Theater of the Mind Producer Charlie Miller: A man ahead of his time

Charlie Miller has always been a young man ahead of his time. After all, he played both Fagin and Captain Von Trapp by the age of 17. Not so many years later, the co-founder and curator of Off-Center at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is regarded as a national thought leader in the continually evolving world of experiential theatre.

Charlie Miller, Theatre of the Mind producer, headshot

Charlie Miller

“Charlie has made the Denver Center the center of immersive work in the country between New York and Los Angeles,” said frequent collaborator Amanda Berg Wilson, who will serve as an assistant director on Off-Center’s next big adventure, Theater of the Mind, with creators David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar. It’s a groundbreaking and mind-bending project Miller lobbied hard to bring to Denver for its upcoming world premiere – and one he “absolutely” landed, Wilson said, because of the body of innovative work he has built up over the past decade.

“When I was passing through Denver on a concert tour in 2018, I was approached by Charlie about a possible collaboration,” Byrne said. Miller took the iconic Talking Heads frontman to a local warehouse and opened his mind to the creative possibilities of staging the piece here.

“Off-Center is nationally admired for its immersive work, and they have the skill and experience to bring this complex production to life – and a committed audience who will appreciate it,” Byrne said. “They know what they are doing.”

They know what they are doing because of what they have been doing since Miller created Off-Center back in 2010. His mission: To create a wide range of unique and unexpected theatrical experiences that put audiences at the center of the story. The now significant Off-Center canon includes an early game show called Wheel of Misfortune, where audiences willingly allowed themselves to get slapped by an octopus. Sweet & Lucky followed a couple’s dream-like life as it played out in over a dozen rooms (and a drive-in) carved into a 16,000-square-foot industrial warehouse. Remote Denver led curious Denverphiles on a 2 1/2-mile walk on the wild side of the city while following instructions piped in on headphones. Camp Christmas was a journey through a 6-acre wonderland of dazzling decorations, lights, music and off-beat yuletide memorabilia.

“Where else in the country is there a regional theater that has an experimental wing with a track record like the Denver Center?” Berg Wilson said.

The DCPA is unique, Miller concurs, as a place where big, ambitious immersive theater can be fully realized. “We have the expertise, we have the artists and we have the technicians to be able to pull off really large and complicated projects,” said Miller, whose artistic undertakings are increasingly becoming known for their inclusion of kindred creative groups, for their employment of local artists and for their growing crowd counts.

“Charlie has a collaborative spirit and a definite sparkle in his eye for new ideas,” said Meridith Grundei, who conceived of and directed Off-Center’s Bite-Size, a series of original short plays that played to 92 percent capacity at a bookstore in the Tennyson art district. “There was so much local love going on that my heart was bursting with community,” she added. Remote Denver played to 91 percent capacity. Sweet & Lucky played to 95 percent capacity and was experienced by more than 6,300 audience members. And Camp Christmas has been enjoyed by more than 135,000 people in its first two years.

“We definitely have the audience now,” Miller said. “People are seeking this work out, and regularly come back to see what Off-Center is doing next.”

Roots at the Jewish Community Center

Charlie Miller is a sixth-generation Denverite who considers Colorado to be central to both his identity and family history. He started performing in musicals at the Jewish Community Center at the tender age of 4, and for many of the area’s top directors, including Steve Wilson, Christy Montour-Larson and Nick Sugar. “I caught the bug early, and I have never looked back,” Miller said.

Steve Wilson blinked and Miller grew from playing the tiniest little soldier in his children’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum into one of his most trusted collaborators on the annual summer Broadway spectaculars Wilson directed for the disability-affirmative Phamaly Theatre Company at the Denver Center. By the time Miller was just a 15-year-old freshman at Colorado Academy, he was assisting disabled actors backstage, building sets and eventually stage managing. At age 22, Miller directed the original Phamaly musical Show Up for Democracy to promote civic engagement for the disabled community around the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

“I have looked up to Charlie as a leader, counselor and mentor from a very young age,” Wilson said. “He is truly one of the pillars of this artistic community.”

Working with Phamaly throughout his formative years seeded Miller’s lifelong passion for changing the narrative of whose stories are being told on our stages. “Phamaly does an amazing job of looking at stories from a completely different perspective and making theatre a platform for people who don’t often get the opportunity to express themselves creatively,” Miller said. “Phamaly put me on a path, and I’ve been on it ever since.”

Miller majored in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University with a focus on how filmmaking, video production, and technology can be incorporated into the interactive live performance experience. His senior thesis project was an original multimedia production called username: FAUST, a retelling of the Faust legend where a woman sells her soul for the most popular YouTube video of all-time. That got the attention of then-Denver Center CEO Dan Ritchie, President Randy Weeks and DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Kent Thompson. “I pitched them the idea that we would create a multimedia lab exploring how technology could be used in the development of new plays – and they were crazy enough to say yes,” said Miller, who was hired right out of college under the newly created title of Multimedia Specialist in 2008.

