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It’s always a treat to see how an original work of art is made. This piece, Water:Works is the brainchild of Natalie Scarlett, founder of Cipher Creative Productions. Cipher was created to “first serve the artists whose work it presents by focusing on new writing, workshopping, and collaboration on devised work for theatre and film…Cipher Creative Productions asks to help audiences decode meaning through raw and unconventional performances of new work.”

In conjunction with the Poudre Landmarks Foundation, an historic preservation outfit, and the Impact Dance Company, who received (SALT) Magazine’s Movers and Shakers award at the 2018 Fort Collins Fringe Festival, Cipher Creative Productions will bring to life a tale of water. The multi-disciplinary cast features actors, dancers, and a women’s choir, who will guide you along a series of interactions throughout the historic 22-acre water works on North Overland Trail. Water:Works is a reflection on water in history, both local and ancient. This work is about survival, both freedom from calamity and celebration of life. This piece is about nature, human and wild. Water only flows out of the state of Colorado, not into it. And yet so much of Front Range economy and infrastructure is reliant upon water. A fickle thing, water giveth and taketh away. In the past few years, we have experienced not only times of drought, but also the tragic flooding of 2013.

Immersive theater is a young genre, but one that has rich potential for a new generation of performers and producers. Natalie has written on immersive theater in these pages, and we encourage you to take a look at her essay “Arrest the Senses: A Guide to Immersive Theater” to prepare yourself to experience Water:Works.

Before we focus on the work itself, or what little we know of it, it’s worth mentioning that art isn’t free. Despite the downtown concert series and inexpensive covers at a variety of performance venues, theatrical performance art costs money. Water:Works is funded by the Fort Fund, and by donors on Kickstarter. Most of the Kickstarter donations were under forty dollars, indicating the effort was largely crowd-funded by small donors. If you are interested in original art, put some skin in the game.

Devising Art

Inspired by stories her husband, Aaron, told about sneaking into the formerly run down and closed-to-the-public water works, Natalie became interested in the location. “You know when you’ve heard a story so many times that it feels like it’s your own memory? That’s how I remember the water works.” About a year ago, she was able to enter the structure, and felt the same captivation her husband experienced as a boy. She was compelled to devise a performance piece surrounding the historic site.

But what to perform? As it happens, much of the stone used to construct the Gothic Revival trim of the water works came from the town of Stout, which now sits in the bottom of Horsetooth Reservoir. Natalie says, “Wouldn’t it be a great story to tell of those displaced for progress, and how some of the stone taken from quarries near Stout were used in a facility devoted to water?” Unfortunately, the town failed before it was finally abandoned in 1949 to make way for the reservoir, so only a few inhabitants were displaced. Yet many residents of Fort Collins remember the town and have toured it during the few times the reservoir was drained for maintenance. Stout is remembered by residents who live near the southern end of the reservoir. But there’s no big story of displacement, only a tale of a town that slowly drifted away until it sank under the waves.

And then there’s the steeple. Many locals insist that during low water years they could see a church steeple rising from the surface of Horsetooth Reservoir. So vivid is this memory that many claim there is a photo, somewhere in the town archives, memorializing the sight. No photo exists. Natalie explained that, “In my interviews and research in the archives at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, I couldn’t find the photo. But there are a lot of people who insist that the steeple was in fact visible. And it’s a very interesting insight into the power of the impression a place and a story can give.”

Natalie’s search for a story continued and grew with a sort of Mandela effect. Water is thematic of life along the Front Range. From ditch burnings in preparation for the first irrigation runs of the year, to anglers and kayakers pursuing adventure in the canyons running up into the mountains, water permeates our lives. Natalie refused to give away too much about what she ultimately devised as a story. “You have to come see it,” she advised, after I pursued different lines of inquiry.

What we can tell you is this: Stories are archetypes, and the early European settlers of the Front Range brought their traditions to this narrow strip of land between prairie and foothill. Natalie and her performers will tell you the story of what water meant to those early settlers building a new life. You will experience our reliance on water, and also our hubris when it comes to controlling elemental forces, and the triumphant and tragic consequences of the struggle against nature. She says, “It’s a humanist work, because people are at the center, but also a pagan and animist work.” Water:Works will be of interest not only to artists and conservationists, but also to farmers and ranchers. Indeed, all our lives along the Front Range are impacted by water. Every audience member will experience something different and develop individual interpretations. And that is the purpose of immersive theater.

The Next Steps

Cipher Creative Productions is a young company. It doesn’t have a website you can visit. It is currently a one-woman operation, but Natalie has big plans for the company. After Water:Works closes she plans to work on a few film concepts with local artists. But in the month of November, she will sit down and compose the concept and script for a work that might come to your kitchen. “I can’t say for certain what it will look like, but the cast will perform as they prepare a meal in whatever kitchen we find ourselves,” Natalie explained. “I don’t know what specifically I want the actors to talk about, but they will be a family talking about life and family, while preparing a meal. I would like to adapt the staging to whatever kitchen we find ourselves in, and even the nature of the kitchen or the audience might change how the performance will work.” It’s an exciting concept to be sure, and one to look forward to. Unfortunately for our readers, Natalie insists that devised work and immersive theater takes time, which means transforming your kitchen into a gastronomical stage is about a year away.

In the meantime, Natalie will also build a production company. For Water:Works, Impact Dance Company provided most of the back office support. That will change in the next few months as Natalie assembles her team. Natalie observed that building performance groups is really about “putting in the time until enough people want to be on your team.” Natalie Scarlett is confident that her company will expand and join the growing list of creative organizations along the Front Range.

Cipher Creative Productions will grow. For now, it works in collaboration with other people and groups in Fort Collins. But like the headwaters of the Poudre or Laramie Rivers, which may be stepped over at their sources in hidden valleys, Cipher will develop into a strong and powerful stream that will deliver original performance pieces to the Front Range.

Water:Works will run from 21-22 September 2018 at 6:00pm each day at the 1883 Waterworks at 2005 N. Overland Trail and Bingham Hill Road. Seating is limited, so get your tickets today at http://impactdancecompany.com.