As an avid theater lover, I’m always excited to try a new experience. Last spring, I was intrigued when a friend invited me to an immersive theater production about fear, death and darkness that was taking place in an abandoned slaughterhouse. I had no idea what to expect.
Soon after the production began, our group stood awkwardly waiting for instructions when a cast member approached me with a wheelchair and asked me to take a seat. She handed me a blindfold and said I could put it on if I wanted. Always a willing theater participant, I tied on the blindfold and let a stranger wheel me away.
I knew I was safe, but I felt a visceral fear — fear of the unknown, of being encased in darkness alone, not knowing what was going to happen next. When the chair stopped, someone took my hands and exfoliated them, massaged them with fragrant oil, and wiped it all off with a hot towel. Then I was whisked off to another room where an enigmatic voice spoke.
“So often darkness gets conjoined with fear, but it can also be a place of refuge, comfort, ecstasy, hilarity, transcendence, sublimation,” the voice said. “And to the degree that it does become a receptacle for fear, that makes it intrinsically a place of hope. That’s really what we’re here for, not to trigger fear or encourage morbidity or incriminate our own mortality, but to conjure hope. To shift our relationship with darkness and death.”
The words resonated immediately. I relaxed into the darkness, letting my fear evolve into receptivity.
The moment of vulnerability stayed with me after the production ended. I left contemplating the themes presented in the show with a closeness and depth — instead of watching them take place from afar, I had intimately engaged with them.
The hand treatment scene is one of many from Control Group’s performance of Aggregate Immateriality. For more than a decade, the company has used theater and dance to go beyond storytelling and provide an emotion-centered, sensory experience. The group invites audiences into worlds that blur the line between performer and viewer, gently involving the crowd in the world they create. Their newest production, Cutting Room Floor, opens Oct. 17 at the Aurora Fox Arts Center.
Early on, Control Group founder Patrick Mueller knew he wanted to be an artist. Born and raised in Colorado, he started in theater, but a dance class in college awakened him to the power of dance as an artform. He connected with its ability to convey an idea in an abstract way that evoked more emotion than logic.
“Acting always felt a little bit like playing,” Mueller says. “I think it can arrive to a rich level of reality, but it starts with a premise of pretend and fakeness. Dance felt real.”
He went on to work for dance companies and tour Europe. When Mueller returned to Colorado in 2008, he started Control Group Productions as a way to offer a different approach. His vision of performance art blends dance, acting, visual design, installation and more to disrupt the standard theatrical model.
“We did a few where it was like audience on one side and the performers on stage,” Mueller says. “But we were immediately interested in things that were outside the realm of standard technique. Dance that doesn’t necessarily look like dance, and dance that doesn’t always happen like dance. It’s so different to watch a moving body 5 feet or 5 inches away from you verses 100 or 500 feet away from you on some opera house stage.”
When they felt they had done all they could do within a theater setting, Mueller and company realized there were many other sites they could take advantage of. For one production, they bused the audience around the city and performed at different locales; for another, they led a walking tour around Denver; Mueller even put on a production in his own two-car garage.
In 2016, Mueller was cast in the Denver Center’s production of Sweet & Lucky. Created by Third Rail Projects, Sweet & Lucky was an immersive theater experience that took place in a warehouse and explored memory, relationship and time. The big-budget production was a pivotal moment for Mueller.
Sweet & Lucky featured a graveyard where it rained on the audience, a functioning watering hole, and an 800-square-foot house. But Sweet & Lucky offered more than immersive sets. Intimate moments enveloped the audience, like a scene where an elderly woman tries to conjure memories and reaches out to audience members, asking if they’re her grandchildren. The work made sense to Mueller. He felt like he had come home.
“Just seeing how much deeper you could go with an audience member and a group of audience members when you talk to them and treat them as humans, when you give them agency in the experience, when it’s interactive — it’s intimacy you don’t see in a public event,” he says. “There’s something really resonant in that.”
Control Group then began incorporating more immersive elements into their productions. From the start, Aggregate involves the audience by asking people to “check in for work” and giving everyone an apron and hairnet to wear. Throughout the show, characters engage directly with the audience: asking questions, giving hand treatments, gifting tokens, serving food and drinks, even slow dancing.
The interactions are immediate and intimate. You’re invested in the action because it’s happening to you.
