Pushing boundaries is nothing new for the team behind Grapefruit Lab. What’s rarer for the Denver-based production company are those moments when the thrill of experimentation meets the relatability of everyday human experience. That’s the intersection occupied by its new world-premiere Strange Bird, Queer Bird, an early-pandemic love story based on real-life events.
“We think what we do is weird and, most of the time, other people do too,” says Miriam Suzanne, company co-founder and writer-producer of its latest show running through April 15 at Buntport Theater. “So when people find our work relatable, it is exciting. We all lived through this traumatic experience where we were alone during the pandemic and felt disconnected. This show revisits that time through the lens of connection between two people who care for each other.”
Grapefruit Lab’s “weird” roots go back to 2009, when Suzanne bonded with fellow Colorado creatives Julie Rada and Kenny Storms while working on shows as part of The LIDA Project, a meta-media art collective focused on live performance. The trio collaborated under various names before forming Grapefruit Lab to create avant-garde, mixed-media shows that both challenge and inspire.
When it comes to executing that last part of the company’s mission, Strange Bird offers a formal experiment that turns its creative powers toward a universal theme: love. Focusing on a light in the darkness offered the production team a chance to consider a grim moment in history from a new perspective.
“Because we are telling this interpersonal love story amid the pandemic, it felt important for us to contextualize the story and gravity of what was happening,” says Rada, who writes and stars in the show. “The world felt like it was ending, but also, life continued; love, hope and possibility continued. That period wasn’t all darkness because, despite how closed off everything felt, I fell in love.”
Queer love takes flight
Rada met Lars Reid online before the start of the pandemic in 2020, and the couple spent the first five months of their relationship socially distanced. After matching on Tinder — a first for both — they had their inaugural date on March 8, right before the world shut down.
The script for Strange Bird, Queer Bird was created verbatim from exchanges between Rada and Reid during the couple’s initial courtship. Suzanne worked with them to organize a handful of letters, poems, two full journals, and nearly 700 pages of text messages into a cohesive narrative. The result weaves Rada and Reid’s communications with original choreography by Kate Speer and Allison Blakeny and live music by Denver indie-rock band Teacup Gorilla to tell a unique story about how two non-binary lovers persisted through a period of intense isolation.
But romance between people wasn’t the only inspiration for Strange Bird. The play was also influenced by the elaborate mating rituals and lengthy courtships of bowerbirds. This avian energy gives wings to a queer love story that is distinctly and deeply human.
“These birds build intricate nests and colorful collections to impress each other — and we’re telling a queer version of that story,” says Rada. “In the context of the pandemic, it’s a story that seems relatable, in spite of these specifics.”
To that end, the set features scenic sculptural pieces designed by Annabel Reader and Dan Huling arranged in an oval-shaped nest the audience will sit around. “When you do work in the round, the audience can’t help but recognize that they are in the community,” says Rada. “We are inviting people into our shared nest to experience a story about the importance of being together.”
To hammer home that point of togetherness, and give back to the artistic community that supported Grapefruit Lab throughout the pandemic, all ticket sales from its performance on April 9 will benefit the Denver Actors Fund. The organization provides financial support to Colorado artists with medical needs — including an approximately $3,500 grant to Suzanne to help cover living expenses following her gender-confirming surgery.
“Grapefruit Lab exists in an artistic ecosystem,” Rada says. “Buntport has donated space to us to do this show; artists have shown up to support our work; and the Denver Actors Fund has helped our artistic team. We acknowledge that we have benefited from our community, so we want to give back.”
The pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of that ecosystem, but the Strange Bird team ispreparing for the play’s debutin a drastically different environment than the one in which it was conceived. With audiences hungry for connection after a period of isolation, the hope is to reframe the collective trauma of recent years to reveal something that looks like hope.
“Though our story might sound crazy given the devastation [that was] going on in the rest of the world, people were dying and people were living,” says Rada. “No matter what you were doing, the seasons still came.”
ON STAGE: Strange Bird, Queer Bird by Julie Rada, Lars Reid and Miriam Suzanne. Various times, April 7-15. Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan St., Denver. Tickets here.