For Charlie Miller, It All Began at the Wolf.
You can hear it in his voice, how comfortable Charlie Miller is to be seated in the Elaine Wolf Theatre. This is no surprise, considering he made his debut performance in the Wolf Theatre when he was four years old.
Although his first role was playing a clown, Charlie’s resume and experience in the world of theatre is no joke. From grades 2-12, Charlie was a familiar face in the Mizel Arts and Culture Center. His formative years were punctuated by WTA productions of Oliver, The Sound of Music, two productions of Joseph, and many, many more. In high school, he discovered a particular love for directing and producing – in those roles, “you’re more in control of your destiny.”
Charlie attended Harvard University where he studied film making and video production, and nurtured a particular curiosity for live performance. It was this interest that led him to the world of immersive theatre. Following this passion, he co-founded and currently acts as Executive Director and Curator for Off-Center, a signature line of programming at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. Off-Center is widely understood to be the gateway through which immersive theatre came to Colorado – in large part thanks to Charlie. In addition, he is one of four producers for Theater of the Mind, created by David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar.
In a recent interview with The Ghost Lights Podcast, Charlie returned to his roots to speak with Sam Gilstrap and the JCC’s Rich Cowden. In our very own Wolf Theatre, Charlie discusses his life journey, the future of theatre, and how he wants to give his audiences more agency – through the magic and occasional confusion of immersive productions.
“What I’m increasingly interested in, personally, is how to give the audience more agency – how to give them a more active role in the story telling.” Charlie later adds, “How do we cast the audience member in a role that they’re comfortable playing, where they can show up either as their authentic self, or in some other way, so that they’re half of the scene?” Immersive theatre is an experience in which the audience member(s) has as much control over the plot as does the actor. Understandably, Charlie sees this as an exciting new chapter in the evolution of the art form.
Although there are some who may feel concern about the future of theatre, Charlie isn’t worried. “Theatre is an intrinsically human endeavor, and that’s why theatre arts will never die, or go out of style. We use stories to create empathy and make sense of our lives – theatre is story telling. That’s why it’ll never go away.”
However reassuring this may be, it doesn’t allow for snoozing on supporting theatre arts for students and young people. It’s imperative that our youth are shown various art forms, and this is very much the responsibility of their caretakers. In Charlie’s words, “Most of the time, young people are only exposed to what their grown-ups allow them to experience. So, the biggest obstacle is getting caretakers to see value of bringing kids to experience the arts.”
Not only is theatre good for kids, but kids are good for theatre. When it comes to immersive theatre, there’s an even closer relationship between the two. “Kids are increasingly more interested in blurring boundaries and lines, and exploring non-binary things. An immersive production can be video, and technology, and performance, and visual art, and music. This is exciting to younger generations, and to them, feels very organic.”
Charlie goes on to say, “I’ve seen high school kids who have never heard of ‘immersive theatre’ before, experimenting in these forms of creativity without even realizing that what they’re doing has a genre. It’s quite exciting to see the world heading in that direction.”
At the JCC, supporting children in their exploration of theatre arts is something we take very seriously. The Wolf Theatre Academy is where many children come to learn acting techniques, take technical apprenticeships, and build foundational skills such as collaboration and introspection. It’s the task of “grownups” and the community at large to work toward maintaining these kinds of opportunities for our young people.
Charlie Miller’s journey began here, at the JCC. With any luck, many more theatre legacies will find their footing in the Wolf Theatre as well. Take it from Charlie; “it all started here.”
To listen to the full podcast, look for the Ghost Lights Podcast on your favorite platform, or head to their website.