Going down the fox hole
Purple Fox Conundrum develops pop-up immersive art journey in Mancos

Going down the fox hole

Erin Bohm, as Wildest Purple Fox, spotted just outside the Wilding Exit Portal near Mancos./Courtesy photo

Zach Hively - 10/03/2019

Who among us hasn’t dreamed of slipping off down the rabbit hole, or through the wardrobe? This weekend offers the next-best chance to enter the land of the surreal, the mystical and the magical, when the Purple Fox Conundrum opens its doors – er, portals – for two days of immersive outdoor theater and art near Mancos.

“Magical realism is alive and well,” Sarah Syverson, executive producer of the Purple Fox Conundrum, said. “We are creating a one-of-a-kind, pop-up performance and art installation through the fields and forests of the Mancos Valley. Think Meow Wolf meets wilderness and whimsy.”

The Purple Fox Conundrum is honestly impossible to explain fully in words. It’s an experiential adventure along a roughly 1-mile trail with several live-action vignettes and various pieces of artwork, all installed in open-air settings in sight of Mesa Verde. The four-woman production team (Syverson, Margaret Paradise, Liz Bohm and Kellie Pettyjohn) brought together 25 local performers and artists to construct the journey, which lasts about an hour and a half.

Visitors – or Intrepid Travelers, as the Purple Fox crew calls them – will venture through the installation in groups of 15 leaving at pre-set departure times. (Yes, that means you’re bound to get to know strangers on your journey, unless you wrangle an entire group of friends and fam.) Along the way, they’ll meet iterations of the eponymous purple fox and a rabbit, as well as other characters. These include Terr and Oir, the French food critics; Siri the Cell Phone Preacher; and DJ Faux dropping some open-air beats.

Every group will get a slightly distinct performance, too, because the travelers are not separated from the performances. “I love breaking that fourth wall and bringing our fellow human beings into that playful interaction,” Syverson said. “There’s a basic structure, they’re sketched out collaboratively, and a lot of the performers involved in the vignettes have an improv background.”

In addition to the performers (whose costumes are themselves works of art), large-scale art is installed throughout the journey. Syverson doesn’t want to give too much away, which is why the Purple Fox social media pages are offering more stripteases than previews. But she does hint at such exhibits as a “shifting perspective piece,” the Church of the Cell Phone, and the “DJ lounge portal potty area.”

Because the Purple Fox Conundrum is such a non-traditional experience, there are a few things that visitors should anticipate. As stated, the experience takes place over a one-mile trail with uneven terrain, and it does take place entirely outdoors, so travelers are encouraged to dress appropriately for light hiking and shifting weather. There are places and times to take a seat approximately every other vignette. And after ducking through the exit portal, they’ll find a tent with food and nonalcoholic drinks for sale – the perfect opportunity for everyone to talk about the experience with each other. Because unlike your more blase? films at the cinema, this trip will leave you wanting nothing more than to talk about and process it with your fellow travelers.

Speaking of conversations, all of the art – visual and performance alike – works in conversation with the land. Syverson described how they allowed natural features in the land, from natural clearings to wooded areas and breathtaking vistas, to shape the walking trail and the vignettes. Furthermore, the Conundrum is taking place on Sacred Song Farm, which is a working ranch with heritage sheep and cattle. So the crew couldn’t come in and decimate the land to accommodate the pop-up show.

Not that they’d want to anyway. A subtle storyline weaves together the entire Purple Fox experience, represented in the evolution of the purple fox sightings. “It is about moving from a synthetic, technological world into a more simple world, a more vast and wild world,” Syverson explained. “There’s this really great question, that is not necessarily answered, around how do you meld nature, wildness and vastness with technology? That’s the world that we live in, and I have a sense of joy for both those things.”

That’s an important thread throughout the Conundrum. The show isn’t telling you how you ought to live your life. It’s not declaring TECHNOLOGY BAD. It is, though, asking us questions about the lives we wish to lead, and the lives we’re actually leading. And Syverson is the first to acknowledge that the Purple Fox Conundrum could not exist without technology. Cell phones and Zoom calls have enabled all the artists and directors and performers to collaborate more effectively, she said – and the fact that cell phones die quickly at the ranch helps her keep everything in perspective.

This is perhaps the first installation of its kind to take place in Southwest Colorado, and the creative team took a huge chunk of inspiration from the Southwest’s most famous immersive art experience. Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe has redefined conversations around what art means, how people can experience it and how artists can collaborate. It’s also a bit of a mushroom trip, where every conceivable surface is integrated with art and the senses get precious few chances to pause and process.

“All that was inspiring,” said Syverson, who is no stranger to art – she stages her own one-woman shows and co-produces the “Raven Narratives” live storytelling events. “Yet it felt closed-in and urban. I wondered, what would it be like to do immersive theater, similar to this, but outside? On agricultural and wildlands with the whimsy that we could cultivate, but also this vastness and quietness?”

Enter the myth of the purple fox. It’s the Mancos Valley’s version of Nessie or Sasquatch. A legendary creature, the purple fox is elusive, yet has a distinct and undeniable presence in the area. People swear they’ve seen it. Creative director Margaret Paradise, who runs Sacred Song Farm with her family, reports she’s spotted the fox on her land.

The creative team circled around the idea of the purple fox being central to this experience. The fox enters into all these worlds – the perfect creature to bring together the wild and vast with the manmade and technological. The elusive character also plays a central role in many shapes, from the “Techno Fox” to the “Wilding” and “Whimsical” foxes.

Plus, there’s something undeniably playful about the fox, purple or no. And play is really what the Purple Fox Conundrum is all about, from the production team and the artists all the way down to every last Intrepid Traveler.

“As adults, we get so serious and so focused on our bills that we need to pay and the car that needs fixed and the family members who are sick,” Syverson said. “Sometimes we lose track. We see little kids and think, oh, look at them play. They’re so free in that. So this is an opportunity for adults – and kids, but for adults especially – to feel a sense of freedom and play.

The Purple Fox Production Team, from left: Margaret Paradise, Sarah Syverson, Liz Bohm and Kellie Pettyjohn./ Courtesy photos


Going down the fox hole

Terr (Nathan Brown) and Oir (Michael Jordan), French food critics, argue over the beauty of both synthetic and natural foods.

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