Denver’s Camp Christmas the brainchild of Off-Center’s Charlie Miller

On a recent autumn afternoon, Charlie Miller was walking around the Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park pointing out the various buildings that will soon host Camp Christmas.

The dilapidated Peerless Gas Station will hold pounds of gingerbread creations. Down the pathway, in a red barn, a flock of fabric sheep will graze metaphorically and blaze with lights. A “glampsite” is where the kids will be able to visit with Santa, yes, from a healthy but engaged remove.

The fourth installment of installation wizard Lonnie Hanzon’s immersive extravaganza of lights, holiday memorabilia and more opens Nov. 18 at this outdoor site just west of Wadsworth Boulevard and a few blocks south of Alameda. The city of Lakewood has been relocating little landmark buildings from Colfax Avenue as well as other structures to this gently sloping expanse of acreage that was once legendary philanthropist May Bonfils Stanton’s hobby farm. It’s a perfectly zany location for a rather mad installation, one that came out of a collaboration between Hanzon and Miller, who heads the Denver Center’s wild-child, Off-Center.

A gift with creatives

“Impresario” is a little too imperious a description of Miller, who has grown in his role as the curator of Off-Center. Catalyst, to be sure. Nurturer, absolutely. It’s not so much his sensibility that is shaping Denver’s immersive scene as it is his gift with 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 an art gallery in the San Francisco Bay Area, he gave Miller a call, knowing it was just the kind of work that would excite him. It did.

Thanks to patience, timing and the relationships that Miller and Off-Center have been cultivating since 2016’s blockbuster production “Sweet & Lucky” — created by Third Rail Projects and former Denverite Zach Morris — Miller made contact. DCPA Off-Center and Byrne had plans to premiere what has become the show “Theater of the Mind” in 2020. Then, COVID-19 hit and it was postponed.

The production is back on track for a 2022 world premiere, with an announcement of a ticket on-sale date and venue in the offing.

Miller has a measured delivery, even as he talks about the things that thrill him. He’s no huckster. He’s a thoughtful enthusiast. So, when he recalls meeting the former Talking Heads frontman, his voice doesn’t give away the pleasure of that evening when Byrne visited a potential location for the piece before heading to Red Rocks — his smile does. “And that night I got to see ‘American Utopia’ at Red Rocks … at like the fifth-row center,” he recalled. “Shortly after that, 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 have done immersive things like this before — not quite like this — but they’ve cultivated an audience in Denver.”

Figuring out how to make the artistically wild, logistically tricky experiences that draw audiences in has been an aim of Miller’s even before Off-Center got its clever brand name in 2010. At the time, Miller and assistant company manager Emily Tarquin were a couple of millennials eyeing the Denver Center’s under-utilized Jones Theatre for less traditional theater, more experimental work. Having sharpened his multimedia storytelling skills as an undergraduate in Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies department, Miller wanted to create a lab. And Tarquin was keen to present edgier theater.

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

Tarquin left the Denver Center in 2016 to become artistic producer of Actors Theatre of Louisville.

“We knew that to break this barrier, we had to build narratives that centered the audience and welcomed their full participation. Off-Center was immersive from the beginning, and I still reference the recipe we created over a decade ago!”

That “recipe” had five ingredients that each of Off-Center’s projects had to contain. “Ingredients that I still feel are very relevant,” said Miller, sitting on an aged glider on the porch of one of the buildings at the Heritage Lakewood. “Immersive for us was about the audience having a more active role in the inference, not just being passive viewers. Convergent, which was about bringing together different art forms and technologies. Connective, which was about being in conversation with the community, bringing people together. Inventive, which was about innovation and experimentation. And ‘now’ was about being relevant to the moment.”

The pair had the support of the Denver Center Theatre Company’s producing artistic director at the time, Kent Thompson. And Miller enjoys a similarly encouraging relationship to the Theater Company’s current honcho, Chris Coleman. A good thing, since, said Miller, “I think we’re still in the rise of immersive and experiential in town and nationally, and it will be interesting to see what happens as we reemerge from the pandemic and whatever form that is going to take.”

Kind of a “magical unicorn”

“Thought partnerships” is a Miller phrase that gets at the heart (and mind) of the type of collaborations he continues to champion. While he has reached beyond the Denver area to find new works, he is dedicated to raising the profile of local talent.

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

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

Hart produced the Arvada Center’s Amplify, a series of video performances that put Black artists front and center in the wake of the George Floyd protests. She’s directed a number of area shows, including Vintage Theatre’s searing production of “The Scottsboro Boys,” one of the last shows in town before the pandemic shuttered in-person theater.

“Charlie introduced me to Andrew Scoville (“Theater of the Mind” director), and then he left, and it was just Sco and me in a room,” recalls Hart. “(Charlie) took the time to bring a diverse group of people before (Scoville). That was intentional. I think he has a fundamental belief that if you have a quality product with quality people and you create a setting and an atmosphere of belonging and creativity, you’re going to 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 they embarked on Camp Christmas together, Miller and Hanzon had been having lunch routinely. “At first, I would take lunch with a lot of different artists to get to know them. And we really hit it off,” Miller said. “Lonnie’s very meticulous and was a real student of immersive. He was feeding me information that wasn’t on my radar. And I was encouraging him to just start trying some things.”

One day Hanzon said to him, “‘If I was to do anything immersive, it would be for Christmas, because I’ve got 30 years of Christmas stuff.’” Miller’s reaction? “Right on.” And come mid-November there will be 6 acres of that stuff artfully imagined by Hanzon and artfully cultivated by Miller.

“Charlie is a rare combination of tenaciousness and wickedly smart, mixed with true compassion. He’s compassionate about the audience,” said Hanzon, taking time away from installing his holiday spectacular. “And he’s very careful with protecting my aesthetic.

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

 

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