Off-Center is a new theatre experience developed by the Denver Center Theatre Company. It’s theatre that feels like a night out – fewer formalities, less sitting still, more beer, more fun. Everything is guided by the desire to be immersive, convergent, connective, inventive and “in the now.” Its curators — Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin — recently gave their “recipe” for this innovative theatre experience to Theatre Communications Group.
Free beer (or even cheap beer) may be the easiest and fastest way to tap into a new audience. Drinks, food, socializing, and costumes (on the audience, not the performers) are what young Denver locals look for in a night out. Translation: they aren’t looking for theatre.
How do we know? We happen to be young Denverites ourselves and have attended and studied the events that draw the demographic we desire. And most importantly, we asked. We started by conducting focus groups with the young, adventurous, and unattainable. We gave them free beer, asked them what they wanted in a night out, and why they weren’t currently attending our shows. One twenty-something replied bluntly, “Theatre is a bad brand.”
Like many performing arts organizations, the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) is concerned about aging audiences and the challenges of engaging the next generation of theatergoers. Not only does the word “theatre” come with baggage but it also competes with any number of inexpensive social events. Denver offers a range of activities from live music to sports to food truck flash mobs to ping pong warehouses to biking in costumes while drinking. Its 5:00 on a Friday, you have $20 bucks from the ATM or if you’re lucky $40…what would you do?
Our solution: let them drink beer. But behind the beer is a model for curating a complete audience experience before, during, and after the show. We’ve removed the waiting in the lobby for the show to begin. We’ve removed the curtain speech with the endless instructions. We’ve removed the separation between artist and audience. And we’ve added beer, snacks, costumes, and ways to get involved, not just watch.
At Off-Center @ The Jones, DCTC’s home for this new approach to programming, the show starts the minute you walk in the door. Whether you’re putting on costumes in the bathrooms, submitting ideas for that night’s show, or mixing Pop Rocks and beer, you’re involved.
Each show is created with the full experience in mind. Artistic, marketing, development, audience engagement, and production are all equal players in the creation of a show. What’s going on in the lobby? What’s happening online? What happens once the performance ends? What community partnerships can we develop to strengthen the experience and broaden our reach? It’s all part of the show, it’s all part of our Recipe for programming, and it’s all part of making theatre feel like a night out.
For example, take our show DRAG MACHINE, a drag queen time machine that explored the history of drag and its effect on the gay rights’ movement. At home, on your couch, you could create your own drag name using on our online Drag Name Generator and learn how to give yourself a drag makeover with our instructional video. We transformed the theatre lobby into an airport terminal so the show started the minute you entered and were handed cotton candy. Our flight attendants conducted security screenings with fairy wands, Captain Shirley Delta Blow counted down to takeoff over the loudspeakers, and a screen showed arrivals and departures with delays due to “raining men”. Then in order to freshen up for your flight into the Gay Universe, you had to decide which bathroom to enter – Kings or Queens? Inside, we provided the proper makeup, mustaches, wigs, and feather boas to become either one.
The bar was onstage until the show started and, to complete the scene, our ushers costumed in shiny pink vests and rainbow bow ties were straight out of our target demographic. We’ve branded them Team-OFF and they act as our advisory board, street team, and volunteers. In return, they get to participate in creating the shows and get free admission to all of our events. It’s the perfect combination for people who might not have the money, might have some extra time, and might want a creative outlet from their day jobs.
Our approach to curating theatrical experiences was designed through the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, created and administered by EmcArts and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Trust. The eight-month Innovation Lab process allowed us to research, develop, test, and implement our ideas around new programming and audience engagement. It also helped our organization build the capacity and resources needed to be innovative and support this new initiative.
