There is no easy explanation for what performer Julie Rada does. A member of the three-person Denver collective Grapefruit Lab, which describes itself as a “performance lab,” Rada is an experimental storyteller with — and without — her colleagues.
She’ll perform mostly solo in her installation Memento Mori, expounding on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief in the windows of the Savoy at Curtis Park, 2700 Arapahoe Street. Although she’ll be properly distanced from the audience on the other side of the glass, Rada says the piece did not evolve in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, uptick in awareness about police violence, political chaos or fascism.
It actually goes back a few years to her time as a grad student, when she was part of a Scottsdale public art piece viewed in a storefront. “I thought it was a cool model; people could sign up for shifts, perform for two hours and be done,” Rada explains. “I’ve been thinking about it in the last few years as a form, particularly as the city is changing so much and storefronts are shifting a lot — some are now empty, some are now commercial or residential spaces.”
A pitch last year to perform in a storefront for Crush Walls — “It would be like an animated wall, kind of, where an audience passing by could experience a thing,” she says — was turned down, but Rada forged ahead, never giving up on the idea.
And while Memento Mori isn’t about COVID-19, the conditions of quarantine — which shut down cultural events (and theater in particular) — gave Rada an in: “I have been interested in death studies for a long time, and I’ve even been talking about becoming a death doula,” she says. “I thought maybe I could time this to do something. Death and existential issues are on everyone's mind now; it’s a universal experience for us. It was just a convergence of logistical things, and I decided, 'I'm gonna go for it.'
“My pals at the Savoy haven’t had programming in their space because of COVID,” Rada continues. “The business structure of theater and assembly has been decimated, and now people are scrambling for something to do.
“I also thought at this moment that we could all use a reason to get out of the house. I thought how cool it would be to make art right now, to figure out a way to do that, and decided that in the hot heavy dog days of summer, why not do a piece about death? In some ways, bearing the heat is parallel to how people experience death. It was a confluence of logistical things.”
Rada explains that Memento Mori stretches the boundaries of performance, in terms of form and participation. “I think of it as installation in a museum, like a film on a loop,” she adds. “People are arrested by it: You can watch as long as you want, show up late and leave early and still have a rich experience. I’m not imagining it as a performance where everybody assembles at eight when the curtain rises. I just want it to be an offering for anyone who wants to come around.”
And while Rada will be the focal point, she’ll have a stage manager on the outside, “primarily for the very confused, to provide reassurance and context.” This kind of gentle crowd control, she says, could be useful during an unconventional piece like Memento Mori — without getting in the way of the performance itself.
Rada knows the experience will be different for every viewer. “People might look in the window and think, ‘What’s that crazy person doing?’ Will people watch and discern what’s going on? I’m not interested in telling people what to think.” She adds that there might or might not be an interactive element: “I might ask people to write a few words — maybe a eulogy.”
Rada also gets that a strange performance in a window could easily be misconstrued, especially one that touches on death, conveyed by multicultural death symbols and traditional funeral-wear. “A lot of people misunderstand Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. Her original intention was to help people recognize when their own lives come to an end, without the psychological acrobatics that go along with that. It’s really not about grief; it’s about preparing for one's own death.”
That distinction is meaningful in context. “Kübler-Ross was a great influence for me,” Rada notes. “Later, her research partner David Kessler came up with a sixth stage, which is about finding meaning in death. This performance is an experimental offering: I'm thinking of the five stages as the structure, and that the sixth stage is exactly why I make art — to offer something up to the audience out of which to construct meaning."
Of the present crisis, says Rada, “People might go through turmoil and chaos or plod along until things reassemble themselves. But none of us are ever going back to normal — whatever that means.”
Think of Memento Mori as an opportunity for people to come to terms with the uncertainties of life. “It’s an invitation to look at the reality of death, look it in the eye and say, ‘Am I ready?’ — to have some recognition that one’s time is shorter,” Rada says. “I’ve been grappling with what it means to be forty and its relationship to time— realizing that not everything on your bucket list will get done and finding a way to be okay with that.”
Memento Mori runs at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays July 16 through July 25, at the Savoy at Curtis Park, 2700 Arapahoe Street. Admission is free, and complete attendance of the 75-minute performance is not required — nor does it matter if you arrive sometime in the middle of it. Proper social distancing and the use of masks are expected of audience members. Learn more at grapefruitlab.com.
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