New York in the 1960s was a hotbed of theatrical exploration. Rents were manageable, and everywhere you went, artists were using odd spaces for performances — lofts, bars, churches, coffeehouses — and the streets for improvisational happenings. Everything could be theater, and theater could be just about anything. You might see a group of actors writhing around the stage, wordless — or if there were words, they weren’t connected. An actor might leap over you and the chair you sat in or release a couple of live rats at your feet. In one piece, the actors made A Quick Nut Bread to Make Your Mouth Water, courtesy of playwright William M. Hoffman, and served pieces to the audience. There was lots of nudity. People copulated on stage. (I like imagining the auditions: “We really love your work, but can you perform six nights a week and for the matinee?”)
In the last couple of years, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’s Off-Center has staged two site-specific immersion projects. An actor led me across an empty sky over a carpet of stars in Sweet & Lucky two years ago, and I ended this year’s The Wild Party dancing with a handsome Arab. Both events were enchanting, but they felt top-down and very expensive. Now comes Bite-Size, an evening of micro-theater also sponsored by the Denver Center, which is far more in the spirit of the iconoclastic ’60s.
Bite-Size comprises five ten-minute plays, selected from 213 submissions, all presented in different areas of BookBar, and also in the bookstore/bar’s next-door office, with pauses for discussion accompanied by tapas and wine; audience members will go from space to space, ultimately taking in all the offerings, which repeat. Bite-Size is the brainchild of the multi-talented Meridith C. Grundei, who approached Off-Center’s Charlie Miller with the idea. “It’s not a big-budget piece,” she says. “I feel it’s when you’re forced to problem-solve and be creative because of limited resources that magic can arise. The entire project is created by local artists — playwrights, actors, directors."
“I love the Denver-Boulder theater community — such a lot of passionate people trying to do really good work, and how supportive the community can be,” she adds. “This project, for instance: just going to Charlie and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea’ and him saying, ‘Yes, let’s see what happens.’”
Grundei first saw a Bite-Size event in 2016 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She remembers the “buzz about the room, people talking about the pieces they’d seen. There were a lot of loose ends, but what I really liked was bringing this diverse community together.” And so, she says, she decided that “I would have a tighter container, and within that container the audience experience needs to be clear. They need to feel they’re taken care of and not confused about where to go. I think the transitions are incredibly important. And when we picked the plays, it was important that they were diverse in style and content.”
One of those plays is Jeff Neuman’s Marginalia, directed by Mare Trevathan and starring two powerhouse performers, Emma Messenger and Phamaly’s Regan Linton. The play takes place in a book store. “It’s about a tender, lovely relationship between the manager and a customer who keeps writing in the margins of these used books,” says Grundei.
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“I think it’s a really exciting challenge to write a story so economically,” says Neuman. “I’ve always been drawn to the short-play format. Short plays are like short fictions, and that’s an art form in and of itself — to tell a full story with a full arc that’s plot- and character-driven in such a brief format.” Like reading a book of short stories, Bite-Size will provide “a dynamic and complex journey the audience needs to go on, finding their footing with each and every ride,” he adds.
“Immersion theater is lovely, because when you put the audience in a dynamic environment, it makes you realize that theater can happen anywhere and enlarges your idea of what theater can be,” Neuman concludes. “And, of course, food and wine make everything better.”
Nut bread, anyone?
Bite-Size, presented by DCPA Off-Center Tuesday, October 23, Sunday, through November 18, BookBar, 4218 Tennyson Street, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.