It takes some kind of batshit bravery to plan a live performance when a pandemic has shut everything down, but a few heroic Denver companies and individuals have stepped into that ring of fire this summer.
When faced with unexpected lost opportunities, Control Group Productions devised and planned The End, an immersive traveling performance to be viewed by caravanning audiences safely enclosed in their cars. Sadly, the group had to cancel when problems with the city over permitting became unsurpassable.
On the other hand, Julie Rada of Grapefruit Lab pulled off Memento Mori, a mostly solo production about death performed behind a row of windows.
Now the circus-informed performance group Rainbow Militia is plowing forward with another socially distanced but live immersive event — this one in an empty 1906 Tennyson Street bungalow scheduled for demolition. The troupers were given carte blanche by the commercial real estate agency Reactiv to do whatever they wanted with the house, inside and out, and they'll roll out Gnome Away From Home, a participatory romp led from scene to scene by a lawn gnome named Fibblesticks Dabbledoo, beginning July 30. Audience members grouped into teams will have some hand in how each story is told as they move from room to room.
Amber Blais and Staza Stone, co-founders of Rainbow Militia, had no idea they’d be doing this show when the city shut down in March.
“We had several projects planned, and all of them began before COVID. But we lost those projects,” Stone says. “This was truly born out of circumstances and time, and it wouldn’t have happened under any other umbrella.”
Putting a show together in just a few months wasn’t their style, either. Usually, planning every aspect of a performance, from the creative process itself to tending to practical issues and sticking to a budget, can take up to a year.
So why did they even bother to cobble something together at breakneck speed?
“The shortest answer is that we were given an opportunity to figure out how to make art during the pandemic in a safe way for both the audience and the performers,” Blais says. “After all, this pandemic is not going away soon. Now it’s fine to have performances outdoors, but the Colorado winter is brutal.” Planning ahead, the artists of Rainbow Militia will have to remain on their toes, have the resources to pay their casts, and be ready for whatever comes — or face total dissolution.
Part of Rainbow Militia’s quick-change strategy involved choosing dependable collaborators — people whom Blais and Staza knew and trusted. “We are so excited about the cast we chose,” Blais says. “They are all so talented, and everyone put an effort into making the show; these amazing people are all truly collaborating with us.” They were even able to commission musician Dave Rynhart to compose a score in record time.
One of the group’s biggest challenges was turning an old house into a collection of hermetically sealed performance spaces, separating cast members from the audience members passing through. Their solution was to surround the actors in each module with airtight plastic barriers.
In the interest of moving teams along through the maze ten minutes apart, “each artist is curating their own space,” Blais explains. “Everyone is doing their own thing.” To smooth the process, groups can buy team tickets accommodating four to six people who can work together to solve mysteries along the way. “People can come with whomever they feel most comfortable or safe to travel with, or they can come by themselves,” she notes.
Also, Stone says, “We’ve made tons of different safety protocols: temperature checks for both performers and guests; everyone will be required to wear masks and gloves. This is a whole brand-new way to do a show, and we’ll have a full sanitation protocol in each space.”
They'll even use a donated sanitizing machine every night after each show to “make sure each space is clean and ready,” adds Blais. Every move will be orchestrated, right down to marking which doors shouldn’t be touched.
Creating protocols was only one challenge Rainbow Militia had to tackle. “Our biggest challenge was having no budget,” Blais admits. And rehearsals, she adds, have been conducted virtually. “We’ll all be together for the first time on July 27 to run all the clockwork.”
With each of the performers in charge of a module, the rest, she hopes, will be cake, as audiences discover shadow puppets, knife-throwers, a quarantined Hansel and Gretel and other unexpected scenarios. As an example: “I will be on stilts in a very tiny room,” Stone says. “It’s a story about being stuck in space or time, and I’m playing a game with people.”
You might also consider the house a cast member, a reminder of the foibles of history; the bungalow will soon be torn down to make way for new condos in a changing neighborhood. But Blais and Stone had a special encounter that gave them a new appreciation for the space.
“The area gets a lot of foot traffic,” Blais begins. “People are walking by all the time. The other day a woman walked by who told us she grew up in the house during the ’70s. She gave us a full tour.” After getting to know the bungalow more intimately, Blais adds, "it’s cool that we get to give it a good send-off.”
Gnome Away From Home runs from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, July 30 through August 23. Reserve timed-entry tickets at eventbrite.com in advance; prices for “Quaranteams” of four to six people range from $80 to $120 (individuals without a team can sign up with a $5 add-on). Learn more about Gnome Away From Home at rainbowmilitiaaerial.com.