Ambition has reached a new peak in Denver’s performance community with Sonder, an immersive, professional dance theatre production created, produced and performed by teenagers in the Ellie Caulkins Studio Loft, no less. According to The Dictionary of Obscure Shadows, a compilation of invented words by John Koening, sonder refers to the realization that everyone else has an inner life as rich as one’s own “populated by their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, and inherited craziness.” Mentored by Amanda Berg Wilson, who the Westword called a “force of theatrical nature,” artistic director Makena Sneed and producer Elizabeth Goitia developed a narrative of a young artist on the cusp of adulthood. She’s torn between her first love and independence, feels pressure to go to college but yearns to explore the world, and tries to please her father by getting an internship with his company. The performance aspires to bring its protagonist’s interior world center stage while physically moving the audience in space.
Technically, the production begins the moment one enters the elevator, where a Peter Pan-collared escort lays out the rules of engagement for the evening. She then directs you to write an inspirational quote about love and complete the internship application and answer questions such as: “If you were an animal in the workplace, what would you be and why?” The audience is then ushered into the performance area, forming a U-shape around a large tree laden with clocks and the love notes from before the show on its leafless branches. In the center of it all stands the artist, a melon-sized ball of twine cupped in her hands. She twirls and circles herself with the twine before asking an audience member to hold it for her. Her love enters, they embrace and she tells him the story of her grandmother’s twine ball before moving on to Daedalus and the labyrinth.
The audience is then divided into smaller groups, whisked away around temporary walls and through curtains. The audience members then rotate from scene to scene, across time periods in the artist’s life: her childhood bedroom, the playground complete with swing set, art studio, a picnic date, corporate boardroom. Each audience group experiences the scenes in a different order. Characters like the CEO and Iris, the goddess of rainbows, appear multiple times. The dialogue has a kind of dream-logic at times. Audience members are handed name tags like “The One Who Hates Her Job” or “Coffee Snob,” asked to hold props such as teddy bears and footballs, told to paint, given Dubble Bubble chewing gum.
Throughout the performance, the dancing was strong, yet I wanted more of it and a bit more space for the performers to move around in. They often seemed to clip movements short or reign themselves in. The enclosed spaces, however, created a strong intimacy between the audience and the performers that could not be emulated in a traditionally staged environment.
During the show, I couldn’t help but compare (unfairly I often thought) the experience to last year’s Sweet & Lucky Antiques produced by the DCPA. Housed off Brighton Blvd in a warehouse, that immersive experience spared no expense: indoor rain showers, a two-story house complete with lawn ad fencing, a swimmable pond, drive-in movie, an old-timey bar. The spell of the sets, the story, the acting, all of it enraptured me. At times I felt complete and utter awe, like I had walked into a world more real and magical than my own. Sonder lacks the total immersion of Sweet & Lucky, its layers of props, its scale, its technological sophistication. But it shares an essence, the striving to connect on the deepest levels with the audience, to manifest a piece of another person’s inner world if only momentarily. When I looked at the kids in my audience group and they were asked to hold a prop or given a paintbrush, I could see the same delight dancing in their eyes that danced in mine at Sweet & Lucky – sonder at work.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServing and Quaint Magazine.