David Byrne would like you to consider one more thing on top of the global pandemic and societal chaos currently taking up space in your brain: the fallibility of the human mind.
“We’re talking about questions of our own perception and our own identity,” the 70-year-old said from a worn armchair inside his “Theater of the Mind” space last month, dressed in his signature white, head-to-toe. “Putting that on a stage like a proscenium … it’s a great subject, but what you really want to do is experience it for yourself.”
Byrne, the Grammy-winning co-founder of The Talking Heads and Tony-winning creator of Broadway’s “American Utopia,” had already set his sights on Denver with the 2019 announcement of “Theater of the Mind.” The secretive, interactive theater production, co-written with Mala Gaonkar, would send groups of 16 people at a time through a 15,000-square-foot bank of interconnected rooms, unfurling a dramatic yet personal story through its actor-guides but also cutting-edge science experiments.
Byrne’s choice of Denver for the world premiere of the high-tech play — developed with and produced by Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Off Center — was seen as a major artistic win for the city, and a product of our already bustling immersive-entertainment scene. That includes everything from previous Off Center productions such as Camp Christmas and Mixed Taste to Meow Wolf Denver’s Convergence Station, touring pop-ups, NFT galleries, digital-art festivals, and fast-sprouting virtual-reality parlors.
Denver audiences, in many ways, have been primed for it.
“Denver’s an adventure hub in general,” said Melissa Cashion, DCPA’s production manager and producer for “Theater of the Mind.” “People want to go to the mountains and go rafting and hiking, but maybe also come to a unique experience in Denver that they can’t get in other cities. We’re a place for art, and for exploration.”
Despite the pandemic, that’s still the case as “Theater of the Mind” prepares for its Tuesday, Sept. 13, world premiere in the Mile High City (following previews that started Aug. 31). Byrne will not be part of the day-to-day performances, but he’s staying here through Monday, Sept. 12, when he’ll sit down at the Donald Seawell Ballroom at the Denver Performing Arts Complex for an on-stage chat.
The one-off puts him in conversation with neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley and is moderated by Radiolab co-host Latif Nasser.Tickets are $55 to attend in-person and $10 for streaming. Timed tickets for “Theater of the Mind,” which runs through Dec. 18 at York Street Yards (3887 Steele St.), are $60-$70 at denvercenter.org.
While “Theater of the Mind” was able to bounce back from its COVID-forced downtime, it was also transformed in the process, Byrne said.
Sparks from a cold engine
Along with “Theater of the Mind” director Andrew Scoville, Off Center director Charlie Miller and the rest of the creative team, Byrne suddenly found himself in a strange, quiet space starting in March 2020. Fortunately, strange spaces are something of a comfort zone for all involved.
“For me, it meant there was time to think about the story and the script,” Byrne said from his armchair inside the uncannily realistic Attic set of the production — itself housed in a brick-walled, industrial space in northeast Denver known as York Street Yards. “We worked on the guide’s journey, and the journey that the audience takes with the guide. The audience assumes the role of old friends, so we had more time to think about those aspects. It was a luxury.”
If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around what “Theater of the Mind” is, we’ll help you: It’s a play. Tech-aided, novel in theme and interactive, yes. But still a play that takes you through the minds and lives of Byrne, Gaonkar and their scientific partners. Themed rooms, such as a funeral setting, or a fake-grass “outdoor” birthday party for a 9-year-old version of Byrne, are constructed as movie-like sets, finely detailed to sell the illusion. A couple, such as the spare, spooky Skull, feel ripped from the psychedelic and disorienting halls of Meow Wolf Denver.
Each holds mind-bending surprises, for which audience members are occasionally asked to don “drunk goggles,” VR headsets and other gear. But they’re also tasked with keeping their eyes and ears wide open as lights, projections and sounds manipulate their senses. Rehearsing the show meant locking down design and technical elements far in advance, Byrne said, so techies could make sure the automatic triggers from doors, lighting effects and various science experiments (much of it run on theme-park software) were working perfectly.
“It’s the kind of show where the actors can’t really figure out what they’re doing unless they’re on at least a rudimentary version of the set,” Byrne said. “That means I was in and out of (Denver) a lot working on it this summer, making changes to the script.”
Science-in-theater is typically a figurative concern, not a literal one. It’s usually in the form of biographical plays and musicals that Byrne said he’s watched and enjoyed, such as “Copenhagen” and “The Half Life of Madam Curie.” He even experienced director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s harrowing “Carne y Arena” — an Oscar-winning VR experience that made its touring debut in Aurora in 2020 (incidentally, DCPA producer Cashion’s “furlough job”) — to sample ideas for “Theater of the Mind.”
“I’ve done quite a few (immersive experiences) out of curiosity, and ‘Carne y Arena’ was really moving and changes how you view certain things,” he said of the show, which puts audience members in the role of an undocumented migrant on the U.S.-Mexico border. “But the people who get to do it are lucky, because it’s one person at a time. Financially, it’s one of the worst models in the world.”
For “Theater of the Mind,” fitting 16 people into a single room was as much about pumping capacity as basic logistics, director Scoville said. Sometimes it just comes down to square footage.
“I’ve always been interested in how to use science as source material,” Scoville said, seated next to Byrne in The Attic set. “However, this project really challenged me to work (scientifically) because of the rigorous requirements that must be met in order for the phenomenon to occur.”
Now audiences can experience those phenomena for themselves, and if the team’s tests are any indication, Denverites are going to dig it.
“We had been testing it so much before (March 2020) and had become enured to the science in it,” said Heidi Boisvert, the show’s technology designer. “So when we began retesting and setting it up again (this year) we weren’t prepared for how delightful it felt. … Even when David’s sitting in the chair with the VR goggles (in the Attic room), which he’s done a thousand times, he gets so excited and his body just kind of pitches forward.”
For Byrne, who’s created, presided over and performed in no shortage of stage productions over the years, there’s still an element of risk.
“It’s not like (audiences will) walk out of the last room and there’s a standing ovation. It’s 16 people. They’re already standing,” he said with a laugh. “But given the nature of the show, you can get a pretty good sense of how people are feeling about it — if they’re getting it, if they’re moved by it. I mean, the easiest stuff is their reactions to the science effects. When it happens, you hear everybody go ‘Ooh!’ and ‘Ahh!’ So that’s working, at least.”
Byrne’s sophisticated yet earnest personality, which brings wild creativity to the show but also a childlike wonder, seems to have infected the rest of the crew. They rushed from space to space on a recent visit, through catacomb-like hallways and into the bare-bones Mission Control (yes, also part of the experience) and another circular room anchored by a disco ball, which will be set up to create the illusion of audience members disappearing from sight.
Despite constant queries about the 75-minute show’s tone and plot, Byrne and the rest of the team labored to protect its secrets. It is, after all, about two years late for its premiere.
“This room that we’re in right now does involve VR,” he said as he surveyed The Attic, where “Theater of the Mind” wraps up. “But most of the rooms don’t involve intricate, cutting-edge technology. A lot of them use really plain things like a light flash, disco ball or goggles. Things that make you say, ‘What’s so special about that?’ But you’ll see.”