Theatre world has finally caught up to A.C.E.'s kind of adventure

Travelers. From the Hip Photo
From left: Linda Klein, Barbara Gehring and Matthew Taylor. From The Hip Photo.

‘Immersive theatre’ has taken the world by storm. The kind Denver’s A.C.E. has been creating for 18 years.

By John Moore
For the DCPA NewsCenter

Linda Klein, Barbara Gehring and Matthew Taylor felt pretty hip when “immersive theatre” suddenly became “cool-kid theatre” a few years back.  The movement exploded in 2011 when a British theatre company unleashed Sleep No More on New York audiences. That’s a riff on Macbeth that takes place over five floors of an abandoned hotel in the Big Apple’s meatpacking district. Before long, as Stefon might say on Weekend Update, Sleep No More was New York’s hottest nightclub, with limos pulling up at midnight filled with decidedly nontraditional theatre audiences.

Out of the blue, theatre that was mobile, interactive and took place in unexpected places was being embraced everywhere as the future of the American theatre.

Back in Denver, Gehring looked at what was happening and thought, ‘Wow, we have been doing this very thing for 18 years.”

Travelers. Adams VisCom photo.Gehring is a member of Denver’s enduring A.C.E. Entertainment comedy trio, which has created 50 original productions since 1998. Make that 51 with last week’s launch of Travelers of the Lost Dimension, its new commissioned comedy for the DCPA’s Off-Center at the Stanley Marketplace. The group’s ongoing, runaway success is Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women, which returns in September for its fourth engagement at the Garner Galleria Theatre.

(Pictured above right: Leigh Miller leads the audience through a performance of ‘Travelers of the Lost Dimension.’ Photo by Adams VisCom.)

A.C.E. is an acronym for “An American” (Klein), “a Canadian” (Gehring) and “an Englishman” (Taylor). In the early days, A.C.E. created one show that played out on the 16th Street Mall. Another took place on a light-rail train. Another lured unsuspecting audiences into the woods near Golden. The very same kinds of environmental shows that theatre companies across America are now scrambling to devise to appeal to the next generation of theatregoers.

Now Gehring freely admits to not being clairvoyant. “The reason we didn’t perform in a theatre a lot of the time back then was purely because we didn’t have a venue to perform in,” she said with a laugh.

And A.C.E. never called their quirky brand of entertainment “immersive theatre.” “We call what we do ‘adventure comedy,’ ” Gehring said. Regardless, they were clearly ahead of their time. But recently Gehring had a moment when she thought, “The heck with that. THIS is our time.”

Off-Center jumped into the “immersive” breach last year with a wildly successful production of Sweet & Lucky, which played out in a RiNo warehouse that became the biggest physical undertaking in the DCPA’s nearly 40-year history. Sweet & Lucky was an evocative exploration of memory, and an intentionally ephemeral and mysterious theatregoing experience.

And A.C.E. is here to tell you: Travelers of the Lost Dimension is no Sweet & Lucky.

Travelers. From the Hip photo.“The most important difference is that our show is a comedy,” said Klein. One that does not take place in the same kind of controlled environment the DCPA built for Sweet & Lucky. Travelers is happening right out in the open at the Stanley Marketplace, which opened last year near the Stapleton neighborhood just east of Denver. Stanley is an urban marketplace made up of local, independent businesses that believe in sustainable retail and community development. The 22-acre space was once Stanley Aviation headquarters, where airplane ejector seats were engineered and manufactured.

“For Sweet & Lucky, they took an empty space and essentially built several theatres inside of it,” said Taylor. “So they still controlled the space and lights and sound. Whereas we are doing this piece in a public space. So not only do you have your Travelers audience, but then you also have the general public looking on. It’s fascinating because you really never know how they are going to behave every night.”

(Pictured above right: Linda Klein, Barbara Gehring and Matthew Taylor. From The Hip Photo.)

