By Talia Traskos-Hart
Two years after shutting its doors, West Highland’s Theater 29 will reopen on June 26 for an in-person collection of performances titled “Emergence.” The interactive opening will highlight the work of playwrights, actors, sound artists, and visual artists who work with the theater.
Lisa Wagner Erickson, the theater’s creative director and a member of the creative team for Emergence, called the performance “an interactive, participant walk-through.”
The audience-oriented performance style follows a shift toward multimedia work that has emerged at Theater 29 over the past two years.
“Over the pandemic, Theater 29 expanded from local playwrights to include other genres of art,” Wagner Erickson said. “For virtual platforms … it just made sense to include visual artists and video to brighten the experience from just reading something on the page.”
The expansion to multimedia art builds on the hyperlocal values of Theater 29’s founding. The theater was established in 2018 to lend creative freedom to local playwrights.
“Theater 29 was founded as a venue for local playwrights to develop collaborative works,” Wagner Erickson said. “So the focus has been on Colorado playwrights and now Colorado artists with a DIY ethos where the artists have the freedom to choose the content and what they want to produce.”
Exhibits incorporating a broader range of Colorado artists have been key to Theater 29 staying open over the past two years. In Project Playbox, which launched in the fall of 2020, Theater 29 sent audience members cutout characters and animated backgrounds for three short plays: “Against Sand,” “a Shiny Quest,” and “the Art of a Guest.”
Actors recorded voice overs for some plays to complement scenes acted out by the visual cutouts. For another project last December, Theater 29 took to Facebook to live stream “the Scholarship,” described by the theater as “a protest play inspired by the Black Lives Matter and the Rhodes Must Fall movements.” The theater has also released playlists on its website, theater29denver.com, which feature short films and visual art pieces from collaborators.
The most recent playlist, released this February, featured five pieces on the theme of media literacy. Despite the struggles of functioning outside of their space at 5138 W. 29th Avenue, Wagner Erickson said that the challenges produced by COVID-19 were the source of these creative new possibilities.
“The main thing was finding ways to create artistic works within the constraints we had to adhere to and then also realizing that collaboration with other art forms was kind of vital to that process,” she said. “So (COVID-19) just opened the door for more avenues.”
Now, Wagner Erickson notes that the Theater will attempt to move towards in-person work and a complete return to live plays at their location, but won’t leave remote projects entirely in the past.
“We’re trying to move towards in-person,” she said. “But we’ll probably… keep doing some remote labor and then have multigenre in-person and eventually live plays again.”
For the theater’s opening event, Wagner Erickson said that “we’ll probably require masks indoors,” but noted that the exact policy will be set “depending on current case rates.” Aside from the June play, Theater 29 will host a performance in August. “That’s also interactive, it’s going to be a conspiracy fair,”
Wagner Erickson said. Tickets for Emergence, the June 26 performance, are on sale now through Eventbrite, linked to on theater29denver.com.
Audience members will be invited “to experience not only traditional theatrical performances, but also to interact, respond, and create alongside us,” the theater noted in a press release.
Along with guided meditation and audience painting activities, two new plays will debut at the opening: Ellen K. Graham’s “Recuerdo” and Wagner Erickson’s “The Chicken Flies at Night.”