Depending how far into it you let yourself fall, the Denver Center’s Off-Center production “Between Us” can be quite disorienting.
If you are curious, I suggest falling all the way. Buy a ticket, await a text from your “guide” or your “date” or your “bartender” telling you when and where in downtown Denver to meet. And don’t overthink.
The three experiences under the “Between Us” umbrella, running through May 26, are designed to be unique, personal hours. “Blind Date,” “Deck of Cards” and “Whiskey Tasting” each pair one actor with one or two patrons (you’re allowed a plus-one for the “Whiskey Tasting”) and only loosely follow a variable script. The idea is to be in the moment, interacting with the actor who is drawing you out.
The more open you are, the more evocative the exchange.
Consider “Deck of Cards,” a combination therapy-as-parlor game, guided meditation, consciousness-raising New Age philosophy briefing, creative outlet and downtown Denver treasure hunt.
The theme is a variation on your favorite guru’s advice, “be here now,” or maybe, “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The supposed card reading relies on a notebook of matching cards to poems, questions, suggested drawing and word-association games. This isn’t fortunetelling, it’s an exploration of self.
It’s also a load of psychobabble: “raising serendipity to the mantle of a miracle,” “a provocation to awake-ness.” Strictly trained psychoanalysts should stay away.
One minute I was divulging my innermost thoughts to a total stranger, the next I was skeptical of her too-easy reasoning. Draw a space that you found particularly comforting, where do you find comfort now, what five items would you travel with to be reminded of home…? Sometimes I was deep in the moment, sometimes I was playing along.
“There are no coincidences,” Jessica said firmly. “Things happen for a reason.”
The goal: Getting out of the traditional theater experience
Like many experimental offerings geared to excite a younger audience, the goal is getting out of the traditional, fixed theater and into an interactive psychodrama — or at least offering a novel way to spend an hour.
Next up from Off-Center in its pursuit of the millennial audience: “The Last Defender,” beginning May 28, an immersive, puzzle, game, theatrical experience developed by The House Theatre of Chicago. The Cold War game is “an exhilarating 90-minute experience that is a mixture of storytelling and stagecraft with no actors or theatre seats. It brings the audience together as defenders to save the world from nuclear annihilation, and their decisions and actions determine the outcome of the story,” said Charlie Miller, curator of Off-Center. Sort of like the war games our political science prof conducted back in the ‘70s. And it will take place beneath the downtown Patagonia store on Blake Street.)
The other two current theater pieces on offer from Off-Center are “Blind Date” and “Whiskey Tasting,” the latter of which involves two people and one actor, serving as the bartender. The more you invest the more you reap, in terms of emotional satisfaction.
These experiments in interpersonal connection also are not for cynics.
“Deck of Cards,” co-conceived by Jenny Koons and Christopher Gabriel Núñez, written by Christopher Gabriel Núñez, developed and directed by Jenny Koons, asks participants to bring a small token to pass on to another audience member. In turn, you get a token from someone else. (I was on the receiving end of a New Age-y refrigerator magnet.)
The digital program guide will give away the “Between Us” locations and players, so don’t consult ahead of time if you’d rather be surprised.
My guide, played by donnie l. betts (lowercase intentional), and my card reader, played by Jessica Austgen, provided an absorbing, spiritually aware session, by turns satisfying and naive.
But how can DCPA make money on this project, especially when two actors are involved in “Deck of Cards”? That’s a lot of resources for a single audience member.
Off-Center’s Miller responded via email, “Like other non-profit theatres, ticket sales only cover a portion of our expenses — not just for one-on-ones such as this, but also for larger traditional productions. While the actor-to-audience ratio is high in ‘Between Us,’ these experiences do not include many other typical elements of a theatrical production (scenery, lighting, etc.) nor the time and labor it takes to create and run them.”
Miller credited “a generous grant” from the Wallace Foundation for the past four years that has supported Off-Center’s experiential-theater efforts.
“Their support has enabled us to take big artistic risks, ranging from the huge 16,000 square foot production of “Sweet & Lucky” (summer 2016, created by Third Rail Projects) to this intimate one-on-one experience in “Between Us.”
“This artistic risk-taking is essential for us to continue innovating, and that is why the DCPA and the Wallace Foundation are investing in it,” Miller said. “‘Between Us’ is an opportunity for Off-Center to dive headfirst into developing the most intimate experience possible, and to provide a truly unique artistic experience for our audience. Additionally, we are learning tons about Denver’s appetite for adventurous, intimate work, which will inform our future productions, big and small.”
The response so far seems uneven, with plenty of $50 tickets remaining for “Deck of Cards” and “The Blind Date.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, “The Whiskey Tasting” is selling the best ($60 includes a flight of four tastings).
“With Between Us, we are exploring how much real agency we can give the audience in the experience while still delivering a cohesive narrative with a satisfying ending,” Miller said in introducing the concept. From my experience, the effort succeeds in giving agency to the participant, not so much in delivering a narrative.