Breaking Boundaries: Interactive, Immersive, Pop-Up Theater

Please do not remain seated. Unbuckle with tickets to a new breed of shows in Denver that meld theatrical elements with experiences that keep theatergoers on their feet.

A lanky, graying, English-born comedian darts about the asphalt outside of Stanley Marketplace, the urbane, foodie-driven new hangout about a 20-minute drive from downtown Denver that’s housed in a converted airplane hangar and caters to, among many others, the swelling Stapleton neighborhood.

He wears a frilly pink tutu.

This serves as the first sign that any of the 45 theatergoers who may feel like simply sitting and watching a show will be out of sorts as they arrive for Travelers of the Lost Dimension. This latest immersive production from DCPA Off-Center, the same outfit responsible for last summer’s wildly successful event Sweet & Lucky, is a silly and scrappy, original “adventure comedy” conceived by the Denver improv trio A.C.E.

“Travelers of the Lost Dimension” is staged at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. Photo by Adams Visual Communications.

Here, ticket holders are travelers advised before they arrive to wear comfortable shoes. Lab assistants in white coats greet audience members and hand out red satchels, or “survival kits,” to each individual. Before this 75-minute trip is over, the audience blows up balloons together, parades through public in a massage train while wearing 3D glasses, takes a group photo and experiences the healing power of putting crayon to paper.

You see, in the Lost Dimension, one person’s coloring page is another person’s pathway to self-actualization.

Many recent local productions have offered new ways of looking at theater. Photo by Adams Visual Communications.

Cutting-edge, immersive art

Going to the theater was never meant to be as passively escapist as binging on commercial-free television. But considering the splash that interactive, interdisciplinary arts events and attractions make now in Denver and elsewhere around the West, the notion of passive entertainment now seems to be downright old-fashioned.

Consider that Sweet & Lucky, the site-specific, experiential dance-theater production staged May 20 to Aug. 7, 2016 in a 16,000-square-foot RiNo warehouse made over as a speakeasy and antiques shop, and where the audience was drawn into 20 different interactive scenes, boasted 89 consecutive sold-out performances, according to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

“Sweet & Lucky” sold out for 12 weeks in 2016. Photo by Adams Visual Communications.

From commissioning original work by cutting-edge performers to building the show’s detailed sets, Sweet & Lucky represented a significant risk for Off-Center, the experimental wing of the DCPA charged with producing shows that leave the audience thinking, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

“It’s always a risk creating a new show when you don’t know what it’s going to be,” says Off-Denver Curator Charlie Miller. But that particular show “exceeded all our wildest dreams . . . The audience really responded to the experience and the story.”

The success of Sweet & Lucky bolstered what Miller already knew about immersive theater: It’s an of-the-now idea that’s gaining steam internationally. What’s more, Denver arts audiences are thirsty for fresh, creative, social-media-friendly fun.

In this technology-driven world, Miller says: “People crave authentic human experiences. Immersive theater can deliver that.”

A drive-in was just one of the sets for “Sweet & Lucky.” Photo by Adams Visual Communications.

The intergalactic giggles that unfold during Travelers of the Lost Dimension happen in the marketplace commons and back hallways, not to mention that group art therapy sequence, which takes place inside Mindcraft, the tech-driven gallery and makerspace on the second floor of the Stanley Marketplace.

This show is drawing unsuspecting downtown crowds to a new northwest Aurora destination with a thrifty $25 ticket that includes a free pour at the Stanley Beer Hall. Meanwhile, Off-Center is readying another space at the marketplace for its next immersive event. The Wild Party, a 360-degree production set in a jazz-era shindig, will run in Oct. 2017 in The Hangar, a cavernous former Stanley Aviation jet storage and repair facility, which is now an industrial events space.

As with Off-Center’s previous interactive shows, performers in The Wild Party will engage with each other as well as the audience. Attendees will be encouraged to dress in their 1920s best.

“Denver,” Miller says, “has a really interesting sense of fun and adventure.”

Charlie Miller is Off-Center’s curator. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Making the unusual happen

Montgomery Knott found Denver to be among the most accessible of the cities where he’s staged Monkey Town, the pop-up, cinema-in-the-round dining experience he brought to 3545 Larimer St. in 2014. Monkey Town 4, which paired some of Denver’s top chefs with local dance, music and video artists, became one of that year’s hot tickets.

“It’s been very interesting experiencing the spectrum of bureaucratic, cultural and artistic responses and barriers in each location,” Knott wrote recently in an email interview with Confluence Denver. The Colorado native launched Monkey Town in Brooklyn, and recently wrapped up its seventh staging in a former upholstery warehouse in Los Angeles.

“Denver was easily the most welcoming,” Knott wrote, “and had the least obstacles of any city we staged the project.”

Monkey Town’s Montgomery Knott says Denver’s audiences are receptive to new ideas. Photo courtesy Monkey Town.

The enthusiasm that Colorado arts lovers would appear to have for immersive, interactive cultural events is mirrored five hours down the highway in Santa Fe, where, the vivid, high-tech, contemporary museum experience Meow Wolf has lured more 400,000 people — a good number of them from Colorado — to a converted bowling alley since opening just over a year ago.

Meow Wolf grew out of a longtime Santa Fe arts collective and production company. It already has a relationship with Denver, its artists and arts administrators. Earlier this year, for instance, the collective made a significant donation to a fund earmarked to update Denver’s DIY arts venues. And more recently, Meow Wolf’s on-site music venue hosted itchy-O, Denver’s masked, 32-piece, marching band performance artists, for a sold-out show.

It follows that Denver has been mentioned among the cities named when Meow Wolf talks about expanding outside of Santa Fe. It also follows that other cultural attractions around Denver and Colorado are looking to pump up their interactive allure.

Meow Wolf could look north for an expansion from New Mexico. Photo by John Phelan.

Terra Firma, for instance, the upcoming downtown installation spearheaded by the Denver Theatre District and NINE dot ARTS, will include The Blue Trees, a walkable, multi-block outdoor exhibit in which the Egyptian artist Konstantin Dimopoulos makes a statement about deforestation with dozens of electric blue painted trees. Programming around the event will include artist talks and opportunities for kids to create their own blue trees.

Speaking to Confluence Denver in February, NINE dot ARTS CEO and co-founder Martha Weidmann characterized Denver as a prime city for experimenting with fresh, offbeat artistic ventures.

“Our city tends to be a very collaborative and supportive city for new ideas,” Weidmann said. “Denver is about bringing different groups together to make something unusual happen.”

“Travelers of the Lost Dimension” features a participatory “massage train.” Photo by Adams Visual Communications.

Launched during the 10th annual Denver Arts Week, this story is the last in a four-part series funded by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and produced by Confluence Denver and Creative Exchange examining the impact of art and artists on Colorado’s evolving capital city.