Company at age 17, his life’s ambition has been to create new opportunities and access for those who are underserved in the audience and underrepresented on the stage. Wherever that stage might be. For Miller, that’s not very often in a traditional theatre space anymore. In 2018, it was a bookstore. A light-rail car. Denver alleys. In a ballroom. And yes, a couple of times in a traditional theatre.
Studies suggest most young people just don’t want to go into a dark theatre and passively watch a story unfold before them. It’s Miller’s job as Curator and Co-creator of the Denver Center’s Off-Center programming to bring the theatre experience to them. He’s constantly looking for new ways to engage local artists, create surprising new theatrical experiences and challenge theatrical conventions – often in collaboration with a variety of cultural partners.
Like Miller, Off-Center was never meant to stand in place. Now in its eighth and most ambitious season, Off-Center just staged Bite-Size, an evening of five short, local “micro” plays in a bookstore-slash-bar called, appropriately enough, BookBar. Remote Denver led intrepid thrill-seekers on an evocative, 2 1/2-mile walking tour of the city. This is Modern Art was a controversial introduction to the contemporary world of graffiti art. Off-Center also continued popular partnerships including the silly (but smart!) tag-team lecture series Mixed Taste and the final seasonal staging of David Sedaris’ caustic holiday monologue The SantaLand Diaries (through December 24).
Off-Center audiences seem to follow Miller in whatever new direction he takes them. Consider that Off-Center programming had (through Friday) moved 19,155 tickets in 2018. In 2012, that number was 2,257. Here’s how some of those numbers break down:
- Bite-Size played to 97 percent capacity at BookBar.
- Remote Denver, the literal walk on the wild side of Denver ending in a plume of white smoke on the top level of a city parking garage, played to 94 percent capacity.
- Attendance at Mixed Taste, presented in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, drew 3,030 who learned about cleverly anachronistic topics such as Crop Circles and Prenups. That was up 9 percent over 2017.
- More than 4,700 saw This is Modern Art, and 1,200 attended student matinees.
- The SantaLand Diaries had sold more than 7,700 tickets through Friday, already making it the best-selling year since the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company moved its popular seasonal offering to the Denver Center in 2012.
Perhaps best of all: Off-Center employed dozens of local artists in 2018, including many working for the Denver Center for the first time. That list includes Phamaly Theatre Company Artistic Director Regan Linton, winner of the 2017 Colorado Theatre Person of the Year True West Award; and three-time Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Award winner Emma Messenger.
“Charlie has a collaborative spirit and a definite sparkle in his eye for new ideas,” said 2017 True West Award winner Meridith C. Grundei, who conceived of and directed Bite-Size. “Because of Charlie’s collaborative spirit, Bite-Size became a wonderful platform to bring amazing local playwrights, directors and actors together to create a new experience for Denver theatregoers. There was so much local love going on that my heart was bursting with community.”
Miller always has been embracing of new theatre technologies, starting from his earliest days as the company’s multimedia specialist and projection designer. Understanding the potential for technology to enhance storytelling has directly led to many of Miller’s Off-Center innovations.
“Technology has threatened live theatre with extinction for a century,” Miller said in a 2010 interview with The Denver Post. “First the radio was supposed to kill theatre. Then the movies, television, computers and the Internet. But for the first time, we now have an opportunity to use what is threatening us to make us better.”
Miller also continued to make an impression as a local and national thought leader in 2018. He’s especially in demand at conferences and panels whenever the subject turns to immersive theatre or attracting millennial audiences.
Miller served on the Advisory Board of the first Denver Immersive Summit, which last month attracted more than 200 local artists, creators and fans, making it a galvanizing moment for the immersive theatre community. Earlier in 2018, Miller was one of two Denver representatives selected to attend the first Immersive Design Summit in San Francisco.
But if you were to ask anyone in the local arts community what they think of Miller, also a married father of two, they will tell you he’s a homegrown kid who cares about Colorado artists, and he is proving it by opening the Denver Center’s doors for performers to perform and creators to create. Last month, Off-Center announced Powered by Off-Center, a new residency program that will fully support the development of new projects conceived by local artists Jessica Kahkoska and Jennifer Faletto.
“The opportunity Charlie has given me is unlike any I’ve ever encountered,” said Kahoska, who will be developing a fact-based play with music about the secrets a community may be harboring in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. “Charlie’s willingness to stand behind an idea, support collaboration in Colorado and carve out space for questions opens the door for exploration and risk-taking that just wouldn’t exist in a traditional process.”
She said it: “Charlie is a magic-maker. He is genuinely interested and deeply curious about what makes theatre transformative and alive and essential. And he puts the artist at the center of everything. Probably my favorite thing about Charlie is that he’s hyper-smart and hyper-organized but still willing to not have all the answers – and sometimes that means things are messy and imperfect. Charlie is fearless about experimentation and leans in to the messy grey.” – Actor Diana Dresser, who appeared in Off-Center’s Sweet & Lucky and Bite-Size.
Last word: “I’m not at all surprised that Off-Center is continuing to grow and taking more risks with programming. When you have leadership that truly believes in a vision, good things are sure to follow.” – Meridith C. Grundei.
Charlie Miller: At a glance
- Graduated from Colorado Academy in 2004 and Harvard University in 2008
- Hired by the Denver Center as a Projection Designer and Multimedia Specialist immediately after graduation from Harvard
- Hosted a popular series of witty backstage Denver Center videos called “10 Minutes to Curtain,” 2008-10
- Launched Off-Center with former DCPA Artistic Associate Emily Tarquin in 2010
- Named DCPA Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director in 2016.
- With Nataki Garrett and Charles Varin, helped lead the DCPA Theatre Company during its transition to Chris Coleman as Artistic Director in 2017-18
- Coming up in 2019: Public performances of the Powered by Off-Center projects; as well as a number of new immersive and experiential projects to be announced
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 18th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2018 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org