Julie Rada: Immersive Art Is Nothing New in Denver | Westword

100 Colorado Creatives 4.0: Julie Rada

A political thinker wrapped up in a creative skin, Julie Rada infiltrated Denver’s experimental theater scene years ago.
Julie Rada in a murder one less, at the Boulder Fringe Festival and BINDERY | space, 2009.
Julie Rada in a murder one less, at the Boulder Fringe Festival and BINDERY | space, 2009. Photo by Miriam Suzanne
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#53: Julie Rada

A political thinker wrapped up in a creative skin, Julie Rada infiltrated Denver’s experimental-theater scene years ago. She worked with the long-gone Lida Project, collaborated with Lida artistic director Brian Freeland as Countdown to Zero, and created countless original and innovative works with her own companies. On the side, Rada facilitates performances in prisons, offering the incarcerated a chance at redemptive creativity. The versatile actor and director left for a while and returned in 2016, picking up where she left off by regrouping with Denver colleagues Miriam Suzanne and Kenny Storms to form Grapefruit Lab, a new company that will premiere its first play, JANE/EYRE, later this month. Rada’s a doer, and her action-oriented spirit comes across loud and clear in her answers to the 100CC questionnaire, which follows.

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Julie Rada in SparrowSong, at Arizona State University’s Binary Theatre, 2013.
Photo by Matthew Ragan
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?

Julie Rada: I deeply believe that all human beings are wired for creativity and aesthetic experience. I am so inspired by those who make art in the “cracks” in their lives, often without even identifying as artists, per se. The person who sketches fantastical landscapes while they’re on break from a shitty call-center job, the parent writing their novel with a ten-month-old playing on their lap, the recently relocated refugee teen making comics in the tiny apartment they share with their entire family. The secret, brilliant minds attending to the call of their creative muse. These kinds of people are my muse.

A few days ago I was exiting a parking garage, and the attendant, an older guy, was picking on a mandolin, and he showed me the flute he also practices when he's not taking tickets and issuing change. I think that kind of thing is so badass and inspiring. It’s one of the reasons I am so energized by the workshops I do in prisons. Artists show up who can make exquisite bread sculptures, memory boxes out of paper and ink, and can cook gourmet meals from condiment packets and commissary junk food. Imagine what they could do if they weren’t incarcerated! People who create with little resources remind me that I have more than enough at my fingertips to get started.

As a corollary, my creative muse is my own pre-verbal embedded understanding of aesthetics and symbols. Over time, I’ve come to trust that I have absorbed enough of what the world has offered up on the spectrum of beauty and horror to feel confident that if an abstract or metaphorical idea pops up in my consciousness, it’s worth chasing.

Other muses: friendship, small and wondrous and anonymous acts of kindness, the body, nature.

Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?

I woke up thinking about this question, and forty minutes later, I’ve edited my list about ninety times. I’ll give you my original, laying-in-my-bed-snowy-morning-pre-alarm answer: Ani DiFranco, Pina Bausch and Georg Büchner.

Ani DiFranco because I can think of no other artist that exerted such profound influence on my life. As a searching and queer teenager, like many other young queers, I felt like she was singing directly to my life. Her lyrics resonated deeply with my own unique experience as a disenchanted kid from the suburbs who wanted more from life. She plays her guitar like it’s in her bones. In my search for a bigger world, her music accompanied me on long road trips through the desert and West, driving 800 or 1,000 miles per day: alone, seventeen years old, pre-cell phone, with a taste of freedom. Also, she taught me there is no shame in being an independent artist and speaking out about your personal experience and your political point of view. I learned from her and carry still today the belief that you can grab the tools of your craft, get in a beat-up vehicle, play tiny venues and still be worthy.

I learned of Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal through an amazing theater director, Royd Climenhaga, and at seventeen, I learned so much about body and composition and repetition and accumulation and creating environments out of feathers, leaves, dirt, water and bodies. Her work has shaped my aesthetics more than anyone’s, I think.

Georg Büchner has an amazing story. He wrote multiple plays and became a doctor and did science and art and was a revolutionary. He was totally prolific, and he was dead at the age of 23. How is that possible?? I’d like to talk with him about this.

James Baldwin and Frida Kahlo could easily elbow out the above artists. Other folks who would make a fun party or would spark me: Guillermo Gomez-Peña (he would goof on everyone in the most scathing and weird and beautiful ways and get us all naked), Marina Abramovic (I have a lot I need to ask her, especially about her early work), Zora Neale Hurston, Tom Waits, Chris Burden, Rebecca Solnit, Kara Walker, Laurie Anderson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Damien Hirst, Bertolt Brecht, Charlotte Brontë and maybe, when all the sparkling party conversation is over, I’d invite GG Allin and a hoard of punk rockers in to burn the place to the ground in order to not have to wash dishes.

