Art News

Will DCPA Be a "National Leader" in Immersive Theater? Organization Promotes Charlie Miller, Expands Off-Center

Charlie Miller co-founded Off-Center twelve years ago.
Charlie Miller co-founded Off-Center twelve years ago. Denver Center for the Performing Arts
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is about to immerse itself in immersive arts. When the DCPA started presenting shows more than four decades ago, it prided itself on grand traditional productions, with occasional forays into more experimental projects. But since Off-Center was established a dozen years ago, that emphasis has been changing. And now with the promotion of Off-Center co-founder Charlie Miller to curator/executive director, as well as a member of the DCPA executive team, this city could put on a real show.

Miller, a sixth-generation Denverite who grew up in DCPA theater programs, believes the Mile High City is poised to become the country's capital of immersive arts — if it isn't already. He founded Off-Center in 2010 with former DCPA Theatre Company artistic producer Emily Tarquin (who left in 2016), and since then it has produced more than fifty shows that introduced the citty to immersive arts long before Meow Wolf opened Convergence Station last September. "We really realized that experiential or immersive theater was something that could be a really good fit for Denver," Miller says.

"Off-Center from the beginning has been a kind of project for the theatre company," he explains. "It started off as this experiment, really on the fringe of the organization, with us wondering what we might do to engage adventurous audiences in different ways, how we might think more broadly about what theater could be, and create work that explores the boundaries of theater. Off-Center was born with that vision, with a recipe of five ingredients that would guide our programming."

Those key ingredients — immersive, convergent, connective, inventive and of the “now” — have proven to be a recipe for success. By 2015, Off-Center had received game-changing grants from the Doris Duke and Wallace foundations, allowing it to offer more large-scale performances such as Sweet & Lucky, an off-site production that sold out 89 shows.

"That show, I think, really put Off-Center on the map," Miller reflects. "I still hear from people about how meaningful of an experience they had at Sweet & Lucky, how vividly they remember it. It was really the first large-scale immersive theater production in Denver. And it was with an all-local cast, and everyone who worked on the show kind of went on to do other immersive projects, too. So there was stuff starting to happen in the artistic community, but I think Sweet & Lucky was a real catalyst for the community and helped accelerate our growth to a hub of immersive art in the country."

But it took a while for higher-ups at the DCPA to realize just how popular immersive theater was becoming. "There are certainly people at the DCPA at all levels who love traditional theater and who don't fully get what Off-Center is or why it's important," Miller admits. "The incremental approach that we've had has allowed those people to get on board on their own time, and for us to really be rigorous about understanding why we're doing this and how we're doing it, and do it in a way that is calculated risk-taking, with incremental growth based on data and learning. So it has been a long journey, and that has allowed us to bring skeptics along."

Now that he'll have a seat at the executive table, Miller says Off-Center will be recognized "in the organization in a different way, when it comes to conversations about the overall budget and priorities...and amplify the impact it can have on the organization as a whole." This will enable Off-Center to make long-term plans for productions as well as secure greater funding for large-scale works.

Putting more emphasis on Off-Center should pay off for the DCPA as a whole. "In terms of where that field of theater is going, Off-Center helps the DCPA be a real national leader," Miller notes, "because no other regional theater, maybe with one or two exceptions, is investing in immersive work the way we are, and we now have the expertise in what it takes to pull off these projects. And that's really exciting, I think, for the DCPA and for Denver, that we're able to be seen as a national leader in this space, and to help push the national conversation forward around how theater is expanding and how immersive arts are integrating all these different art forms and engaging audiences and storytelling in a new way."

Miller acknowledges that "immersive" has become a buzzword that many companies are now using as a label for projects that don't necessarily fit the bill. "Increasingly, I feel like 'immersive' doesn't even describe [some projects] terribly well. It's sort of overused in a way that kind of annoys me," he says.

Authentic immersive theater "puts the audience at the center of the story," he explains.

"Because we're in theater, storytelling is the central piece of it. If it doesn't have a story, it could be immersive still, but it's not theater, probably. And we've done shows without performers where the audience sort of becomes the character," he says. "But another quality of immersive, I think, needs to be multi-sensory — it needs to happen all around you in some way. And I think it needs to, whether physically or metaphorically, put you in a space where you cannot see the edges of the experience.”

Experiential theater artists from across the country have taken note of Denver's immersive scene and have been moving here to become a part of it. "I've seen the theater community grow and morph in all sorts of ways," Miller says. "And for the past eight years, I've been really more focused on the local immersive community and connecting with all different types of artists around Off-Center. Obviously, Meow Wolf has been an interesting and exciting addition to the scene, and seeing that artists are now moving to Denver to be a part of the scene is really exciting."

Denver artists excel at immersive theater, he says, referencing Control Group Productions' latest work, The End, in particular, as a theatrical production that fully fits the immersive definition. For The End, ticket holders board a graffiti-covered bus that takes them on a journey through an apocalypse brought about by climate change and a contaminated water supply. "One of the most powerful parts was driving through Commerce City and seeing oil refineries at sunset in this bus. And that was incredibly powerful immersive theater, as far as I'm concerned," Miller notes. "Everything I saw through the window contributed to my understanding of the story and the experience, because they had created this frame through which I was going to view the world. Being fully inside of a world or a reality or a story and having some agency to move through it in some way is what makes it immersive to me."

The End runs through July 31, but the year's biggest immersive experience is still to come: After a pandemic-induced delay, Mala Gaonkar and David Byrne's Theater of the Mind will open August 31.

For years, Miller has been meeting artists from across the country, and a mutual friend introduced him to Nate Koch, a producer for the show. "When David was touring American Utopia and playing Red Rocks, I met him for the first time and showed him a warehouse space I'd been looking at," Miller recalls. "We talked about Off-Center, and it ended up being a pretty easy sell and a very mutually beneficial collaboration. By early 2019, we were all on the same page, we had figured out the budgets, and we were planning to open it in the summer of 2020. We had the space and we had started building it, and then everything shut down. And now, two years later, we're actually making it happen. It's so exciting, and sort of surreal at this point."

Miller is also helping produce the Denver Immersive Gathering, which will take place November 4-6; it's a supersized version of an event that started five years ago in recognition of the city's immersive scene, when Meow Wolf was just talking about its Denver facility. DIG will include panels, networking events, parties and, of course, immersive productions, with access to Convergence Station and Theater of the Mind, among other productions.

"The purpose of DIG is to really shine a spotlight on Denver as one of the top places for immersive art in the country and to bring people from all over the country to Denver and showcase a bunch of exciting, immersive work that's happening in our community,” Miller says. “Part of my mission is to help the country and the world realize how awesome Denver is, and to help make Denver more awesome. I'm lucky that through Off-Center and the DCPA, I can play a small part in making that happen."

And Denver is the perfect place for it to happen.

"I've always felt like Denver was a great place for experiential work, because what brings people here is this sense of activeness, the proximity to the mountains. And immersive gives people that sort of active experience in culture and in art,” Miller concludes. “I think that the people who generally are attracted to Colorado are interested in more active artistic and cultural experiences, and the general spirit of adventure of Denver and the West."

To learn more about Off-Center, visit the DCPA website. Theater of the Mind will run August 31 through December 18, at York Street Yards, 3887 Steele Street; tickets are $65 and up. The Denver Immersive Gathering happens November 4-6; tickets are $150-$250. 
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.
Contact: Emily Ferguson