Death As Performance Art: People Share Stories Of Loss On Stage | KALW

Death As Performance Art: People Share Stories Of Loss On Stage

Mar 5, 2020

Dealing with death is not easy. But some in the Bay Area are opening the conversation by stepping on stage and telling their stories of loss and mortality to an audience.

You’re going to die.

These words strike fear in the hearts of many people, but they state a simple fact we can’t deny. Here in the Bay Area, death is stepping out in front of the curtain and taking center stage. Some people are finding comfort addressing death and mortality creatively through storytelling, poetry, and music. Here in the Bay Area area they’re expressing themselves at popular event venues. 

Stagebridge in Downtown Oakland is the nation’s oldest and most renowned theater company of older adults. The company started in 1978 with a mission to enrich the lives of seniors through the performing arts with shows and classes. 

“For Dyin’ Out Loud” , is Stagebridge’s first storytelling event about life’s paths, including the journey to the end.

“We wanted to create a venue where we could share our stories,” said Eleanor Clement Glass, one of the participating senior storytellers. “Then hopefully spark discussion and thinking about living fully and dying.”

An audience of 50 people listened with rapt attention as Glass shared her stories about the death of her father and how her mother successfully coped with her loss. 

“It helped me get in very close, emotional touch with my mom and dad,” said Glass, “A participant came up to me and said ‘this was so heart-opening.’ And that’s exactly what I felt and what I wanted others to feel.”

Ben Tucker, also known on stage as Brother Ben, is another Stagebridge storyteller. A tall and imposing presence on stage, Tucker told the audience a moving story of his friend Ron, who died of a sudden heart attack while hiking in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. He ended the story by having the audience sing “Happy Trails” with him.

“It was cathartic,” said Tucker. “It helped me bring out that last little bit of grief and share it with the audience. I could see the looks on their faces. I think Ron would have been very proud that he was being remembered in such a supportive group of people.”

Not everyone is comfortable discussing our mortality, let alone performing on stage in front of strangers. But, some psychologists say accepting our own mortality can help us embrace life and live our lives more fully and passionately. 

The Final Act In San Francisco

Over in San Francisco,performer Ned Buskirk hosts the open-mic You’re Going To Die at The Lost Church theater in the Mission District. The monthly event features amateur storytellers, poets, and musicians. The evening started when Buskirk casually wandered on stage, dressed in a T-shirt and baseball cap. He set the tone for the show by encouraging the crown to say in unison, “I am going to die.”

You’re Going To Die started in Buskirk’s apartment with a few of his friends, following the death of his mother in 2003. It quickly grew and now draws a sell-out crowd of at least 70 people, most of them in their 20s and 30s. The event attracts people from all walks of life-- artists, doctors, and other professionals.

“It’s hard to say what brings everybody to You’re Going To Die,” said Buskirk. “It could be that someone’s just lost someone and they meet a friend who says, ‘You should go to this—it really helped me after my dad died or my friend died.’”

Everyone who signs up for the open mic has five minutes on stage. Some performers are young medical professionals who have witnessed death for the first time. The show offers them an outlet for sharing their frustrations, sadness, and grief. Others have lost parents, close relatives, or friends and these deaths remind them of their own mortality. Tracy, a participant at one of the open mic nights, was sobbing as she shared her fears about her brother who had been recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. “I don’t want this to be happening,” she said, “What’s going in my head is ‘we’re all going to die, we’re all going to die.’”

Buskirk believes that audience members and participants find comfort and healing by seeking connection with one another. 

“Part of what we have too much of is [make] death and dying and our heart-breaking mortal experience a private matter,” he said, “ I think what we desire more of is healing through connectedness and reminders that we’re not alone.”

Buskirk feels this personally. He said, “I leave the show and I feel more alive and connected than I did before it began.”

You’re Going To Die runs the gamut of emotions, from joy and ecstasy to grief and sadness. The performers’ stories can easily move Buskirk to cry one moment and laugh the next.

“It’s how it was when my mom died,” he said, “These long stretches of feeling destroyed by sadness and despair and heartbreak. And then suddenly finding euphoria or a moment of hilarity. There’s something healthy about that.”

As the evening winds down and the curtain closes, the show isn’t over for Buskirk. You’re Going To Die is also a nonprofit organization that does charitable work. Buskirk organized Songs For Life, a group of musicians who play for hospice patients. Buskirk also started Alive Inside, which hosts monthly open mic events at San Quentin. He hopes to expand Alive Inside to other prisons outside of California.

Ned Buskirk’s creative use of the performing arts has touched many in the Bay Area and helped normalize open discussions around death—the final act in our lives.

This report was written and produced by JoAnn Mar with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations, and The Silver Century Foundation.