Diane Paulus on the rise of 'adventure theatre'

A video look at ‘Sweet & Lucky.’

Theatre that does not take place in a traditional performance space has been called lots of ambiguous things, including “immersive theatre,” “environmental theatre” and even the primly phrased “promenade theatre.”

But Diane Paulus – one of the nation’s leading purveyors of this emerging form and, according to Time Magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world – may have nailed it.

“I call it adventure theatre,” said Paulus.

diane-paulus-quote-sweet-and-luckyThis fun and fluid new theatregoing genre essentially describes tales that are being told in new spaces where audience are fully integrated into the storytelling. In short, it’s theatre that gets you on your feet. And it can happen anywhere.

And much of the American theatre braintrust is banking on this growing phenomenon to seduce sensory-overloaded millennials into becoming the next generation of live theatregoers. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, for example, has captured the fancy of adventurous attendees of Sweet & Lucky – at once the company’s first foray into immersive theatre, as well as the largest physical undertaking in its nearly 40-year history.

Sweet & Lucky takes place in a sprawling, 16,000-square-foot warehouse on Brighton Boulevard where audiences step into a mysterious antique store and plunge into a labyrinth of dreamlike encounters. The unusual experience has sold out nearly every performance since its May opening, and has been extended through Aug. 7.

Paulus thinks she knows why.

(Photo at right of Diane Paulus by Susan Lapides.)

“We are at a moment where the ‘presentness’ of theatre is more important than ever,” said Paulus, who brought the London theatrical phenomenon Sleep No More to America in 2011 on its way to New York, where it has been playing in an abandoned, five-story warehouse in Manhattan’s meatpacking district since 2011. It’s a movement-based piece (meaning lots of dance) that takes its story from Macbeth and Hitchcock’s thrillers. The audience is let loose to follow stories and characters at their own pace. So they may or may not discover the lunatic asylum, the padded cell or the taxidermist’s menagerie. And they may or may not witness a hanging, an act of domestic violence or boldly peer over the shoulder of a lone actor typing out a letter at his desk.

“The idea is that as the audience, your presence matters. That is the definition of immersive theatre,” Paulus told the DCPA’s NewsCenter. “You get up. You walk around. You chase Macbeth down a hallway after he has committed a murder. You are a character. You, as an audience member, are as important as the action.”

Diana Dresser and Patrick Mueller in ‘Sweet and Lucky.’  Photo Credit: Adams Visual Communications.

Paulus got her start 20 years ago in the first New York International Fringe Festival with a piece called The Community Show that played out on Lower East Side fire escapes. She is known to Denver audiences for having launched the kinetic, gymnastic new national touring production of Pippin in Denver in 2014. Her work returns in December when her newest touring production, Finding Neverland, arrives at the Buell Theatre. That Broadway musical tells how playwright J.M. Barrie found his inspiration to create Peter Pan.

When Paulus was named artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in 2009, she made waves with her unorthodox first two shows. One was a disco-themed, avant-garde nightclub experience called The Donkey Show. The other was Sleep No More, which requires audience members to wear anonymity masks throughout.

Purchase Sweet & Lucky tickets here

Sweet & Lucky was developed by Off-Center, the DCPA’s  unconventional programming arm, in collaboration Brooklyn’s Third Rail Projects, which since 2001 has emerged as one of the nation’s foremost companies in creating site-specific, performances. Its still-running, breakout hit is titled Then She Fell, an intimate exploration of Lewis Carroll’s writings set in a cramped hospital ward – an experience so intimate, it can accommodate only 15 audience members per performance. Then She Fell was named one of the Top 10 shows of 2012 by The New York Times. Third Rail Projects has since opened The Grand Paradise in New York and Sweet & Lucky in Denver.

Sweet & Lucky explores the fragility of memory by having audience members follow performers through a wide array of intricately designed environments, where they witness a series of seductive and haunting flashbacks involving characters they catch glimpses of over decades.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Denver native Zach Morris, one of Third Rail Projects’ three founders, believes there is an appetite for stories that allow an audience to explore various kinds of storytelling threads that are happening simultaneously. “I also think that because of all of the amazing advances in our technology, we’re craving human-to-human interaction,” he said.

Paulus could not agree more. “I think it’s satisfying a desire in our culture right now for audiences to participate in their entertainment, and not just on their computers and their laptops, but in life,” she said. “People want to be present in a room with other people. And they want to have their hearts beat. This is ritual, and the human condition needs ritual to survive.”

And while that idea might seem sort of radical – it really isn’t.

“This kind of things really goes back to the very roots of theatre,” she said.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Sweet & Lucky: Ticket information
Sweet & Lucky plays through Aug. 7 at 4120 E. Brighton Boulevard, with newly added performances. Only 72 audience members per performance. Wear comfortable shoes. Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Note: Sweet & Lucky has its own web site. You should check it out here. 

Please note that each performance is limited to 72 audience members.

Sweet & Lucky production photos:

Sweet & Lucky
To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by Adams Visual Communications.

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Sweet & Lucky:
Sweet & Lucky extended through Aug. 7
Photos: Opening night coverage
5 things we learned about Sweet & Lucky
Zach Morris is home to seize the cultural moment
Casting announced; tickets onsale
DCPA to create new immersive theatre piece with Third Rail Projects
Kickstarter campaign allows audience to dive deeper

More photos: The making of Sweet & Lucky: 

Making of 'Sweet & Lucky'
To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter.