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Castle Rock native brings immersive dance to Denver theater

‘Sonder’ leaves decisions on character’s path in hands of audience


Makena Sneed, 19, knew from the age of 10 she wanted to become a professional dancer.

So, the 2016 Castle View High School graduate danced competitively and trained with Boutique Dance Academy while growing up in Castle Rock. After graduation, she was set to attend the Marymount Manhattan dance school to pursue that dream.

Until, that is, Sneed said she had a last-minute change of heart.

The young performer realized her biggest passion lay not with dancing, specifically, but rather with creating. She’d always loved choreography, said her mother, Tricia Strahler, and so it was no surprise to her when Sneed chose to forgo her plans at Marymount Manhattan and take a gap year.

She’s since spent that year working with a series of mentors, producers, a screenwriter and organizations throughout the Front Range to create an immersive dance theater production that will debut in Denver on July 7 and run through July 15.

The show, “Sonder,” for which Sneed was the artistic director and choreographer, follows an unnamed protagonist who is at a crossroads, choosing between pursuing her passion for art or following in her father’s footstep by taking a job in the corporate world.

The roughly hour-long production is grounded in dance but features actors with speaking roles as well.

But it’s the experience, not the storyline, that Sneed hopes will be unlike what most audience members have come to expect from the theater. In an immersive dance production, show goers don’t watch a stage from their seats.

Instead, each scene takes place in a different room of the theater. Spectators walk through each one as they string together the storyline, and are invited to interact with actors along the way.

“You’re allowed to see and smell and even in one scene taste,” Sneed said. “We see a series of memories that describe what she’s kind of learned in her childhood and we learn her values and what she fears and what’s important to her.”

Based on those glimpses into the protagonist’s life, the audience can decide which path they believe she should choose.

“It’s left open-ended very intentionally,” Sneed said. “Since it is interactive and immersive we don’t answer the question for you because, based on your background, you might think that a certain thing is a better option.”

Sneed and her production crew worked to develop the storyline throughout the summer of 2016 and performed a workshop version of the show in December.

The 11 cast members they’ve brought on board are all professional actors or dancers under the age of 18. Sneed said the immersive dance component to the production has stretched the boundaries for her young performers.

One such cast member, Kayla Engelhardt, is a 13-year-old Castle Rock native who hopes to pursue a career in performing arts. Engelhardt studies at the Colorado Ballet Academy and auditioned for Sonder to gain new experience as a performer.

“I had never done immersive theater before so I thought it was really interesting when Makena told me about it,” Engelhardt said. “It was a nice challenge — to change things up and try to grow my career.”

Engelhardt, who is primarily a dancer, took on acting for the first time in her role with Sonder, where she plays a playground bully who discourages the protagonist from pursuing her dreams.

“It’s been amazing trying to portray a character through my words and not through my movements. That’s all I’ve ever done,” Engelhardt said. “I really hope I can do more things like this.”

Most performers have studied as dancers like Engelhardt, Sneed said, and were able to build a more multi-faceted skill set throughout rehearsals by beginning to focus on acting skills as well.

As Sneed’s mother, Strahler said stepping into the role of artistic director and choreographer was a natural next step for her daughter. Even when she was focused on competitive dance, Sneed had a knack for dreaming up moves.

“It’s been amazing to watch her at such a young age make it all happen,” Strahler said about the making of Sonder.

She and Sneed hope that if people aren’t interested in seeing the performance alone, although they predict people will want to come twice, they buy tickets as a way to support aspiring artists.

Ahead of the show’s opening, Sneed said she was confident people would “see something and be a part of something that will impact their hearts.”

Her last-minute decision to divert from her longtime plan of becoming a performer was the right choice, she said, noting that this fall she’ll continue working in dance performance while also pursuing a business degree online with Temple University.

Taking a year to redefine her plan for the future, she said, was a year well spent.

“I don’t regret for a minute,” she said, “having taken a gap year.”


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