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

So what is Travelers of the Lost Dimension? Like Sweet & Lucky, its creators believe that it’s best for the audience to know as little as possible before attending. “Part of the fun is just taking the leap and going along for the ride,” said Klein. But there is a clue to be found on the Travelers web site. It says: “With wit, wonderment and some dubious technology, a ragtag group of explorers will brave an inter-dimensional journey to discover the fantastical realm in the beyond.”

“Without giving anything away, I would say that it’s a romp,” said Gehring. “There is a lot of comedy, a lot of fun characters, and a lot of the unexpected. Those are the things that drive all our shows.”  

Klein says the most important element of any A.C.E. show is the unexpected. “We want to emphasize the intrigue as opposed to simply explaining to people in advance what they will be experiencing,” she said. “Half of the fun is not knowing what is coming next.”

Too often, Taylor said, our entertainment forms are passive. “A lot of times we are just handed everything,” said Taylor, author of a comic collection of tales called Goat Lips: Tales of a Lapsed Englishman. “We, as human beings, are puzzlers. We love to work things out. So we rely on our audience being brilliant. We like to allow them to work it out for themselves.”

A.C.E. grew out of an improv troupe in Boulder called Head Games. The group was discovered by reps from the Aspen HBO Comedy Festival who saw them doing a bit involving a Cirque de Soleil-style balancing act whilst covered in talcum powder. The rest is talcum – and comedy – history. 

Travelers. Adams Viscom photo.
A scene from ‘Travelers of the Lost Dimension’ at Stanley Marketplace. Adams Viscom photo.

A.C.E. has a loyal fan base, but collaborating with the DCPA will expose them to many who have never seen their work before. “For the past 18 years, we have really gotten to know our audiences,” said Gehring. “But Travelers is opening us up to a whole world of people who have never experienced an A.C.E. show. I’m excited to just see what their responses are because it’ll be very new for us – and for them.”

The three A.C.E. creators are performing in Travelers through April 2, and then a team of local actors will take over and continue the run through April 23. The cast includes DCPA veterans Leigh Miller (Sweet & Lucky), Diana Dresser (Sweet & Lucky), Adrian Egolf (As You Like It), Nanna Thompson (Off-Center’s Cult Following)  and Bruce Montgomery (Off-Center’s Wheel of Misfortune).

“We were not only looking for great actors, but we were also looking for really nice people,” said Gehring. “In our shows, you are interacting so much with the audience and the general public that you have to have people who are really flexible and think on their feet.” Taylor said that working with the A.C.E. newcomers “is a little terrifying because they are a really bloody good. Right across the board, they are fabulous.”

Audiences are capped at 45 for each performance, they say, to maximize each audience member’s individual experience.

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.

Travelers of the Lost Dimension: Ticket information
Travelers of the Lost DimensionThrough April 23
• 2501 Dallas St, Aurora, CO 80010 MAP IT
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829

Please note that each performance is limited to 45 audience members and many performances already are sold out.

Bonus coverage: Girls Only set for September return

Girls OnlyHard to believe, but when Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women returns in September, it will have been nearly four years since the original comedy that celebrates the honor, truth, humor and silliness of being female last played at the Garner Galleria Theatre. It has now played to nearly 125,000 (mostly female) audiences around the world since it debuted at Denver’s Avenue Theater in 2008.

“The Denver gals are constantly asking for it to come back,” said Gehring. “They keep meeting new people and they want to share it with them, so that’s why we keep doing it.”

Girls Only: The Secret Comedy of Women: Ticket information
Girls Only – The Secret Comedy of WomenSept. 21-Oct. 22
• Garner-Galleria Theatre
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Off-Center:
Off-Center throwing a Wild Party at Stanley Marketplace this fall
Stanley Marketplace soon to welcome Travelers of the Lost Dimension
Off-Center to partner with A.C.E. comedy trio, Stanley Marketplace

A scene from 'Travelers of the Lost Dimension' at Stanley Marketplace. Adams Viscom photo.A scene from ‘Travelers of the Lost Dimension’ at Stanley Marketplace. Adams Viscom photo.

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