It’s an OddKnock Life: Denver’s Immersive, Participatory Storytellers
When thinking about what an immersive production can and should be, OddKnock Productions is leading the way. The Denver-based theatrical troupe was formed by Brendan Duggan, Parker Murphy, and Zach Martens — New York actors who met working at Sleep No More (the OG immersive theater experience based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth). A decision to pivot from acting to producing landed the group in Denver in the spring of 2021.
Faced with a unique set of creative limitations, OddKnock made a quiet (but clever) unveiling that summer with a free five-part series they called Test Kitchen. For each performance, OddKnock spent two weeks writing, building, and rehearsing. Whatever they had at the end of those two weeks was what they showed, for one weekend only. Then they started the process all over again for the next one.
Building on the success of Test Kitchen, OddKnock debuted their first full-length production in the summer of 2022, From on High — a corporate 80’s satire derived from one of the five original Test Kitchen performances. This mind-blowing experience, (which was detailed for NoProscenium), pulled in audience members in completely unexpected ways.
An IRL choose-your-own-adventure
At From on High, more than four hours of content was presented in a 90-minute show with five different tracks guests crossed in and out of. Because there was always so much going on, you could never experience it all in one viewing. There’s beauty in every person having a singular experience. And, we can’t help but celebrate the genius of a show that has true re-watchability.
Movement and choreography play a major role
One moment you’re sitting at a board meeting, and the next all of your coworkers are wrapped in a ball on the conference table or rolling down the hallway in interpretive dance. Where traditional storytelling attempts to take you inside the mind of a character to hear their internal struggle and reflection, OddKnock chooses instead to have their characters act it out. They express those emotions through dance and movement instead of with words. The jarring nature of this shift creates moments that bring a lot of vulnerability and emotion to the production.
There will be mature content and explicit scenes
During the evocative Test Kitchen series, I watched a man fornicate with a purse and witnessed multiple full-blown mental breakdowns. Some of From on High’s most talked-about moments were a cult baptism ritual and a racy scene between a woman and a machine. More than anything it’s an understanding of their audience and what they find engaging. Also, it’s art. And it’s life.
OddKnock co-founder Zach Martens said that the goal is to make work that’s fun, weird, exciting and bizarre. But to do it in a way that treats those qualities seriously. “So,” he said, “the audience is experiencing something that’s silly and offbeat, but also deep, moving, full of heart, and terrifying all at the same time.”
The more you explore, the richer your experience
I feel fortunate to have seen “From on High” three times, which gave me a really interesting perspective. There are about 10 scenes taking place across the entire set of the fictional corporate office. And I missed roughly half during my first show. As I discovered more rooms on my return trips, I found more ways to engage and continuously push my boundaries. I was delighted to find more layers to peel back — uncovering little details I couldn’t have possibly picked up on during my first visit when I was busy comprehending the story and where I was. (This is where there are parallels to Meow Wolf’s experiences, going deeper and deeper into the story.)
For example, I picked up on a romantic interest between two characters in the office on the first viewing, but it wasn’t until the third visit that I followed one of those characters as she stormed off with a love letter in her hand. Retreating to her desk, she pulled a binder off the bookshelf, quickly filed away the love note, and replaced the binder. After she left the room, I stayed behind, pulled the binder off the shelf, and found a mess of letters that added to the authenticity and duration of this fictional workplace romance.
Planting easter eggs like the love notes in the binder requires minimal effort. Yet offer a big impact on the overall experience — even if only a small handful of people find them.
A generous onboarding experience helps you warm up and get into character
Welcome! You’re in the show! And you figure this out pretty quickly when you’re given a name tag with a weird name like Cheather or Chessica or Chonothan. First, we were told to take a seat in the waiting room; “new employee orientation” would begin shortly. While we waited, one cast member floated around awkwardly interacting with different groups by having them fill out ridiculous paperwork and perform silly tasks. Then we were called into the office in small groups. It was disorientating at first, but when we were finally free to roam the set and interact with the characters, we felt a clear sense of purpose.
For an immersive experience to be effective, the audience has to go through a transformation process. It’s imagination on a level that a lot of people haven’t allowed themselves to experience since childhood, so expecting them to walk through a decorated doorway and suddenly “get it” is asking too much. Instead, OddKnock treats them differently from the moment they walk up to the ticket booth. They spent the extra time and effort on scene setting, anticipation building and storytelling in these crucial early parts of the experience.
Yet, you can have a good time as a bystander, too.
From on High offers ample opportunities to engage with the set and actors. But you can also stand in the background to observe all the action and not really engage directly. Audience participation should not be required to have a fun and unique experience. However, it should be available for those who want it.
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