Denver’s Camp Christmas, an original idea by Charlie Miller from Off-Center

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On a recent fall afternoon, Charlie Miller was walking through Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park, pointing out the various buildings that will soon be hosting Christmas Camp.

Peerless’s dilapidated gas station will hold kilos of gingerbread creations. At the end of the road, in a red barn, a flock of cloth sheep graze metaphorically and blaze with lights. A “glampsite” is where children can visit Santa, yes, from a healthy but engaged place.

The fourth installment of installation assistant Lonnie Hanzon’s immersive extravaganza of lights, vacation memories and more opens on November 18 at this outdoor site just west of Wadsworth Boulevard and a few blocks away south of Alameda. The town of Lakewood has moved iconic small buildings from Colfax Avenue and other structures to this gently sloping expanse that was once the hobby farm of legendary philanthropist May Bonfils Stanton. This is a perfectly wacky place for a rather crazy installation, the result of a collaboration between Hanzon and Miller, which directs the wild child of Denver Center, Off-Center.

A gift with creatives

“Impresario” is a bit too compelling description of Miller, who grew up in his role as curator of Off-Center. Catalyst, of course. Feeder, absolutely. It’s not so much his sensibility that shapes Denver’s immersive scene, but his gift for creatives – and a growing reputation, local and national, as a champion of immersive work.

When a friend saw David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar’s installation “Neurosociety” at a San Francisco Bay Area art gallery, he called Miller, knowing it was exactly the kind of work that would turn him on. . It made.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

LAKEWOOD, CO – OCTOBER 08: Charlie Miller, Curator of the Off-Center Christmas Camp and Associate Artistic Director at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts at Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park, site of this year’s Christmas Camp on October 08, 2021 (Photo by Andy Cross / The Denver Post)

Thanks to the patience, timing and relationship Miller and Off-Center have enjoyed since the successful 2016 production “Sweet & Lucky” – created by Third Rail Projects and former Denverite Zach Morris – Miller has made contact. DCPA Off-Center and Byrne had planned to create what became the “Theater of the Mind” show in 2020. Then COVID-19 hit and it was postponed.

Production is back on track for a world premiere in 2022, with the announcement of a date and location for tickets to go on sale in sight.

Miller has a measured delivery, even though he talks about things he’s passionate about. He’s not a huckster. He is a thoughtful enthusiast. So when he remembers meeting the former frontman of Talking Heads, his voice doesn’t betray the fun of that night when Byrne visited a potential venue for the play before heading to Red Rocks – his smile does. . “And that night I got to see ‘American Utopia’ at Red Rocks… like in the middle of the fifth row,” he recalls. “Soon after, we were able to figure out how to make it work.”

For his part, Byrne told Rolling Stone magazine, “The Denver Center for the Performing Arts has done immersive things like this before – not quite like this – but they’ve cultivated an following in Denver.”

Figuring out how to create artistically insane and logistically tricky experiences that draw audiences was a Miller goal even before Off-Center got its clever brand name in 2010. At the time, Miller and the company’s deputy director , Emily Tarquin, were a couple of Millennials eyeing the underutilized Jones Theater at Denver Center for a less traditional theater, more experimental work. After honing his multimedia storytelling skills as an undergraduate student in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, Miller wanted to start a lab. And Tarquin wanted to present a more sophisticated theater.

“Often in ‘traditional theater’, the interaction with the audience is passive and transactional,” Tarquin wrote in an email. “The production team creates a great production, the audience buys a ticket, doesn’t unwrap any candy and watch.”

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David Byrne (center) and the creative team of “Theater of the Mind”. Not pictured, co-writer Mala Gaonkar.

Tarquin left the Denver Center in 2016 to become an Artistic Producer for the Actors Theater of Louisville.

“We knew that to break down that barrier, we had to build audience-centric narratives and welcome their full participation. Off-Center was immersive from the start, and I’m still referring to the recipe we created over ten years ago!

This “recipe” had five ingredients that each of the Off-Center projects had to contain. “The ingredients that I still think are very relevant,” said Miller, sitting on an old glider on the porch of one of the Heritage Lakewood buildings. “For us, Immersive was about the audience playing a more active role in inference, and not just passive viewers. Convergent, which consisted of bringing together different art forms and technologies. Connective, which was to be in conversation with the community, to bring people together. Inventive, who was about innovation and experimentation. And “now” was to be relevant for the time being. “

The duo had the backing of then-Denver Center Theater Company producer artistic director Kent Thompson. And Miller has an equally encouraging relationship with current Theater Company boss Chris Coleman. A good thing, because, said Miller, “I think we’re still in the rise of immersion and experience in the city and nationwide, and it will be interesting to see what happens as we go. as we emerge from the pandemic and whatever form it takes. to take.”

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A scene from the immersive blockbuster “Sweet & Lucky” by Third Rail Projects with Meredith Grundei.

A sort of “magical unicorn”

“Thinking Partnerships” is Miller’s phrase that is at the heart (and mind) of the kind of collaborations he continues to champion. While he has gone beyond the Denver area to find new work, he is dedicated to raising the profile of local talent.

“He’s kind of a magical unicorn because he’s an artist himself,” says Amanda Berg Wilson, co-founder of Boulder-based experimental theater company The Catamounts. “He comes from the background of an artist. So he has this unique perspective of understanding what artists need and how they work, but he really wants to be a facilitator of artists’ visions. I’m always excited when her name shows up on my caller ID because I know it’s going to be some sort of new idea or opportunity.

In 2017, Wilson made Off-Center’s “The Wild Party,” a 360-degree production of Andrew Lippa’s musical, which invited audiences into the gin-soaked tub, a naughty night in the title. In 2019, Miller asked Wilson and local director Betty Hart to be assistant directors on “Theater of the Mind.”

Hart produced Amplify of the Arvada Center, a series of video performances that put black artists at the forefront in the wake of the George Floyd protests. She has directed a number of regional shows, including the Scorching Vintage Theater production of “The Scottsboro Boys,” one of the last shows in town before the pandemic shut down the theater in person.

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Erin Miller and Emily Van Fleet in the 2017 360 production “The Wild Party” at the Stanley Marketplace.

“Charlie introduced me to Andrew Scoville (director of ‘Theater of the Mind’), then he left, and it was just Sco and I in a room,” Hart recalls. “(Charlie) took the time to bring a diverse group of people before (Scoville). It was intentional. I think he has the fundamental belief that if you have a great product with great people and you create a framework and an atmosphere of belonging and creativity, you will get something wonderful. And I think that’s what (Miller) does. He does his part to ensure that a culture of belonging and genuine curiosity can be fostered. “

Long before heading to Christmas camp together, Miller and Hanzon ate breakfast regularly. “At first, I had lunch with a lot of different artists to get to know them. And we hit it off really well, ”Miller said. “Lonnie is very meticulous and was a real immersion student. He was giving me information that was not on my radar. And I encouraged him to start trying some things.

One day, Hanzon told him, “If I had to do something immersive, it would be for Christmas, because I’m 30 years old of Christmas stuff. Miller’s reaction? “. And by mid-November, there will be 6 acres of this thing artfully dreamed up by Hanzon and artfully cultivated by Miller.

“Charlie is a rare combination of tenacity and wickedly intelligent intelligence, mixed with true compassion. He’s compassionate to the public,” Hanzon said, taking the time to set up his vacation show. “And he’s very careful. to protect my aesthetic.

“I have had a lot of clients. He’s my first theater producer, ”Hanzon said. “Now I don’t know what I did without one.”

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