Amid pandemic, caution and creativity meet in a new circus theater show in Denver

It’s as if months of pent-up creativity are bursting out of a little house in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood
6 min. read
The Rainbow Militia has taken over 4345 Tennyson Street. Berkeley, July 2, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Amber Blais, whose Rainbow Militia theater company uses acrobatics, stilt walking and other circus arts to tell stories, knows some people are eager to get out to see performances after months of sheltering at home because of the coronavirus.

Blais herself hasn't ventured much beyond lunch on a restaurant's patio, fearing her asthma could put her at greater risk for the worst affects of COVID-19. But Blais is eager to get artists back to work amid the economic slowdown that has accompanied the pandemic.

Caution and creativity meet in a new Rainbow Militia show, "Gnome Away from Home," which is scheduled to open July 30 in a tiny house converted into an immersive theater.

"We want to be as safe as possible," said Blais, who is Rainbow Militia's producing director as well as an aerialist with the troupe.

"But we also want to create art. Because our artists are suffering."

Amber Blais and Staza Stone stand inside 4345 Tennyson Street, which the Rainbow Militia is turning into a performance space. Berkeley, July 2, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Amber Blais and Staza Stone walk down the steps inside 4345 Tennyson Street, which they're turning into a performance space. Berkeley, July 2, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

For "Gnome Away from Home," commitment to their craft means the artists will be performing three- or four-minute vignettes up to 17 times each night during a planned four-week run. Audiences in groups of no more than six will see a scene featuring one or two performers, then move to the next room to see another.

"It's a lot for the performers," Blais acknowledged.

The audience will have to do some work as well.

The house built in 1906 has narrow corridors and stairwells to be navigated. Audience members are invited to climb through an interior window to get between two of the nine scenes, though there's a less strenuous detour at that point. Rainbow Militia is also offering a limited number of discounted reservations for an accessible experience each night.

All reservations must be made in advance. Audience members must wear masks and they will be met with touchless temperature checks and issued rubber gloves and paint brushes (more on the brushes later) when they check in for the show. Once inside, audiences will find the performers behind sheets of plastic.

Those safety measures alone mean the pandemic won't be forgotten during the hour or so of vignettes based on folk and fairy tales that comprise the show. Despite its whimsical title and a cast that includes clowns and jugglers, "Gnome Away from Home" is more about processing than escaping the moment we are in. Folk and fairy tales can be dark, after all. But they can also be cathartic.

In one episode, clowns play Hansel and Gretel in quarantine. In a shadow puppet scene, heroic witches fight demons. Pole dancers and aerialists tell a tale of a princess who can't touch the ground until she finds love.

In another scene, Staza Stone on stilts will appear cramped under the low ceilings.

"We'll be telling a story of what it feels like to be stuck," Stone said. "It's very much my quarantine metaphor."

It's not just the pandemic that Denverites are coping with and that "Gnome" explores. The title character is Fibblesticks Dabbledoo, whose home is about to be demolished. The house in the Berkeley neighborhood in which  "Gnome Away from Home" will be performed and two neighboring bungalows are in real life set to be knocked down and likely replaced with another of the modern, multi-family blocks that have been sprouting up along Tennyson Street.  In the structure's final days, Reactiv real estate company allowed Rainbow Militia the run of the interior and allowed the artist collective Babe Walls to create murals on the exterior.

The Rainbow Militia's art house at 4345 Tennyson Street sits in between several large development projects. Berkeley, July 2, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The house has been a commercial space, including for a medical marijuana business and later a tattoo parlor, for years.  Rainbow Militia removed cameras and motion detectors while building the sets for "Gnome," but also found abandoned home decor in the attic.

"It really feels like a house, still," Blais said.

Having the actor playing Fibblesticks tag along with the audience groups would be impractical for social distancing and logistical reasons. Instead, audiences will find those ubiquitous garden gnome figurines scattered throughout the house to represent Fibblesticks. Audience members will be asked to imagine they are helping the gnome find a new home. At the end of the show, the audience members will get to use their paint brushes to create something of their own, perhaps a vision of Fibblesticks's future, on a wall of the doomed house.

Painting, imagining and perhaps some play with shadows are as interactive as it gets.

"We really love interacting with people. How do you interact with people when you can't touch them and you can't touch any of the things they touch?" Blais said. "It's very tricky."

Rainbow Militia's previous show, "Zabiti," staged last summer in an abandoned factory in the Cole neighborhood, drew audiences into a role playing and a fantasy scavenger hunt. Plans for an encore of "Zabiti" this April were canceled because of the coronavirus. While smaller in scale and with performers and audience members protected from one another by plastic and masks, "Gnome" has a lot in common with the previous show, including a sense of set decoration that will make audience members feel they've wandered into a fanciful antique shop.

The Rainbow Militia has installed a giant fish in a bathroom at 4345 Tennyson Street. Berkeley, July 2, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
The Rainbow Militia has turned a bathroom at 4345 Tennyson Street into a secret art space. Berkeley, July 2, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

David Rynhart of Chimney Choir contributed to a soundtrack for both shows. Christin Grant and Larea Edwards of Spirit of Grace also wrote songs for "Gnome."

Rainbow Militia is venturing back in front of audiences when larger companies such as the Denver Center for the Performing Arts have canceled entire seasons because of the coronavirus. Cirque du Soleil, pioneer of circus as theater, has filed for bankruptcy protection.

"We're scrappy, we're pressing on," Blais said.

She described "Gnome" as a chance to work out how to perform under conditions created by the pandemic that are unlikely to change soon.

"We have this opportunity to process into what a new reality might be," she said.

If they don't try, she said, "I don't know if we can really call ourselves artists."

Recent Stories