In a sense, the defining characteristic of what it means to be alive is that, at some point, death awaits. It’s an ever-present reality that makes occasional appearances and always looms somewhere in the future. And we all carry stories about death.
Not wanting to be judged as depressing or morbid, we rarely take the opportunity to talk these stories out. But over the past year, a growing movement in Asheville is seeking to make conversations about death more commonplace: Through an ever-evolving series of public art installments and performances that began in early 2014 , locally based Third Messenger has been offering Ashevilleans the chance to share their stories surrounding death and to contemplate their own mortality.
This isn’t a cynical or nihilistic statement — in fact its quite the opposite, says Said Osio, a founding member of the group. Instead, these conversations are actually inspiring people to view their lives as sacred and to live more fully, he explains.
So far, Third Messenger’s projects have included last year’s “Before I Die Wall” at 35 Biltmore Ave., an ongoing “Death Cafe” series that first kicked off in January 2014, and “The Last Picture Show,” a visual-concert performance that took place Halloween 2014. Group members describe all of these projects as “engaging on one universal theme: death and living, transcending emptiness, loss of meaning and materialism of our time.”
This past January, along with musical group Aqteshna Ana (meaning “dew on the grass” in Cherokee) and Asheville Playback Theatre, Third Messenger took what it terms “cultivating the sacred art of being and dying” to the next level, producing the first ever Dying to Live Experimental Theatre at North Carolina Stage Company. On April 19, Dying to Live Theatre made its second appearance in a matinee show at The Altamont Theatre.
In the style of playback, the performance was interactive. In the style of Third Messenger, it was multisensory. Audience members were invited to the stage to share a personal story, after which the Playback actors interpreted and theatrically recounted the tale, allowing the tellers to see it poetically unfold before their eyes. The twist with Dying to Live Theatre is that the stories each participant shares are about death.
Between these “skits,” the audience was encouraged to reflect on the themes as Aqteshna Ana wove an ethereal yet earthy musical tapestry described as “contemplative fusion,” while Osio, a graphic artist, played a slideshow of surrealistic digital art renderings of figures and visages in various states of exultation or lament — always appearing amid layers of semi-transparent abstract landscapes and cityscapes.
Over the course of the afternoon, five audience members took to the stage to share their personal confrontations death — a story of lost friendship; a story of losing a cousin to suicide and assuming the role of mother to her cousin’s then motherless son; another of an aging veteran father slipping into dementia. One man talked about his father, who was one of eight in his native Polish city to survive the Holocaust. And a former Asheville Playback actor relayed a haunting experience: Upon adopting the role of a murderer in a skit, he found himself unable to shake the emotions or psyche he had assumed for portraying such an identity.
Within the musical, narrative, and visual context set, even those who didn’t share stories aloud were able to sit in the darkness while their own inner narratives around death and dying took on new worth.
Of tantamount importance to Third Messenger is providing a platform for the public to collectively grieve, consider our relationship to death in what they describe as sacred space and time.
Third Messenger is planning a third Dying to Live Theatre for the summer of 2015. It’s holding a Death Cafe at downtown’s Dobra Tea on Sunday, April 26. Third Messenger will also be erecting a Before I Die wall at the 2015 Spring LEAF festival.
More info: thirdmessenger.com