Also, I just re-read the question, and it reads “what three people,” not just “what three artists.” That list is even longer, but for now, I’ll say that Assata Shakur and Phoolan Devi (Bandit Queen of India) are at the top of that list.

What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?

The best thing about the local creative community, in theater and performance, is that I am seeing a shift toward inviting more people into the conversation and a diversity of aesthetic offerings with a turn toward the participatory. I am seeing some of the larger cultural institutions examining their missions and becoming more self-reflexive and (attempting) to be more inclusive of a range of voices. I am seeing a deeper interest in community engagement and, as long as that engagement is diverse, sustained and authentic, I think this is tremendously positive.

The worst thing is how I see some of these same large cultural institutions, as well as newcomers arriving, declaring their work as somehow exclusive or original: the “only” company that does X, the “first” experience in Denver of Y. Nope. You didn’t invent anything, and this kind of language, especially from the largest and most powerful theater companies and cultural institutions, smacks of self-satisfaction, erases the quality work of less-resourced artists (who’ve maybe been in the game for a while), and is simply clueless. I don’t have a problem with you doing good work, big work and important work…and screaming that fact from the rooftops. But you did not invent immersive experiences, you did not invent the intersection of theater and social justice, you did not invent doing theater in bars or working as an ensemble or whatever claim you’re making. Do your homework, brush up on your history, and acknowledge the work of your colleagues. Rising tides and all that.

Also, there are almost no physical spaces/venues for emerging artists to try things and take risks around the Front Range. This is a big deal. The effect of the high cost of real estate and the city’s crackdown on underground spaces is a one-two gut punch to the arts scene that cannot be overstated. Theater/performance demands space to gather, space to spread out and make messes and noise. There is almost nowhere affordable to do this, and it really, really sucks. Especially for young artists.

How about globally?

The best thing about the global arts community is much the same as above. I think theater and performance is enjoying an interest in more experimental and interactive ways of creating experiences. This is important because it is chipping away at that wall that separates those who create and those who consume. As a field, we are maybe taking one step down from our heralded elitist pedestals and inviting people closer to our work. I also see a turn toward greater social responsibility and a desire for equity in the truest sense of the word: the recognition that artists have different resources and opportunities, depending on their material conditions and social/geographic location. I notice increasing opportunities (grants, residencies, festivals) for less resourced artists and marginalized voices. That said...

In theater/performance and the arts in general, the worst thing is the lack of conversation about the relationship between money and opportunity. Artists with financial security (through family wealth or spousal support, usually) can attribute their opportunities as the outcome of hard work, risk taking or dedication, as though we’re living in a meritocracy. It’s hard to create when you’re experiencing food insecurity or working multiple jobs. Trust me, I know. And few regular people can do an expensive training program to cultivate their skills or a six-week unpaid residency to develop new work. To normalize this or treat these kinds of opportunities as accessible is bananas.

And the worst thing is that this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. If you can afford a fancy certification program, you can earn money as a freelancer, teaching master classes and workshops. If you can travel to an urban hub, you can audition and take classes. Opportunity begets opportunity. If you’re hustling as a waitress or Lyft driver or commuting on buses, you do not get these luxuries. And they are luxuries. The fact that we, as an arts community, aren’t having conversations about this economic reality makes me nuts. We must talk about poverty, stigma, and the shame of being poor and in debt, and how this stymies the possibility of our cultural production. Masking inequality as professional standards is a mindfuck. It also simply enrages me.

Are trends worth following? What’s one trend you love and one that you hate?

I see a trend right now of attempting to right some wrongs in terms of representation. Our culture seems to be (slowly and painfully) recognizing that some voices have been historically excluded due to white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, etc., even in mainstream culture. I love this trend to try to “do right” by these excluded communities, though this trend makes me nervous, because it feels like a trend, and not like it’s standard operating procedure, as it really should be. This kind of inclusion is, at this moment, often awkward, superficial and tokenizing. Of course I’d rather have clumsy and messy progress than none at all. I’m concerned that this “trend” is being swallowed by capitalism and sold back to us, however, because capitalism is a monster that devours everything in its path. I’m concerned because our culture is really terrible at complexity, so representation, at the moment, looks to me a lot like marking off checkboxes and using the word “diversity” as code for including a few more voices of people of color rather than looking more deeply at layered representation that may include interlocking identities of, yes, race, but also disability, gender identity, body types/typical notions of beauty, religion, etc. etc. etc.

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Julie Rada in RID at UMOCA (Utah Museum of Contemporary Art), 2015.
Photo by Jeff Lane
What’s your best or favorite accomplishment as an artist?

