Mixing steampunk with the surreal and combining opera, theater, dance and circus arts, Luminous Thread Productions wants to give Denver a kind of show that the city has never seen before. That's what Mary Lin and Ben Sargent had in mind when they began dreaming up their unique production company four years ago. Now their dream is becoming tangible, with the first season of what they've named dreampunk, which will open October 28. And in the meantime, they're reaching out to arts lovers for donations to their Kickstarter campaign.
The foundation of their plan is an organization that will help support art, science and culture projects: Inventing Earth. The idea is to have Inventing Earth partner with other companies, including their own Luminous Thread, to help fund the projects. "We are developing a new method for creating artwork. It's very expensive to create large-scale performance works and original theater. So what we're doing is trying to develop a new method for doing that with a collaboration between for-profit and non-profit," Sargent explains. "This year we're doing it with ourselves, basically as an experiment, and in the future, Inventing Earth expects to be able to work with other small theater and opera companies to also help them produce shows."
Luminous Thread isn't just a way to test the Inventing Earth model, though; it's also a chance for Lin and Sargent to put on the shows of their dreams. "Mary and I have a lot of shows that we want to bring into the world, so it makes sense to have a production company to manage those shows once they're developed. So we do expect Luminous Thread to have its own life beyond this season, somewhat separate from Inventing Earth," Sargent says.
Lin and Sargent met in college decades ago. Lin, who is the artistic director for Luminous Thread, received an MFA in interdisciplinary arts from Goddard College and a masters in education from Northern Arizona University; she also studied visual art and experimental theater at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and dance and molecular biology at Marlboro College. Sargent, who works as an adviser for the company, studied music theory and composition in Marlboro College. They've since moved to Denver, where they met Andrew Adams, founder of the Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir, who is the music director for Luminous Thread.
As a recitalist, Lin was never very interested in performing the well-known operas that are constantly reproduced -- but unfortunately, new operas are sparse. "I found that the old stories, a lot of them were just reinforcing stereotypes about women and about power relationships," she says. "And even when they were poking fun at them, now the messages in those stories are so established that they help to reinforce the old stereotypes." So when she began writing plays seven years ago, she realized she should just produce her own shows.
Her first experience with producing original works was in 24-hour play festivals, where her pieces were produced within a day. She wrote music and dance into her shows, and watched her creations come alive. Many of the principles she developed during those festivals have now found their way into Luminous Thread. "My approach is: find people who are interesting, take a story, shape it a little bit or a lot to them, make sure that there's lots of different art forms represented so people can show other great talents. And that's what we're doing," Lin says.
The idea of dreampunk, which is a mix of steampunk with the surreal, started to form when Lin was learning to fire-dance for a fire opera and thought it might be interesting to combine her opera friends with her circus friends.
But there have been some missteps along the way. When they first arrived in Denver, Lin and Sargent set up workshops with a Gregorian chant master. "We're very much interested in the history of Western music and when it split from what we now think of as Mideastern music -- because they used to sound very much the same -- and how the church was involved in that," Lin explains. But that topic was not as well-received as they thought it would be.
Steampunk, on the other hand, has been generating lots of interest with locals. "When we were talking with people in Denver about the shows, there were certain shows that really sparked with them," Sargent says. "And so, in a sense, dreampunk is a response to the audience and the people here in Denver and what their interests are."
The initial dreampunk season has three shows: Nuptials for the Dead, End Times at Le Chat Noir and Queen Victoria's Floating Garden of Secrets and Natural Wonders.
Sargent says they've found plenty of performers interested in their productions; the bigger challenge has been finding business and arts administration professionals to help them start the company. They've turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for the season and are offering various perks for contributors, hoping to come up with $5,000 by October 9. "We're new to the area, and we're really holding our breath that we raise that money. If we do, the season is set; we're able to totally go ahead with it," Lin says.
The original works are accompanied by extravagant visuals. "We're working with sculptors and professional costume people who are making ornate things -- I can't really describe them, but many of them glow and pulse, and they're like butterflies and chrysalises and moons," Lin says. These visuals are meant to tell a story of their own, which can be enjoyed even when you don't understand the music.
That should help with a show like Nuptials for the Dead , which is a story of love and death told through German lieder, or art songs, using pieces by Franz Schubert, Clara and Robert Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler. "There's a huge amount of work being put into the visual, lush spectacle of this that also helps to tell the story that Andrew basically put together from these art songs, sort of based on my original idea of following the story of a young woman through her courtship and first love," Lin says.
It's not all about the beauty of the songs and visual spectacle, though; this story also has a message. "There's this enduring struggle in the show of the young woman who wants to have a career and wants to commit herself to music, but she's being tugged at by social mores to get married and to have children and to be an upstanding citizen," Lin explains.
End Times at Le Chat Noir is a musical theater show that takes place in a cabaret and incorporates cabaret songs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. "A lot of it will be familiar or seem really familiar, and with other stuff, it's just going to be like, 'Wow, where did that come from?'" Adams says. The musical follows the story of Madame Marie, who is trying to find meaning in the world as her cabaret falls apart.
Although the story takes place in a seedy setting, the main character tries to maintain a moral standing. "She's struggling to actually do something good. She may be the Madame of a cabaret -- and of the back rooms where the real money happens -- but she's philosophical and romantic and idealistic, and she believes she can really do art, even though the world is falling apart," Lin says.
Queen Victoria's Floating Garden is an original steampunk opera that takes place on a vessel based on the Darwin HMS Beagle. "It's sort of an homage to Jules Verne and scientific discovery, while poking fun at mores and cultural norms, etiquette and the oppression of women and dominion over nature," Lin says. The underlying message is to act responsibly to help maintain the Earth.
Luminous Thread hopes to find fans within Denver's many subcultures, including steampunk supporters. "I don't know that we'll appeal immediately to the traditional opera audience that goes to Colorado Opera, but I think there are enough of them that are interested in new works," Adams says. "Certainly the audiences at the colleges attract, because they don't necessarily do straight bread-and-butter opera."
And they're sure enough of their audiences that they're already working on three shows for the following season.
Dream on, dreampunk.
Nuptials for the Dead premieres at 3 p.m. Sunday, October 28 at the Mercury Cafe, with a second show at 7:30 p.m. November 1 at the Oriental Theater. End Times at Le Chat Noir will premiere in February;Queen Victoria's Floating Garden in April. Tickets for the Dreampunk productions can be purchased online.
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To donate to Luminous Thread Productions, go to their Kickstarter campaign.