Far from the darkened theater

Immersive art has found its place in Denver, bringing audiences through the screen and onto the stage

Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is immersive, drawing the listener into a carefully crafted soundscape of strung-out emotions and mountains crashing. Salvador Dali’s “Melting Clocks” is immersive, transporting the viewer to a surreal world of heat and time amuck. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is immersive, throwing the reader into an age of bootlegging, jazz and prosperity before the Great Depression.
Any great work of art is immersive — what differentiates these classics from today's definition of immersive art is a matter of purpose and choice. An audience chooses how they interact with the art, the art giving them the agency to act on that and what that art, this medium, can impress onto the audience because of it.
“We wanted to give [the audience] agency, but also to create a contextualized experience so they aren’t just sitting in the dark half of a theater, but are part of the event, because they are moving their eyeballs and ear canals in the world,” said Patrick Mueller, Denver-native, and artistic director at Control Group Productions, a production company based out of Lakewood.
The company's most recent project, “The End,” came to a close in Denver last month after bringing its audiences far from a darkened theater, forcing them to smell the refineries in Commerce City and walk around fallen bricks in an abandoned hideout, all on a Mad Max-esque bus touting other survivors in a post-apocalyptic climate change warning story.
The goal, according to Mueller, was to give “an experience of what it feels like at the precipice of a de-civilizing moment, something falling apart in a serious way.” But to impress that weight on the audience, he said the immersion was “crucial.” 
Audience becomes involved
“It feels like people are looking at it in the face at this point, but they still aren’t figuring out how to change behavior,” he said. Really, he elaborated, the show allows people to be involved, to see themselves inside this crisis in a way that screen or theater cannot do, a way that forces people to look it in the face and “not having it be this virtuosity that is celebrated by distancing and elevating it onto the stage.”
But Mueller sees the style doing even more than that single project’s goal: “We can offer what people are most hungry for, if they actually think about it — a rich experience that they’re part of, a social interaction for people that may spend their whole day working from home — being out in the world and experiencing it really differently.”
And for Zach Martens, co-founder of OddKnock, that is practically the goal of the production company's work.
“Coming through the pandemic, everyone has been isolated and gotten very used to it, and gotten used to spending a lot of time in front of Netflix,” he said. “People are being trained to sit still and isolated, and those are the two things that I think will destroy humanity the fastest.”
OddKnock’s latest project (which also closed in Denver last month) was "From on High," an absurd satire that brought the audience into an '80s office full of co-workers with an almost religious fervor for profits, and an obsessive work ethic. Slowly, as the work “week” goes on, the co-workers become more and more unhinged. 
But people are free to explore the office and interact with their “co-workers” and fellow audience members alike. As people are dragged left and right for different tasks, audience members have those close interactions with strangers and are pushed to involve themselves.
To Martens, it’s a “massive win for us, because then you go home and realize you really felt something. For that brief moment a complete stranger touched me, patted my hand and made me do something, and that just doesn’t happen anymore," he said.
He added that people disengage with the world around them until they decide otherwise.
"And I think we’re saying, ‘Engage, engage, engage,’” he said.
The show itself gives people choices, he explained. To not be a cog in a machine like it may feel like in everyday life, even if the show is a stringent office setting.
“But by putting them in that position we’re saying, ‘Do you like this? Do you feel this? This is what you do every single day of your life,’” Martens said. "We’re just saying, ‘Look, this is the world we’re living in, do you agree? Do you want this? If you don’t, make a choice about it.’”
These choices, this interaction, this is what the immersive art does, according to Martens. “That’s why we do what we do: You can’t smell or touch or taste anything that’s happening on a Netflix show.”
Body movement a major element
In both shows, interpretive dance was a vessel of emotion, a push to the plot, and another way of pushing the audience through the screen and into the show. It makes the audience realize “all the things that our bodies can do in action, because we’re right there, we can see the hair follicles, and the sweat beads, and maybe even smell the person,” according to Mueller.
“I think as an immersive audience member, it reminds me of my own body’s capacities,” he continued, an ideal shared by Martens.
More than just reminding the audience of their body’s capabilities, though, there’s also the mind’s capabilities.
“We want to create spaces that allow people to see their creative potential and how much they are a creative being,” said Chadney Everett, senior creative director of Convergence Station — Denver’s Meow Wolf exhibit — and a lead designer of House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe. “...not only being a creative being, but also how necessary they are to the environments they create.”
At Meow Wolf, artists create environments, Everett said. Worlds that “really allow you to feel like you’ve been transported to another place, and therefore free you to express yourself in a different way in that space.”
The immersion allows a “marriage” of the audience and what they created, creating something new and better, he explained. Like a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it, the art — the environments — don’t “exist until the audience comes and interacts with it, and brings it to life with their unique perspective,” he said.
The start of Denver’s immersive art scene is before Meow Wolf, OddKnock and Control Group Productions came to town, according to Mueller.
“There was a really particular point in time that immersive had a big moment of entering public consciousness in Denver, and there were a lot of factors involved in that, but specifically, Charlie Miller’s Off-Center production of ‘Sweet and Lucky,’” he said.
“Sweet and Lucky,” in which Mueller was a cast member, premiered in 2016 by Third Rail Projects and was commissioned by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Off-Center program. Created by Zach Morris, “Sweet and Lucky” was an immersive theatrical piece described by Westword at the time as “designed to take you out of your everyday reality and deposit you in a shifting, dreamlike world where memories come and go and you occasionally find yourself doubting your own senses.”
“It’s had a big effect on the fact that Denver is now a fairly major hub for immersive art and performance,” Mueller continued.
This exiting of reality had been a running thread through these immersive pieces since. 
“But I think a lot of the impulse that is driving the local scene is the fact that Coloradans are highly active people,” Mueller said. “They spend a lot of time outdoors, have a very socially focused recreational lifetime around breweries and distilleries and food and nightlife.”
With no deep tradition of live theater, according to Mueller, immersive is a way of bridging the gap between “that feeling of it’s for grandma, or snooty New Yorkers.” It brings the audience shoulder to shoulder with the performers, who rely on the audience's reaction to propel a scene.
Meanwhile, a gallery may be the perfect setting for paintings, Everett explained.
“The white walls ask me to focus on that piece — taking away all other information around it is exactly right for that thing.”
Everett also is a writer, musician and painter, who says of those art forms: “They do all work, but in different ways. They each serve their own function.”
Really, immersive art should be used because it’s the best tool for the job, according to Mueller.
Even within immersive art, there is a difference in approaches and goals. But the main difference that Mueller sees between the types of projects is their purpose.
“I definitely find a different value in work that talks about the human condition in a way that addresses social ills and social justice,” he explained. “I’m interested in art that makes people do and be better in their world.”


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