The Denver Center for the Performing Arts' experimental arm, Off-Center, is trying to energize the city’s immersive-theater scene and empower artists to build skills and take risks through a massive takeover of the downtown library with the Denver Public Library Immersive Theatre Sprint. Off-Center is organizing the June 9 event without a budget, and artists — no matter how skillful and empowered they become — won't be paid for participating.
That's a detour for the DCPA, the nonprofit behind Off-Center's one-on-one Between Us series, as well as its immersive Sweet and Lucky and the Wild Party; the DCPA also brings in touring Broadway productions and is home to the Denver Theatre Company. All of the performers in those shows are paid.
But the Sprint is a first. For this inaugural effort, ten seasoned directors will donate their time working with around fifty volunteer actors to create site-specific immersive experiences throughout the Central Library. The productions are required to revolve around customers and address big issues faced by the Denver Public Library. Some pieces will be movement-based, others text-based; all of them will be interactive.
The event, explains Charlie Miller, Off-Center's co-creator and full-time curator, is more like a hack-a-thon, a 24-hour film festival or an open mic than a traditional production; it will give immersive artists the chance to try out new material, build community and learn from practice.
“There’s a pretty wide range of experiences for people. Some audience members will be at the library that day and have no idea what’s going on and will be amused or intrigued,” says Miller. “There will be some people who come specifically for this reason and very deliberately want to catch all ten [productions]. It will be exciting to see what commonalities there are between them and what makes them unique. This whole thing is being approached with a sense of experimentation and curiosity and play.”
In the days before the Sprint, library staffers will let customers know there will be performances throughout the building. "We're going to be putting up a lot of posters in the spaces where they're going to be," says Chris Henning, DPL spokesman. Some areas of the library will not be included in the productions, he adds, so customers will have a place where they can opt out from the experience.
Outside of the location, date and time, most details about the Sprint are still unknown, as Off-Center wraps up recruiting collaborators. The people being tapped to participate largely come from the artists, academics and fans who took part in the Denver Immersive Summit in November 2018 as well as a Denver immersive-theater gathering Miller organized early this year, along with local actors and students in the DCPA education department.
"We’re trying to cast the net pretty wide to find anyone who’s interested," Miller says. "There’s really room for as many performers who want to be a part of this — within reason.”
If they want to be a part, they won't be paid. “Because we added this kind of at the last minute, there is zero budget for the project,” Miller says. “Everyone is donating their time.”
The Sprint will take place a month after the DCPA took a hit from more than 100 musicians who played loudly outside the city-run Denver Performing Arts Complex, a protest of the organization donating $50,000 to the No on 300 campaign. The protesters pointed to the DCPA’s $6,969,660 in funding in 2018 that came from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District’s penny-on-$10 metro-area sales tax and raised the question: Should a taxpayer-funded organization be weighing in on electoral matters?
Now some are asking whether an arts organization that gets public money to boost the local cultural economy should be producing shows without paying the artists involved.
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Miller says that the DCPA remains committed to employing creatives. “Off-Center pays a living wage for dozens of artists for our projects where we’re charging for tickets,” he notes. As for the Sprint, “We really see this as community building and skill building. Everyone who’s signing up is doing this to get something out of it for them personally.”
“Visibility and experience,” Miller says.
If you’re an actor, writer or artist who wants to immerse yourself in the Spring, sign up by Monday, May 13, to guarantee your spot.
The Denver Public Library Immersive Theatre Sprint will take place from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Sunday, June 9, at the Central Library, 10 West 14th Avenue; admission will be free. Stay tuned for more information at the Denver Public Library website.