“It feels like a very expanded set of potentials in live performance when you take away the proscenium division between the audience and the performers,” Mueller says. “Putting the audience in the middle of the experience … everything becomes possible there.”
Aggregate features a woman passing from life to death, with a gardener, butcher and bartender as supporting cast. The storyline is nonlinear, like all of Control Group’s productions. The elements of the show cultivate a multifaceted reflection on the subject matter instead of following a direct narrative. Associate director and sound designer Nicholas Caputo says you might be at a disadvantage if you only look for a story.
“It’s almost like creating vignettes where the arc actually comes from an emotional experience; you’re having that rather than the intellectual content, or the narrative content, that you can hold in your mind,” Caputo says. “If you’re really looking for that, you’ll totally miss the feeling that you’re supposed to be getting.”
Caputo first saw Control Group back in spring of 2018 with their production of Solace. He found their approach to creating art familiar and relatable to his own. He immediately volunteered to serve drinks in order to get involved and see the show more than once. He calls Control Group’s productions emotionally experiential and ineffable — but describing them is beyond the point.
“You could throw adjectives at it all day and night, but it was really a feeling space,” he says.
Mueller calls narrative necessary but problematic. His goal is to create an experience rather than deliver a cohesive story. For that reason, Control Group’s shows grow out of an organic process that involves gathering information around subject matter. Aggregate was the final production in a series about dancing in the dark, where the troupe looked at various literary, historical, spiritual and scientific sources. They studied research on blindness and emotional darkness. They looked at communities that thrived in the dark, including the queer men’s scene in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. They also pulled from people they knew, like a composer the group worked with who was an Iraqi war veteran suffering from PTSD.
Location is another major factor that influences the productions. The creators look at the neighborhood and the buildings they’re performing in. For Watching Night Falling, which took place partially in Denver’s Stanley Marketplace, Caputo learned about the history of Stanley Aviation and its founder Bob Stanley, who had a prolific life that ended in tragedy. For their upcoming show Cutting Room Floor, the company is taking over the Aurora Fox and using its history to inform the production.
Collaboration is also vital to the process. Conversations with the artistic team are exploratory and can examine heavy subject matter says associate director Bailey Harper, who has starred in multiple productions.
“On the first day [of creating Aggregate] we were like, ‘OK, let’s talk about death and your experiences of death and what that is,’” Harper says. “It was some personal and also our belief systems, and what we found really potent in the cultural concept of death.”
Beyond that, Mueller and his team are known to hand out open-ended prompts to performers, which they can interpret into something creative like a movement phrase or a bit of dialogue. Prompts have included phrases like, “This is how I pass through to the other side;” “These are all things I’ve lost;” and; “If I could see my obstacles, I wouldn’t keep running into them, would I?”
Performers also insert their own lives into the play. Harper’s grandmother passed during the creation process of Aggregate. As a part of her character, Harper included stories and details from her grandmother’s life.
With material collected, scenes and characters begin to emerge. In discussing death, Mueller realized they wanted to look at the concept in the sense of past flesh, present flesh and future flesh. This idea became embodied in three characters, and while it wasn’t an essential concept for the audience to grasp, it lent structure to the show.
“The gardener is growing the thing that you will then eat, that will then become you. Then you will die,” Mueller says. “The butcher is dealing with the thing that is already dead and turning that into the next life. And then the bartender is serving drinks that enliven the experience of the moment.”
To get audience members to actively engage with the ideas, the creators craft experiences to elicit emotions. The hand treatment scene — experienced in darkness -— activates the audiences’ other senses, compelling them to be more reflective.
“If you take the eyesight away, you’re very much within your own world,” Harper says. “With death and dealing with grief, you’re in your own world. It felt so important to me to get people to drop into themselves within this giant collective experience.
“It’s really challenging to get you to feel the emotions that I’m feeling on stage,” she says. “You can kind of empathize with that, but for you to find it within yourself is a totally different experience.”
For Mueller, it’s all about putting the audience back in the center of the production.
“We work to keep the performance opened ended; it’s not prescriptive,” he says. “We don’t want the audience to have some specific catharsis and think a certain way about a certain topic at the end of the show, but instead we work to create rich experiences that put people in a position to be transformed.”
ON THE BILL: Cutting Room Floor — presented by Control Group Productions. Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora, 303-739-1970, controlgroupproductions.org.