Buba Basishvili and Meghan Frank are clowns at heart — people you don’t encounter on the street often, but who are more than memorable when you do. They met at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, where they both earned degrees in niche ensemble-based physical theater, before finally landing as a couple in Frank’s home town of Denver. And because they are clowns, they formed a company called Theatre Artibus and looked for a brick-and-mortar home where they — and other underfunded local groups — could develop and present alternative-theater performances.
Frank and Basishvili, who hails from the Republic of Georgia, found that home at the Savoy at Curtis Park, an 1889 landmark in the Five Points neighborhood. With help on the business side from Frank’s brother, Scott, they set out to bring the space to life.
But having a space isn’t enough, they say. The two don't want to simply create a cultural bubble for theater and dance people in the middle of black Denver’s most historic neighborhood. Instead, they envision a community performing arts center that welcomes its neighbors to participate.
“As a company, we’re excited to explore local stories and issues in collaboration with the community, telling a narrative of changing Denver,” says Frank. “How do we provide a space for those who don't have fiscal means?”
In answer to that question, they joined forces with the experimental-theater collective Grapefruit Lab and actor/playwright Jeff Campbell to launch the Recipe Project, a community story-sharing project supported in part by a City of Denver Imagine 2020 grant. The idea is to solicit and gather oral narratives that will eventually be fleshed out in a stage dramatization. Frank predicts that the final product, a roving performance in and around the Savoy, will come to fruition by 2020.
“We were interested as a theater company in being in the community, and listening and hearing stories was a way to do that,” says Frank. “Recipe is a way to introduce Artibus to the community. We want to collaborate with as many people as we can.”
The Recipe Project is starting small, and every little story inspires. Frank cites a conversation with Michael Martinez, a co-owner of Rolling Pin Bakeshop on Welton Street, who was intrigued to hear that the Savoy once housed a bakery in its basement: “He said, ‘I wonder if this is the building my grandma came to as a little girl. She said she loved the bakeshop and would always pull on the guy’s apron when she visited.’ It’s a cool thing to think that might have happened.”
After doing research at the Blair-Caldwell Library, Frank learned that the bakery in Martinez’s grandmother’s memory wasn’t at the Savoy. But it sparked a clearer vision for a storytelling project.
“The idea was born to embrace stories about food memories and Five Points,” Frank notes. “There are so many different ingredients in a recipe, and that’s what makes a community like Five Points so interesting. I cannot claim to be of this community, but I feel it’s important to understand my space in a place that has been rapidly changing.”
On Saturday, March 30, the Recipe Project collaborators will launch the first in a series of public story circles at the Savoy, designed to share recollections around the theme of “food, memory, home and belonging” while fostering understanding between incoming artists and an established community that often feels under siege from gentrification. The story circles will start with the breaking of bread as an icebreaker and gateway to the memories of participants.
“Proust wrote a thing about how he's eating a cookie given to him by his aunt, and it brings up all these memories of his life in Paris," notes Basishvili, whose Georgian roots immerse him in reminiscences of food and family. In lieu of Proust’s symbolic madeleine in Swann’s Way, prompts will be used to evoke lost stories.
Campbell and Grapefruit Lab bring their own approaches to the table, giving the Recipe Project added dimension. Grapefruit Lab’s Julie Rada recounts going out into the streets in Five Points with colleague Kenny Storms, who recorded everyday sounds from the neighborhood. They also struck up impromptu conversations, actively placing themselves smack in the middle of the community.
The Savoy itself is also a ready talking point, simply through its historical significance. “Recipes will be a fun way to open the new space. We’ll be going back to the root of something we all share and interpreting that through our own art process," Rada says.
“I’m increasingly interested in dialogue that doesn't compromise the innate integrity of regular people,” she adds. “We have no artistic standards — high art should not be exclusive from any conversation. We all have different experiences, but what matters is what people remember.”
As for Campbell, Frank says, he’s there for his nuts-and-bolts creativity in building a cohesive performance through honest characters: “We looked at Jeff's work as a creator, producer and storyteller. Here’s an artist who wears multiple hats all the time.” Adds Campbell: “Part of maintaining cultural integrity is making sure these stories are told. It feels right to do this, but it’s a heavy responsibility, definitely something we have to do with eyes and hearts wide open.”
But Campbell admits he had another motive for coming on board: “When they told me there was going to be food, that sealed the deal.”
As the project grows, there are other possibilities that might come into play: for instance, building a recorded story archive for future generations. “Most of all, it has to be interactive,” Frank explains. “People need to have the opportunity to interact with each other and have a chance to tell their own stories. It’s fun and challenging, and we have no idea what will happen; it will be different every time. And then it will be the artists’ job to get all the information together and find out how to filter the ingredients to make a tasty cake.”
The Recipe Project will host its first Story Circle session from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 30, at the Savoy at Curtis Park, 2700 Arapahoe Street. A second circle is scheduled at the same time and place on Saturday, April 13. Admission is free, but an RSVP is requested in advance at eventbrite.com. Bring stories and an open ear. Learn more about the Recipe Project and future events at the Theatre Artibus website or on the Facebook page.