“Being offered a job at the Denver Center was a dream come true because I had grown up seeing Broadway musicals and Theatre Company shows here,” Miller said. “Having the opportunity to come home and work at the biggest professional theatre in the region felt like I had won the lottery.”

Miller was the first to notice that when he joined the Denver Center staff, “I was the token millennial on the artistic team,” he said with a laugh. Like most arts organizations in the country, he added, “the DCPA at the time was struggling with how to connect with a younger audience that was not interested in the same things from the live-theatre experience that their parents and grandparents were.”

Miller started by creating a multimedia department that could support the needs of Theatre Company plays with video, projections and other technology. “In my first season, there was one show that needed projections,” he said. But within a few years, almost every production was looking to Miller for some kind of multimedia assistance.

That included returning to the swimming pool at the Jewish Community Center of his youth to film the actor playing Ulysses in black odyssey flailing in the water, which Miller then used to create an awesome theatrical moment. In the story, the vindictive god Paw Sidin (Poseidon) has tossed his nephew into the ocean to drown. Audiences saw the stage floor covered with a motion projection effect showing the actor, dressed in modern-day combat fatigues, struggling in the water, air bubbles bursting from his mouth to the surface. It was a moment that simply could not have happened in the same way before Miller joined the Denver Center team. (Watch the video here.)

Meanwhile, Miller and his former Off-Center co-curator Emily Tarquin created Cult Following, a monthly gathering for film buffs in which improv-comedy actors bluffed their way through great movie scenes suggested by the audience. “Off-Center came from the Denver Center’s desire to attract and engage a younger and more adventurous demographic, and the artistic team was looking to Emily and me for answers,” he said.

Over the past 10 years, Off-Center has grown from being “this little test kitchen on the fringe of the organization,” Miller said, to being one of the Denver Center’s signature lines of programming. “And we are attracting tens of thousands of audience members, many of whom haven’t come to the Denver Center before.”

Actor Diana Dresser, who performed in both Off-Center’s Sweet & Lucky and Bite-Size, says  Miller’s greatest strength is that he is both fearless about experimentation and leans into the messy gray.

“Charlie is genuinely interested and deeply curious about what makes theatre transformative and alive and essential,” she said. “He is hyper-smart and hyper-organized but still willing to not have all the answers – and sometimes that means things are imperfect. He’s a magic-maker. Not because he dreams up every creative idea – because he knows a good idea when he hears it.”

David Byrne Headshot

David Byrne

Like when he heard about Byrne’s plan to create Theater of the Mind and seized on the “Once in a Lifetime” opportunity to collaborate with him and Gaonkar. The project was delayed by the pandemic shutdown but will now launch this summer (August 31-December 18) at York Street Yards, a mixed-use industrial complex in the Clayton neighborhood of Denver just south of I-70 and York Street. Theater of the Mind will take over 15,000 square feet of open warehouse that will be turned into different rooms and environments for the audience to move through.

Theater of the Mind is unlike anything you have ever seen before,” Miller said. “This show combines neuroscience, storytelling, immersive theatre and art installation for a literally mind-altering experience. You show up in groups of just 16 people. You go off with one actor who guides you through a series of rooms, and in each one they tell stories about their past. It’s the story of a life lived backward. But you also get to experience neuroscience phenomena that show you how easily manipulated our brains are, and how unpredictable and untrustworthy our senses are.

“It’s not intense or scary. You leave having experienced these things that make you see the world in a slightly different place. And as David likes to say, ‘If we can change ourselves, what else can we change in the world?’ ”

Over the past 14 years, Miller’s dream job has come with constantly evolving titles including Resident Video Designer, Multimedia Director, Associate Artistic Director for Strategy and Innovation, and now, Associate Artistic Director and Off-Center Curator.

Miller, now married, 36 and the father of two daughters, has come a long way since playing a 4-year-old foot soldier to Captain Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Just not in terms of miles. He’s enjoyed a significant and nationally respected professional career arc without ever having had to leave his hometown – or his hometown theatre.

“I am lucky to have an amazing wife who is very supportive of me and my creative life,” he said. “And I’m privileged to have a job at the Denver Center that allows me to raise a family here and not be traveling the country trying to piece together work – which is the reality for many, many others in the field. I feel so fortunate to be local, to be employed, and to have the support that I have to create meaningful theatre here.”

DETAILS

Theater of the Mind

Aug 31 – Dec 18, 2022 • York Street Yards

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