For more than a decade, Patrick Mueller and his Control Group Productions dance theater company have been changing everything you thought you knew about dance — beginning with removing the stage in order to perform in abandoned buildings, in outdoor vignettes for an audience that walks or is bused from place to place, in no-proscenium black-box spaces, in Mueller’s garage and in total darkness, to name a few scenarios. In the eight years since we first showcased him as a Colorado Creative, drama has overtaken the pure dance in Mueller’s works, while his themes have thoroughly embraced the immersive, making for movement-based theater with no barrier between performer and audience.
It just keeps getting better, he says...and then he says a lot more as he catches us up through the Colorado Creatives Redux questionnaire.
Westword: How has your creative life grown or suffered since you last answered the CC questionnaire?
Patrick Mueller: Ha! Ten years ago I was a harebrained kid living in the back of the Packing House (our Globeville venue), convinced that all it took was some solid collaborators and a shit ton of vision….
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We’ve grown a lot since then. We’re figuring out how to operate in the local funding ecosystem, deepening our networks and taking on more ambitious projects. It’s feeding the work in great ways: more bandwidth to innovate, better personnel fees to build more robust artistic teams, more resources to serve our broader community. But it also still feels just as precarious — bigger shoestrings, but just as frayed.
I make a living purely as an artist now, which is an extraordinary luxury — and also crucial, since the workload has grown exponentially along with our budgets. Also crucial because life has progressed: I just turned forty; I have an amazing family; we own a lovely little house; schedules and household budgets and pretty much everything is tighter, more complex. I’m no longer a nomad, and I can’t run a business purely on passion anymore.
I’ve learned a ton about collaboration and artistic process over the last decade. I’ve drilled down on some things, let go of others. I’d say the skills that have grown the most have to do with the craft of creative problem-solving: how to respond to situations and parameters that turn obstacles into opportunity and take you beyond the great idea into extraordinary manifestations. I’ve had to come to terms with the need to run a business as well as make good art. It takes a whole lot of money to create our work, and even more to make a sustainable system that takes care of its people. We definitely don’t have it figured out, but…we keep making it work each next month, each next year.
As a creative, what’s your vision for a more perfect Denver (or Colorado)?
I have a pile of well-worn soapboxes about what the Front Range cultural landscape needs: curating and commissioning local work, granting based on artistic quality, cultivation of emerging artists, greater visibility and value for innovative independent art, more community cohesion and shared resources, just downright more money for the arts.
It all boils down to ecosystem-minded infrastructure.
I’m continually confused that Colorado’s generally libertarian ethos has positioned massive institutions to so completely dominate the landscape. I appreciate the role that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Denver Art Museum, Colorado Ballet and others play in providing broad access to the arts. But these institutions remain so dominant — and so narrow in what they curate and create, and what other projects and artists in the area they support — that they overshadow the rest of the cultural landscape. This stunts growth, stifles diversity, drives independent artists away and disenfranchises audiences interested in the vast spectrum of art that these institutions aren’t built to serve.
Ecosystem-minded infrastructure gets beyond the hierarchy of budget size and production value, where funding and quality flow from the large to the small — where, for example, DCPA only needs Control Group around to provide performers for their next huge (and therefore more relevant) production. Reality is much more complex than that. There’s a ton of symbiosis, mutual benefit and non-depleting resource-sharing available if we can feed that complexity instead of reverting to monoculture mentalities.
I also firmly believe it’s in the best interest of the big institutions for them to receive less local support. SCFD Tier I and other institution-fixated local funding doesn’t just suck up all the oxygen that could feed a broader ecosystem, it also keeps those institutions from reaching outward toward regional and national resources that would bring Denver into broader dialogues and help make our scene more relevant as well as more diverse.
It’s a challenging time for artists and creatives in the metro area, who are being priced out of the city by gentrification and rising rents. What can they do about it, short of leaving?
I wish I had more answers to this. We bought our house in late 2013 — six months before the housing market would have left us behind for good. I look around at my younger friends and colleagues, and I’m scared to death that they simply won’t ever have the chance to own a home, or even find a place to live on an artist’s income.
The only answer I can come up with is to grow Control Group’s budget every way I can figure out, and channel every dollar I can into artists’ paychecks. It’s never enough, never half of what any of us deserve, but I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, and committed to continuing to grow what we pay our artists.
