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DCPA's New True Crime Podcast Creates A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Feel

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Brenton Weyi (as Ryan Streeter) and Leah Cárdenas (as Preston McCall) star in DCPA Off-Center's new podcast, 'The Bright Lights of Denver.'

While music and sports are already back to live events at full or almost-full capacity, the theater world is still easing its way back. This week, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts launched a new podcast that combines history and storytelling, and allows audiences to participate at their comfort level.

The true crime-style podcast “The Bright Lights of Denver” was the winning project from DCPA’s Powered by Off-Center Program. Each year, Off-Center — the company’s experimental theater program — selects one submission from local artists. The goal of the program is to explore new terrain that connects audiences with varying art forms beyond traditional theater.

Usually there aren’t a lot of limitations, said Charlie Miller, curator for Off-Center. But this year, because of the pandemic, the winning project needed to be one that could both draw people in and keep them safe.

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Charlie Miller, curator of Off-Center.

It had to be virtual, or at least have a virtual component, Miller said. And because they were planning this out months ago, it had to be flexible enough that it would work no matter what was happening regarding COVID, whether venues were locked down or fully reopened.

That all could have made the submission process difficult for artists, but it actually seemed to be the opposite, he said.

“One of the things that was very apparent in this past year and a half is that artists are going to make art regardless of the limitations,” Miller said. “Obviously in the performing arts, it's been incredibly challenging because that live interaction between audience and actor or performer had to be mediated through technology. But there was a whole new range of experiences in art and storytelling that I saw pop up across the country.”

Making art more accessible has become a larger priority for the arts in general. That fits with a big part of Off-Center’s mission, which is giving the audience agency in how they engage with the art — whether that’s participating in a live-action game where they have to save the day or sitting down for a one-on-one conversation with a total stranger.

“Through COVID, we've learned that you can have meaningful artistic experiences and engagement through a computer and through different technologies,” Miller said. “So it's exciting how that has made it more accessible to more people. And it's exciting the ways that we're finding that we can connect with storytelling. ‘Bright Lights’ is another example of how we can use the technology available, how we can use art forms that are familiar to culture, but not necessarily expected of theater like the podcast and how we can play on that and create a different kind of theatrical experience that really puts the audience at the center of the story.”

Kenny Moten and Jessica Hindsley, co-creators of 'The Bright Lights of Denver.'

“The Bright Lights of Denver” follows Ryan Streeter, a freelance writer who’s been covering the growth of Denver. In the first episode, Streeter divulges that one of his sources has gone missing, said co-writer and producer Kenny Moten.

Moten and project partner Jessica Hindsley based elements of the podcast on popular true-crime shows like “Serial” and “Up and Vanished.”

They also cemented the story in Denver’s history, using interviews with real people talking about the city and its evolution. The podcast features interviews with real-life locals such as Historic Denver’s Annie Levinsky and Danny and Dave Newman, owners of the iconic My Brother’s Bar.

“We had a million ideas,” Moten said. “But I am a big fan of true crime podcasts and we kind of got to the point where we started thinking, how do we engage an audience in a nontraditional way and create sort of a ‘choose your own adventure’ for them?"

To get listeners participating in the action, there’s a Facebook group for listeners to discuss characters and theories with each other. There will also be several Q&As with the cast and writers to discuss plot points.

But the big draw comes when in every episode there are three locations revealed that the characters visit that are key to the story. Listeners can go to the sites and find QR codes that will unlock additional story content and clues.

“What we really wanted to do was be able to encourage people to get out at their own comfort level, but also to engage with our community and to be able to be a patron of a local business or to explore a part of Denver that they haven't seen before,” Hindsley said.

Like any good mystery, it’s uncertain how or if the case will be solved by the end - although Moten promises that there will be a satisfying payoff with the final episode and even hinted at the possibility of a second season.

New episodes of “The Bright Lights of Denver” are released each Tuesday for free. You can find them wherever you get your podcasts.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.