Theatrical experience makes participants both audience and performer

If you’re not in a theater, can you truly be said to be attending the theater?

That’s the question the Denver Center Theater Company looks to answer in the affirmative with its Off-Center program, with productions taking place outside the realm of the usual suite of theaters the company inhabits in downtown Denver.

The latest in the series is “Remote Denver,” and it’s hard to imagine anything further removed from the usual scenario, where stage and audience are firmly separated in a darkened theater.

To understand “Remote Denver,” try to conjure images of these things in your mind:

  1. Candid Camera, where people in on the gag confound and befuddle those who aren’t;
  2. “Her,” the 2013 film where a robotic voice in the ear of Joaquin Phoenix all but replaces his own reality;
  3. That time in high school when you and 50 of your friends jaywalked across the street after graduation and stopped traffic with the power of your numbers;
  4. The scavenger hunt your company had you do for “team building,” where you joined with co-workers to look for stuff in a downtown area.
  5. A museum audio tour, where you wear headphones and are told about the exhibits by an unseen narrator.

Even more than the sum of those parts, “Remote Denver” may look to outsiders like an audio tour, but there’s not much in the way of historical information or other facts about the route the 50 participants will traverse over the 90-minute excursion. Once everyone puts on the headphones in Lincoln Park and starts hearing “Heather” talk about the artificial constructs humans create to spoof the natural world, it’s clear she’s not going to pivot to a lesson about the founding of the Mile High City. With her AI voice and detached and often humorous observations about the world around us, Heather (who later evolves into another character named Will) looks at the built environment with the objective eye of an alien newly landed.

Soon, the “horde” we’ve formed with the other participants is in its own world, observing light-rail passengers, cars, tennis courts, security guards, marble hallways, scuzzy alleyways and everything else we come across with the eye of aloof critics. The horde is silent, hearing only the voice of Heather and moving in an independent bubble through some of the busiest parts of downtown Denver.

Yes, we got funny looks, but the horde immunized us from having to worry about them. The underlying structure of “Remote Denver” made us both audience members and performers, creating an experience that feels both deviant and conformist in equal measure. From our bubble, Heather and Will point out the beauty and foibles of the city with childlike naivete laced with poignant digs about the absurdity of it all and our fleeting presence as animals inhabiting this space. There’s no shying away from the looming question of mortality that hangs over us all.

“At some point in the future, you’ll no longer be visible in this picture,” Heather cheerily reminds us as we stood in front of a mirrored glass building taking a group selfie. “Who will be the first to need a joint replacement, or a pacemaker?” she asks. “Who will be the first to need a wheelchair? Who will be the first to die?”

We laugh nervously and move on.

Ending up atop a structure affording a clear view of the Front Range and the setting sun, the horde dispersed, and we reluctantly returned our headphones to resume our place in the world. We were left with a greater awareness that the world itself is a moving piece of art, of theater. The famous line from The Bard about men and women being only players on a grand stage undergirded everything Heather and Will told us and changed our view of things, perhaps forever. Why do we cede so much of our ground to cars and trucks? Why is that guy wearing that ridiculous hat? Does the traffic really look like the circulatory system of some enormous organism?

All these questions, plus a brisk walk and an unconventional look at downtown Denver comprise an unforgettable experience. For those ready to look their own humanity straight in the eye, “Remote Denver” awaits.

Vail Daily – May 29, 2018