The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is about to dive into immersive arts. When the DCPA began performing shows more than four decades ago, it boasted big traditional productions, with occasional forays into more experimental projects. But since Off-Center was founded a dozen years ago, that emphasis has changed. And now, with the promotion of Off-Center co-founder Charlie Miller to curator/executive director, as well as a member of the DCPA leadership team, this town could put on quite a show.
Miller, a sixth-generation Denverite who grew up on DCPA theater programs, believes Mile High City is on the verge of becoming the nation’s immersive arts capital — if it hasn’t already. He founded Off-Center in 2010 with former DCPA Theater Company artistic producer Emily Tarquin (who left in 2016), and since then has produced more than fifty shows that have introduced the city to immersive arts well before the opening of Meow Wolf. Convergence station last September. “We really realized that experiential or immersive theater was something that could work really well in Denver,” Miller said.
“From the beginning, Off-Center was kind of a project for the theater company,” he explains. “It started as this experiment, really on the fringes of organizing, with us asking ourselves what we could do to engage adventurous audiences in different ways, how we could think more broadly about what theater could be and create a work that explores the boundaries Off-Center was born with this vision, with a recipe of five ingredients that would guide our programming.
These key ingredients – immersive, convergent, connective, inventive and “now” – have proven to be the recipe for success. In 2015, Off-Center received groundbreaking grants from the Doris Duke and Wallace Foundations, allowing it to offer larger-scale performances such as sweet and luckyan offsite production that sold out 89 shows.
“That show, I think, really put Off-Center on the map,” Miller recalled. “I still hear people talking about the meaning of an experience they had in sweet and lucky, how well they remember it. It was truly the first large-scale, immersive theatrical production in Denver. And that was with an all-local cast, and everyone who worked on the show went on to do other immersive projects as well. So there were things starting to happen in the arts community, but I think sweet and lucky has been a real catalyst for the community and has helped accelerate our growth into an immersive art hub in the country.”
But it took DCPA superiors a while to realize just how popular immersive theater was becoming. “There are definitely people at the DCPA at all levels who love traditional theater and don’t fully understand what Off-Center is or why it matters,” Miller admits. “The phased approach that we’ve had has allowed these people to get on board at their own pace, and for us to be really rigorous about understanding why we’re doing this and how we’re doing it, and doing it in a that’s calculated risk taking, with incremental growth based on data and learning, so it’s been a long journey, and it’s allowed us to bring the skeptics with us.
Now that he will have a seat at the executive table, Miller says Off-Center will be recognized “in the organization in a different way, in terms of conversations about overall budget and priorities…and amplify the impact it can have on the organization as a whole.” This will allow Off-Center to make long-term plans for productions and secure larger funding for large-scale works.
More emphasis on Off-Center should pay off for the DCPA as a whole. “When it comes to the evolution of this area of theater, Off-Center helps the DCPA to be a true national leader,” notes Miller, “because no other regional theater, perhaps with one or two exceptions, has invests in immersive work like we are, and we now have the expertise to do these projects. And it’s really exciting, I think, for the DCPA and for Denver, that we’re able to be seen as a national leader in this field, and to help advance the national conversation about how theater develops and how immersive arts integrate all of these different art forms and engage audiences and storytelling in a new way.
Miller acknowledges that “immersive” has become a buzzword many companies now use as a label for projects that don’t necessarily fit the bill. “More and more, I feel like ‘immersive’ doesn’t even describe [some projects] terribly well. It’s sort of overused in a way that annoys me,” he says.
Authentic immersive theater “places the audience at the center of the story,” he explains.
“Because we’re in theatre, storytelling is central to it. If there’s no story, it could still be immersive, but it’s probably not theatre. And we’ve done some shows without performers where the audience sort of becomes the character,” he says. “But another quality of immersion, I think, has to be multi-sensory — it has to happen all around you in some way. other. And I think it has to, whether physically or metaphorically, put you in a space where you can’t see the edges of the experience.
Experiential theater artists from across the country have taken notice of Denver’s immersive scene and moved here to be a part of it. “I’ve seen the theater community grow and transform in all kinds of ways,” Miller says. “And over the past eight years, I’ve been much more focused on the local immersive community and connecting with all the different types of artists around Off-Center. Obviously, Meow Wolf has been a nice addition. and exciting to the scene, and to see artists now moving to Denver to be part of the scene is really exciting.”
Denver artists excel in immersive theater, he says, referencing the latest work from Control Group Productions,
The end , in particular, as a theatrical production that fully meets the immersive definition. For The end, ticket holders board a graffiti-covered bus that takes them on a journey through an apocalypse brought on by climate change and a contaminated water supply. “One of the most powerful parts was driving through Commerce City and seeing oil refineries at sunset on that bus. And it was incredibly powerful immersive theater, as far as I’m concerned,” Miller notes. “Everything I saw through the window contributed to my understanding of the story and the experience, because they had created this framework through which I would see the world. To be fully inside a world or a reality or a story and having a certain agency to walk through it somehow is what makes it immersive for me.”
The end until July 31, but the biggest immersive experience of the year is yet to come: after a delay due to the pandemic, Mala Gaonkar and David Byrne’s theater of the mind will open on August 31.
For years, Miller met artists from across the country, and a mutual friend introduced him to Nate Koch, a producer on the show. “When David was on tour American utopia and while playing Red Rocks, I first met him and showed him a warehouse space that I had looked at,” Miller recalled. “We talked about Off-Center, and it ended up being a fairly easy sale and a very mutually beneficial collaboration. At the beginning of 2019 we were all on the same page, we had calculated the budgets and we were planning to open it in the summer of 2020. We had the space and we had started building it, and then everything stopped. And now, two years later, we actually realize it. It’s so exciting and a bit surreal at this point.”
Miller is also helping produce the Denver Immersive Gathering, which takes place Nov. 4-6; it’s an oversized version of an event that began five years ago in recognition of the city’s immersive scene, when Meow Wolf was just talking about its Denver installation. DIG will include panels, networking events, parties and, of course, immersive productions, with access to Convergence station and Theater of the mindamong other accomplishments.
“The goal of DIG is to really shine the spotlight on Denver as one of the best places for immersive art in the country and to bring people from all over the country to Denver and showcase a bunch of exciting and immersive work. happening in our community,” says Miller. “Part of my mission is to help the country and the world realize how great Denver is, and to help make Denver even greater. I’m lucky that thanks to Off-Center and the DCPA , I can play a small game for that to happen.”
And Denver is the perfect place for that to happen.
“I’ve always felt like Denver is a great place for experiential work, because what brings people here is that sense of activity, the proximity to the mountains. And the immersion gives people that kind of active experience in culture and in art,” Miller concludes. “I think people who are generally drawn to Colorado are interested in more active artistic and cultural experiences, and the general spirit of adventure of Denver and the West.”
To learn more about Off-Center, visit the DCPA website. Theater of the mind will run from August 31 to December 18, at York Street Yards, 3887 Steele Street; tickets are $65 and up. The Denver Immersive Gathering takes place November 4-6; tickets cost between $150 and $250.