In 2014, I worked with about twenty folks in a medium-security men’s prison in Florence, Arizona, and we worked together to develop a full-length original theater piece based on the writings of these incarcerated artists. I was in the facilitator/director’s seat. We had one daytime performance in a visitation room for an audience of other incarcerated folks, prison staff and a handful of guests I could invite. And the performance had glitter and flowers and men in their state-issued orange dancing in the yard and sharing quiet intimate poetry with selected audience members. And it ended with a dance party to Pharrell’s “Happy.” And tears. And we had Kool-Aid and brownies and celebrated. And it was a peak aesthetic experience. And totally obscure and behind thick walls and razor wire and in the middle of the desert, and no one knows about it and there are no photos, and I couldn’t be more proud of this accomplishment.

You’ve come this far in life. What’s still on your bucket list?

I’d like to learn to play guitar and write songs. I’d like to learn to speak Spanish. I’d like to do one of those really long hikes like the Pacific Trail or even the Colorado Trail. I’d like to spend more time in countries in the global south. I’d like to make my meditation practice more regular. I’d like to learn to garden. I’d like to learn to live smaller and create bigger.

Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?

I lived in Colorado, first in Boulder and then in Denver, from 2002 to 2011, and then I moved away to Arizona for grad school and then to Utah to work at a university. Joni Mitchell was right: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I moved back in the summer of 2016, to a very different city. It really helps for me to think about my life in Denver in two eras: Old Denver and New (Nü) Denver. What keeps me here are my friends and collaborators. Relationships matter. My relationships with folks in my life here, Miriam Suzanne and Kenny Storms, with whom I’m creating Grapefruit Lab, specifically, and all my other loves and friends that inspire me and nourish me. Three of my best friends have moved away, including Brian Freeland, one of my closest mentors and collaborators. That’s really tough. My favorite venues and hangouts are closing, bands I love have broken up, and the city is different. But there are a lot of amazing humans still here, and as long as there are people I love and a community where I can make art and be my authentic self, well, I’m just not sure if there’s any greener pasture than that. The mountains and sunshine are nice, too, though I miss the desert. I’ve wandered and sought novelty a lot in life. I’m ready to put down roots and explore the rewards of staying put.

Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?

Is it okay that my favorites are the people I am friends with or work with? Miriam Suzanne and Kenny Storms are my favorites! That’s why I want to work with them. Teacup Gorilla is one of my favorite bands. Josie Cool recently joined Teacup Gorilla and is working with us on our current project, JANE/EYRE, and is so ridiculously talented. I want to check out all of her other bands (I think she’s in at least three bands, if not more). Dameon Merkl from Lost Walks and the now-defunct band Bad Luck City is a longtime favorite, and so we asked him to work with us on JANE/EYRE. When he accepted, I sent him the most fangirl email ever. Mirror Image Arts is doing some pretty badass work at the intersections of aesthetics and creating healthier, more empathetic communities and has a vision for so much more. I’m so fortunate to be able to work with all of these folks.

Though I don’t work with them directly, I am honored to count Buntport Theater among my artistic friends, because they exemplify originality and generosity. Also, I could listen to James Hahn play piano from now until the end of time.

What's on your agenda in the coming year?

Our little collective, Grapefruit Lab, is beginning conversations about a project exploring addiction: the role of love and community in addiction, the stigma of addiction, and harm-reduction tactics for addressing addiction socially. We hope to cultivate some cross-sector partnerships with local organizations that practice harm reduction and address addiction through the lens of public health and love, rather than as pathology. That project is in its embryonic phase, though, so who knows where that will go. Also, Brian Freeland and I are talking about a secret, long-distance collaboration to develop under our side project Countdown to Zero. Also, I’ve been involved with projects for about sixteen months, so also on the agenda is a big break here soon.

Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?

When I lived here before, my list would have been a mile long. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been so busy making art and working many jobs, that I really haven’t experienced the local arts community as much as I would like. So, two artists that I’d like to see more from, whether or not this means they “should” get noticed: Michelle Ellsworth, dancer/performance artist/general weirdo/big brain, and Frank Kwiatkowski, who continues to paste his unauthorized street art, with its lens of social commentary and personal experience, all over the ever-“beautified” streets of Denver. Thank god for the likes of him.

Grapefruit Lab will present six performances of JANE/EYRE, a queer retelling of the Charlotte Brontë classic, beginning on Friday, February 23, at 8 p.m. and running through Saturday, March 3, at the Bakery, 2132 Market Street. Find info, showtimes and tickets, $15, at Eventbrite; learn more about Grapefruit Lab and Julie Rada online.
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