Off-Center is a test kitchen for the DCTC where we prototype with new forms and techniques to attract and engage the next generation of audiences and artists. We function cross-departmentally so that every department can benefit from Off-Center’s research and development. The Jones is a space where we can take risks and the successes can be taken to scale elsewhere in the organization. The stakes are low, the tickets are cheap, and, thanks to a generous sponsorship from Molson Coors, the beer is free. It’s our opportunity to find out how to reach an audience who isn’t coming to the theatre and develop content that is relevant and directly appeals to them. This model makes every show a prototype and every audience a focus group.
You can find out more about our process by checking out our profile on ArtsFwd.
When the literary staff at The Denver Center commissioned playwright Michael Mitnick to write something, the deal came with a twist: the play should incorporate visual technology in a way that was integral to the storytelling. So often video is used in the theatre to augment or even replace set design: an image of a New York street or a leafy park can come and go with the flick of a switch. But what we were curious about was could today’s state-of-the-art visual technology be used narratively instead of decoratively? Could videos and projections, like those songs in musicals that carry the action forward, advance the story in exciting and unexpected ways, perhaps even forging new types of hybrid playwriting?
Intrigued by the challenge, Mitnick dreamed up Ed, Downloaded, a story set in a future world only slightly more advanced than our own. Ed, who is terminally ill, has decided to have his brain downloaded upon his death, taking ten memories with him into the great beyond. His girlfriend Selene works at a “forevertery” (a repository of digitized brains) and facilitates this cutting-edge procedure. When curiosity gets the better of her, she peeks at Ed’s memories, only to find that instead of herself, most of his memories are of Ruby, a vital young street performer Ed met shortly before his demise. And so Selene, who is not amused, decides to do something about it.
Mitnick takes pains to present the human story first. In fact, the whole notion of the forevertery doesn’t appear until the third scene.
“I wanted to establish the play firmly in terms of plot and character and drama onstage before bringing in the technological world. But once it was introduced, I wanted the two to coexist in a way that made each dependent on the other.”
That they do. In fact, the entire second act is a thrilling display of the interaction between the live actor playing Selene and the projected memories she is so unhappy about.
“If you were to look at a physical copy of the script,” Mitnick points out, “once the video is introduced, the page is rotated, it’s in landscape mode, in three columns. The character of Selene appears in all three columns talking with herself, stopping and starting, editing memories.”
Which makes Ed, Downloaded fiendishly difficult to present in standard play reading format. In fact, in the two workshop readings that this play has had, the videos were presented, whether in a rough, or “scratch,” version or more fleshed out with actual location shots. Charlie Miller, who is designing the video for the production and has been attached to the project since day one, felt the workshops with projections were invaluable: “It helped us hear how it sounds when you have layer upon layer of sound and video, especially in the second act. It also allowed us to develop a visual vocabulary for the show. Because we have the same director [as we had for the reading], we can start up our work on the production at 30 rather than at 0.”
That director is Tony-nominee Sam Buntrock, who made a splash with his 2008 New York revival of Sunday in the Park with George that was designed entirely with projections. “I was thrilled when Sam joined the project,” Miller continued. “I knew that he had a real eye for video and how video can successfully integrate with live performance.”
Mitnick appreciates Buntrock’s dramaturgical skills as well: “Sam is certainly someone who not only realizes the potential of a piece on the page, but he’s someone who can elevate the material. I’m very fortunate to have found him, and I’m glad he’ll be by my side in a piece that’s as ambitious and daunting and perhaps foolish as this.”
The production will be staged in The Ricketson Theatre, which seems ideally suited for a play with so much filmic material, given that it started out its life as a movie theatre. And the human scale of the theatre will work especially well for this three-character play.
Except for a film of the Grand Canyon that Ed shows on an old school pull-down screen in Act One (he works in a natural history museum), all of the video will be projected on state of the art screens.
“We have this really cool new screen technology,” waxes Miller, “SpyeGrey, made by SpyeGlass, is a semitransparent film that when affixed to plexi-glass becomes an amazing projection surface that glows like a TV monitor, so it will look very futuristic.”
