Leadership / 10.12.22
DCPA’s ‘Theater of the Mind’: A Slow ‘Byrne’ That’s Drawing Audiences
In the old days of Orson Welles’ landmark “War of the Worlds” broadcast, the popular “Detective Story Hour” program of the 1930s featuring “The Shadow,” and network TV soap operas that began as daily tune-in dramas, radio was often referred to as “theater of the mind.” It was just you, your ears, your imagination, and voice actors and sound pros in a studio somewhere bringing stories to life.
Here in the 21st century, The Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne and writer Mala Gaonkar say, “Hold our beers.”
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) Off-Center is currently hosting the world premiere immersive production, “Theater of the Mind,” co-created by Byrne and Gaonkar. The show premiered Aug. 31 and is slated to run through Dec. 18. “Theater of the Mind” takes place in a 15,000-square-foot historic warehouse within the adaptive reuse campus of York Street Yards in Denver’s Clayton neighborhood. The creators’ goal is to take audiences through a journey of self-reflection, discovery and imagination inspired by and grounded in … neuroscience!
Yes, indeed. For this production, Byrne & Co. consulted actual neuroscientists. Brittany Gutierrez, Communications Manager for the DCPA, says, “We were fortunate to have many neuroscientists consult with us on the production so that we were learning how to easily incorporate experiments into a theatrical production, as well as use experiments that can be done by people who are not neuroscientists.”
Does this all sound vague and more than a bit mysterious? That’s on purpose. There’s a certain mystery that surrounds “Theater of the Mind,” which has given it its mystique. The production has been banking heavily on Byrne’s reputation as an artistic provocateur. What this writer can tell you is that “Theater of the Mind” is led by a Guide (always capitalized in the show’s marketing) whose stories are inspired by the two creators’ lives. As they are shepherded through the installation, audiences will explore how they perceive the world through sensory experiments that reveal the inner mysteries of the human brain.
According to Gutierrez, “‘Theater of the Mind’ takes 16 audience members every 15 minutes as they follow a Guide through a series of rooms, revisiting key moments in their lives. Immersive theater puts audiences at the center of the story, and ‘Theater of the Mind’ does this through various neuroscience-based experiments that are the foundation of the production.”
As you explore the various intriguing environments throughout the installation and participate in the narrative, your Guide will cause you to question how beliefs, memories and even identities are less fixed than we think. As a disclaimer, attendees are issued the following pre-show advisory: “Side effects may include a distrust of your own senses, a disorientation of self and a mild to severely good time. You may not be who you think you are. But we’re all in it together.”
So, how was the experience for Gutierrez when she gave it a test run? Her reaction was to repeat the experience again as soon as possible, saying, “I have seen the show several times, and my favorite part is getting to experience a new Guide each time! ‘Theater of the Mind’ features an all-local cast, and it is a fantastic opportunity to attend the production more than once and experience how each Guide approaches the role.”
Because ‘Theater of the Mind’ is such an atypical live event, there have definitely been challenges marketing it and ticketing it. Gutierrez says, “The most challenging part of marketing ‘Theater of the Mind’ is not giving away too many details. We want audience members to not go in with an idea of what will happen, but have their own individual experience with the production.”
Being the first to stage this experience was quite a coup for DCPA. No one would have been surprised had New York City gotten first dibs considering the smashing Broadway success of Byrne’s “American Utopia.” For the creators, though, it came down to venue size and who could actually put on such a challenging new kind of theater especially after venues have been playing it safe after a long pandemic delay. Gutierrez says, “DCPA Off-Center is a leader in the nation for immersive programming and has the experience and resources to produce immersive production at this scale.”
Tickets for “Theater of the Mind” went on pre-sale to all DCPA subscribers on May 6 and on public sale two weeks later. It began previews on Aug. 31 and officially opened on Sept. 13. Of course, many INTIX members who will be reading this just won’t be able to get to Colorado by its mid-December closing. So, the question was posed to Gutierrez, “Is this a production that will be mounted in other cities in 2023 and beyond?” Her reply: “We always hope that the productions we produce have life after we close. But there are no current plans for the production to be produced elsewhere.”
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