Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and writer Mala Gaonkar will debut their massive, immersive theatrical experience Theater of the Mind in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Denver in August. Sixteen audience members will journey through the installation at a time; the piece will explore neuroscience and the tricks that the brain plays on us. Beyond that, most details are secret.
To pull it off, Byrne and Gaonkar, both based in New York, will spend nearly a year collaborating with some of the Denver artists who have put this city’s immersive arts and theater scene on the map. There’s Charlie Miller and his crew at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ experimental offshoot, Off-Center. Through productions like Sweet & Lucky, The Wild Party and Camp Christmas, they know how to secure permitting for interactive art in non-traditional spaces. And New York director Andrew J. Scoville has two local assistant directors who will make sure the production maintains its quality after he returns to New York: Betty Hart, who worked with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Vintage Theatre and Kaiser Permanente's Educational Theatre Programs; and Amanda Berg Wilson, who's been involved with various Off-Center productions.
Wilson is also a major creative force in her own right, as artistic director and co-founder of Boulder experimental troupe the Catamounts, which will debut Shockheaded Peter on Saturday, February 15. During a rare lull in Wilson's schedule, we caught up with her to talk about Theater of the Mind, experimental theater in Denver in general, and what the word “immersive” means — if anything — these days.
Westword: How did you get involved in Theater of the Mind?
Amanda Berg Wilson: I've been involved in several immersive productions Off-Center has put on. I was a cast member in Sweet & Lucky in 2016 — the one that took place in RiNo in that huge warehouse. Then I directed their next big immersive piece, which was The Wild Party, a musical we did at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. Then I led one of the creative teams that created one of the Between Us pieces. Mine was a whiskey tasting.
When Charlie started to lay the groundwork to bring Theater of the Mind to town, he wanted some boots on the ground, since so much of the team is in New York. I interviewed for the assistant director position and got it. It's very cool. Way before this, I was a David Byrne fan, so it's kind of an awesome opportunity.
Compared to your work with the Catamounts, how does this stack up in scale?
It has the most well-known playwrights. It’s thrilling to be part of something that is a local production but that is going to have national attention. Certainly other work Off-Center has done has had national attention because of the ambition of the immersive production. But obviously, it's not Rolling Stone material, like breaking news about this was.
The great thing about my work with the Catamounts is that it’s a smaller, local company. We have the agility to be experimental and to work in a little laboratory and test things out. Though Theater of the Mind is massive and super-ambitious, it's the same thing, only amplified.
It's exciting that an artist of David Byrne's national reputation, who could coast on Talking Heads hits for the rest of his life, is doing something that's really experimental. It's neat to know that the same things we're tinkering with in the Catamounts lab, he's tinkering with in this much better-resourced and much bigger scale.
You’ve been doing immersive work for more than a decade, long before it was called "immersive."
We've been circling around the dissolving of the audience-performer barrier for a long time. Now it's being called "immersive." Certainly, there are things that are emerging that are codifying what that means. But the lineage goes way back to performance artists of the ’60s who were doing it.
How do you feel about that term now that it’s used so much?
I'm trying to think of how to say this diplomatically. It's a term that gets used a bit liberally. I think sometimes it means site-specific. Sometimes it means the audience isn't seated in a traditional sense.
I'm interested in what makes something truly immersive. I don't think there should be immersive police out there, but I don't think it always means the same thing. There's something that's great in that. It gives it a vital, alive feel that it's not been codified. A lot of different folks are bringing different meanings to it.
What are the Catamounts up to?
The Catamounts are producing — oh, gosh, here it comes — an immersive production of Shockheaded Peter, an adaptation of these wild German children's stories, in which all these children die as a result of their misbehavior.
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It was adapted in the late ’90s by a British punk band, the Tiger Lillies. And Phelim McDermott, who has been adapting massive operas for the Met, adapted it into a musical.
Twenty-eight years later, we are doing the musical. We're staging it using some things I learned through The Wild Party. You can tell a linear story, but you can really start to mess with how the audience experiences it by seating them in 360 and having performers interact with them in these smaller, unscripted moments.
Once Shockheaded Peter is up on its feet, then David's coming out, and we're working on the script in March for Theater of the Mind. There's a lot of investigation this whole year: What happens when you let the audience out of their seats?