The memories will be projected on two large screens made of this material and suspended in the air over set designer Jim Kronzer’s minimalistic forevertery with its downloaded brain boxes perched atop pedestals like so many terra cotta soldiers.
But back to Ed’s story. Mitnick didn’t invent the idea of brain downloading (or uploading as it sometimes is called). Some scientists predict that within the foreseeable future, we may actually be able to download or digitize the contents of the human brain. According to Mitnick, the main stumbling block is the vast amount of digital storage needed. But the question always arises when science fiction draws nearer to non-fiction: Just because we can, should we?
The playwright is not sure whether he would, but he is curious about what it would be like to recapture a perfect moment: “It’s fascinating to me what it would be like to live that moment again and again and again, to exist within these euphoric moments.”
Ed, Downloaded plays Denver’s Ricketson Theatre January 11-February 17, 2013. Tickets: 303.893.4100.
This article first appeared in Prologue, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter.
By Megan Quinn
Freelance Writer, Team-OFF Member (Off-Center’s External Committee)
What happens when one woman discovers online dating and becomes addicted to the rush?
The result is DATE*, the world premiere play presented by Off-Center @ the Jones. Incorporating real-life interviews with more than 100 people, Denver-based writer Luciann Lajoie weaves her own tales of the online dating world with those who have weathered disaster dates, finding the one and everything in between.
Lajoie’s one-woman performance is just one of the multimedia offerings from Off-Center, whose first season has so far included shows with improv based on movie moments, Johnny Cash cover bands and audience-powered butter-churning.
Curators Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin call Off-Center “theater that feels like a night out.”
The Jones strives to incorporate audience participation and out-of-the-box performances to capture the next generation of audiences who like theater with a dose of the unexpected. Themed costumes, drag queen hostesses, live Twitter feeds and impromptu after-show dance parties are some of the ways Off-Center invites audience interaction before, during and after the show.
The Off-Center recipe also aims to compliment The Denver Center’s diverse theater and music offerings by acting as an entry point for new artists who might not otherwise show their work at the Denver Center Theatre Company. At the same time, The Jones targets adventurous, predominantly younger audiences who normally would not attend mainstage productions.
Shows such as a hip hop history dance show and a rowdy baseball game played entirely on a Wii set the tone for The Jones’ initial prototypes last year.
Miller and Tarquin have an eye for irreverent humor, diverse stories and fresh takes on traditional and pop culture.
DATE*, Lajoie’s first play, fits the bill.
After going on a marathon string of first dates, Lajoie admitted her online dating encounters had “hijacked her life.” At first tempting and accessible with just a wireless connection, Lajoie soon discovered online dating was much more complicated than she originally thought. The hilarious, perplexing and cringe-worthy occurrences led to the framework for DATE*’s script.
Lajoie had her own stories to work with, but she also wanted to widen the conversation. So, tape recorder in hand, Lajoie interviewed over 100 people of every age, background and religion to see how their own online dates had fared.
Set to a soundtrack from local musician Ian Cooke, DATE* features Lajoie live onstage along with video projections of some of her best interviews. The stories feature people who have been fooled by Photoshop, intimidated by their first encounters and puzzled by dating rituals. Amid the ups and downs of dating life, DATE* asks audiences, “do you believe in love at first site?”
Audiences can share their own dating stories—from the horrific to the heartwarming— through Lajoie’s website or follow updates of her own story on Twitter @datetheplay.
Catch performances of DATE* 8pm, Fridays & Saturdays, April 20 - May 12. DATE* takes place at Off-Center @ The Jones, located on the edge of The Denver Center at the corner of Speer and Arapahoe.
DATE* is written and performed by Luciann Lajoie, with creative guidance by Allison Horsley, Ashlee Temple and Richard Thieriot. Curated by Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin, directed by Ashlee Temple, and produced in partnership with LuciCo, LLC.
Tickets are $16.
Off-Center @ the Jones is an offshoot of the Tony Award-winning Denver Center Theatre Company.