Day 27: Immersive storytelling is making live theatre visceral in a vital new way
In August, the DCPA’s Off-Center hosted the Denver Immersive Retrospectacle to encourage like-minded theatremakers throughout the region not only to think outside the box, but to obliterate the box as we know it. One by one, Curator Charlie Miller championed the many adventurous projects that rebel local artists have presented over the past year. He shouted out other emerging entertainment forms including escape rooms, haunts, puzzles, interdisciplinary crossovers and art installations like Meow Wolf.
While storytelling always will have a home in a darkened space with a stage and a hushed audience, studies suggest younger and less traditional audiences are walking out into the light, and they want their stories to come with them. Off-Center again led the way in 2019 with several unprecedented site-specific efforts. Between Us was a trio of experiences involving one actor and no more than two audience members. One was a card reading at The Tattered Cover Book Store; another was a blind date at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver; the third was a whiskey tasting at Club Denver. In all there were a whopping 587 performances of Between Us – for just 754 audience members.
Next came The Last Defender, a theatrical escape room beneath the Patagonia retail store in LoDo. And the year is ending with the runaway hit Camp Christmas, a non-narrative tour through the history of Christmas at the Stanley Marketplace. By year’s end, an astonishing 70,000 are expected to have taken in the experience conceived by renowned installation artist Lonnie Hanzon.
“Welcome to the revolution!” University of Colorado Denver Professor of Fun (yes, that is a real title) David Thomas told the Retrospectacle crowd. “I want you to believe in this art form and to believe in Denver and to believe that Denver can be a center of this kind of entertainment and art.”
There were dozens of intriguing immersive theatre experiences around Colorado this year, including CenterStage Theatre Company staging the American classic Our Town in three acts and in three locations around Louisville. And you don’t get any more immersive than the DU Prison Arts Initiative staging One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Christmas Carol performed by inmates at Colorado state prisons.
Today we highlight three particularly compelling theatregoing experiences in nontraditional spaces. These forward-thinkers are not only changing audience behaviors, they are greatly expanding the way they absorb, understand and respond to live storytelling.
Control Group Productions’ Aggregate Immateriality
- What: Aggregate Immateriality is a play about death that was performed in a house of death. Artistic Director Patrick Mueller described it as “an uplifting rumination on darkness, fear and death, presented as a massive immersive journey through an abandoned slaughterhouse in Globeville.”
- Wait … through a what? Yep, in a massive old building at 4800 Washington St. that until 1968 was Denver’s largest slaughterhouse – the end of the road for tens of thousands of sheep, pigs and cattle. “You could feel the ghosts,” Mueller said. “The building itself plays a starring role in the experience,” opined Stacy Nick of radio station KUNC.
- Why there? “I am very committed to imagination, and taking people to places that are not fully real,” Mueller said. “I believe that the more a given context can seed an experience, the further we can take people beyond that seed. What was cool about the slaughterhouse was the general ambience. You could feel the heaviness of the space. The more visceral and immediate and touchable that is, the more we can empathize with the folks in Globeville who have received all of the devastation in that neighborhood.”
- The story: Mueller described the journey as an experiential, interactive combination of theatre, dance, design and site. “We invited audiences to contemplate their mortality as we followed a friend through her transition from life into death,” he said. “In a space made for animal mass murder, we offered gentle gifts and warm human contact, working to dispel our fear of the specter of death, and invigorate the exquisite sensation of being alive.”
- How did it go over? Every performance was sold out, the run was extended and ultimately the experience was seen by more than 800.
Band of Toughs’ Nirvamlet
- What: As part of Denver Arts & Venues‘ Next Stage Now programming, Colorado’s best-named theatrical collaborative brought its wild mash-up of Shakespeare and ’90s grunge down from Boulder to the Denver Performing Arts Complex, which they transformed into a present-day Elsinore castle.
- Wait … what? Yep. Hamlet and Nirvana in, around and under the arts complex.
- How did that work? So the experience started with a half-hour concert set by a punk band in the city’s parking garage right above the Limelight Supper Club. The storytelling itself began when a car drove up with actors inside. Those in the audience who were there for Nirvamlet then followed the fated rock stars into the Ellie Caulkins Opera House lobby, down to the swank Chambers Grant Salon and eventually descending further like Orpheus through subterranean corridors to the climactic scene in a loading dock they transformed into a sort of vinyl graveyard. (With live music and beer throughout!) Those in the crowd who were on their way to other performances had to be rocked by that unexpected opening spectacle. “Having the first scene take place outside and in full view of everyone made a huge impact on those patrons who were attending other shows,” said Band of Toughs founder David Ortolano. “We created so much excitement. People were dancing on the railing above Limelight. We were tossing flyers down to the crowd. We gave them all a truly truly rock ‘n roll experience.” Added co-director Colleen Mylott: “Our pre-show grunge set gained us more than a few new audience members. I always loved hearing things throughout the run like: ‘I heard your band playing last week and I had to check out the show for myself.’ “
- Why there? “It feels important for us to choose specific sites that don’t usually get to host work that is highly original, fun and thought-provoking,” said Ortolano. “When the opportunity presented itself to be part of the city’s Next Stage Now program, we of course stepped right up to play off their space in a way we knew hadn’t been done before. And while the Denver Center itself was not involved with this project, we think they benefited from us engaging with their audiences in such a unique and compelling way.”
- The story: Think Hamlet, with a splash of conspiracy, murder and self-loathing thrown in. Here, Hamlet is the fictitious son of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love. Our narrator is Detective Fortinbras. “A lot of people believe Courtney Love had something to do with Kurt’s death, and for us that had a really great intersection point with the story of Hamlet and Claudius,” Mylott told Colorado Public Radio. “So we actually call her Courtious. She’s like a mixture of Courtney Love and a bit of Claudius and actually a little bit of Gertrude, too.”
- Bottom line: “Nirvamlet was never written for a static space, and I don’t know that you could ever produce it in a static space,” said Liz Kirchmeier, who played Ophelia. “The journey that you take through the space is also the journey these characters take to their inevitable ends. I think people were generally more engaged because we were asking them to physically come along with us on that journey.”
Local Theater Company’s Discount Ghost Stories
- What: Local Theater Company‘s first world-premiere musical weaved Rocky Mountain tales of life, death and the beyond. It was set and performed in a bar where an eclectic, spectral house band brought to life real Colorado historical figures. This “Colorado folklore concert experience,” directed by Austin Regan with a book by Pesha Rudnick and Rob Wright, was driven by an original and infectious score by Alexander Sage Oyen that was instrumentally performed by the actors themselves.
- Where: The patio bar at Trident Booksellers and Cafe on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder
- What happens? The story begins with a despondent young woman entering a spectral bar that has a house band made up of the ghosts of known and unknown characters from Colorado’s real wild West past. Among them: A Ute youth who was killed by a white prospector and a Chinese immigrant who was murdered in Denver. The most famous was Clara Brown, a freed slave who started a business in Central City but never stopped searching for her auctioned children. All of them have musical stories to tell. Particularly moving was Erik Fellenstein as the ghost of a violin-playing silver miner whose fiance died the night before their wedding day. “So often likened to the human voice, the violin wails. Heartbroken,” wrote Lisa Kennedy for The Denver Post.
- Why on a patio and not a stage? “On opening night of Discount Ghost Stories, the wind whistled through the trees waking up the spirits,” said Rudnick, also Local Theater Company’s co-founder and Artistic Director. “The whole company was giddy. But I think my favorite part of performing at Trident was inviting our audience to wander through the bookstore before and after the show. I hope a few were curious what other Colorado ghost stories are begging to be told.”
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 19th 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 2019 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