But it’s like wringing water from a stone for an organization our size. We need a system-wide shift in how grants are awarded, how those funds are allocated and how much money is in the system. We need community-wide publicity infrastructure that informs more audiences about art happening outside of big institutions, and opportunities for independent organizations to provide outreach and other services without needing to build new programs and departments from scratch. We need to adopt standards around fair compensation for artists, embrace the term “working artist” as a goal of funding and organizational development, and challenge the fixation on pushing arts organizations to offer $5 to $10 worth of services for every dollar awarded.
What's new at Control Group Productions?
We’ve recently made a fundamental shift in how we operate. Instead of a packed season of similar-looking offerings, we’re working on a project-based production model. This allows us to concentrate resources and efforts on much larger, more ambitious and expansive projects — just one or two each year, with longer development periods, longer performance runs, larger artistic teams and much more audience reach.
We’ve always really been a project-based company; each thing we do isn’t just new content. We’re selecting unique sites, building project-specific modes of engagement with the audience and digging into extensive research. This was the way that we could figure out to honor that process and thrive within it instead of defaulting to how we see other dance and theater companies operating.
And it’s really exciting to see how the work thrives in this model and takes on a vibrant life of its own. We’re seeing the potential for truly transformative impact on viewers and local culture.
What’s your dream project?
I don’t know if this is a cop-out, but I don’t have time to dream. At least not in terms of hypothetical ideals.
I think, work and dream contextually. I’m much more excited about a project I can do — one that’s just barely within reach if I mobilize resources and take a risky leap — than something outside of my reality. I’m pretty good at bending and shaping my reality, I guess?
But to throw up some half-baked haphazard ideas: an event that takes over a massive exclusive space, spills out into public spaces, has a dozen tracks or choose-your-own-adventure routes and several dozen performers, so that you could spend days there or visit hundreds of times.
What advice would you give a young hopeful in your field?
Make sure you’re making things. Ideas in your head don’t translate into skills to craft the thing.
Collaborate. Because you learn from it, because it makes better art, because it consolidates the most valuable resource in our field: us.
Don’t do ideas, do things. Make sure everything you create has its own life/essence/whatever, and complete it as itself, not just as the execution of the idea of itself.
Don’t do IMMERSIVE art, or DANCE art, or any other kind of art. These things are tools for you to pursue a project. Take on a project with real unknowns and real research needed to arrive at something worthwhile, and then follow the project until it starts pulsing and breathing and asking for what it needs. Then that work becomes itself, not a knock-off of something you’ve seen or done before.
Make sure you’re always learning, and always a little scared of whether or not it’s going to work.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
There’s a lot to love across the Front Range arts community right now. I don’t know if I have a single standout favorite, but I’m pretty excited about:
What the RedLine staff is doing at the intersection of really good art and effective social engagement.
What Helanius Wilkins is doing up in Boulder, both at the University of Colorado and out in the community.
What Kate Speer is building, in terms of community and in terms of bridges between performance and visual arts.
What Mark Sink is building in Derby in Adams County.
Most of what Buntport Theater puts on stage.
What's on your agenda right now and in the coming year?
Right now I’m cranking on all cylinders to get our next project up. Our new work, Aggregate Immateriality, is by far our biggest work to date — budget, square footage, scope of vision…it’s really freakin’ huge. And it’s in an abandoned slaughterhouse! Did I mention that in the last five minutes? Yeah, that’s not the only reason it’s awesome, but holy mackerel, you need to see this space!
After that we’re headed into a really fun project at the Aurora Fox, where we’ve been invited to create an immersive non-haunted house!
And next summer, we’re returning to the bus tour/multi-site-specific format we last employed in 2013, for a show that combines sightseeing, a fictional election campaign, and a rock band on tour, all on one bus….
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Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Last year the word “immersive” became the number-one descriptor for anything from gallery openings to toilets (for real, Google “Kohler immersive toilet”). This year I think audiences and critics will start adjudicating this sprawling immersive “industry” — on the one hand, recognizing the way that, for instance, Aggregate Immateriality, DCPA’s one-on-one performance experiences and Prismajic’s Natura Obscura all come from the same set of mentalities about how we want art to connect; and on the other hand, that the “immersive” self-designation doesn’t necessarily mean, well, anything.
And I sure hope that more and more folks keep noticing that the best art in Colorado isn’t happening in our big institutions, and that they need to get out into the community and come find us in all the strange, amazing corners of the world, that we’re sharing extraordinary experiences.
Control Group Productions presents Aggregate Immateriality at 4800 Washington Street, where it's been extended through May 11. Find tickets, $25 to $40, online at brownpapertickets.com. Learn more at Control Group’s website.