Pop-Up Production Turns Former Globeville Slaughterhouse Into A Playhouse

Apr 4, 2019

"It's cold. And it's getting colder."

The opening lines from "Aggregate Immateriality" are a pretty apt description of Denver theatre company Control Group's new show — and its latest venue.

"When we first got in here it was freezing," said actor Bailey Harper, who plays the show's lead character.

Another impression of 4800 Washington Street in Denver's Globeville neighborhood: it was a little creepy.

"I could feel it in my skin like, I was really aware of what had happened here," Harper said. "And now that I've become comfortable in it, I can only see what we're putting into the space."

Up until the late 1960s, the building was a slaughterhouse. During a tour of the long-vacant basement, artistic director Patrick Mueller pointed out graffitti covering one of the walls from the men who used to work here.

"'Kill floor closed 3-29-68. It was very, very sad,'" Mueller read. "And a recurrent theme, 'James JaCante, retired Dec. 1, 1967 and I feel good.' There's a bunch of retirement messages with that tagline. It sort of brings alive the people who were here."

That's part of the reason why he chose to produce this show about death in — of all places — a former slaughterhouse: to contrast what happened here with the lives of the people it impacted.

Graffiti notes the last day for the "kill floor" of the former slaughterhouse at 4800 Washington Street in Denver's Globeville neighborhood.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

"It has a particularly — I'm not going to say it has a warm aesthetic — but it feels like a place where you can feel ghosts in a good way," Mueller said.

"Aggregate Immateriality" follows the transition from life into death, aiming to re-contextualize death and the fear that we have about our own mortality, he said.

The slaughterhouse keeps that idea in the forefront of the audience's minds — especially with original touches such as trough drains and signs like the ones in the women's restroom that note: "Remove your gloves, knives and aprons before entering."

These historic touches added a lot to the show's feel, said Justin Hicks, a technical director at Incite Colorado, which handled the set design for the production.

"It's kind of funny but this is kind of normal for us," Hicks said. "Which is really weird to say."

Incite does production design for theatre troupes and artists across the state and country. Recently, Hicks said, the company has been seeing more calls for work on immersive theater like Control Group. Last summer, they worked on a production set in the abandoned streetcar tunnels of Washington D.C.'s Dupont Underground.

"Working in these types of locations is exciting because it gives us something to work off of, rather than a blank slate — like theater often is," Hicks said. "This is something we can relate to."

Most of Control Group's performances are in these types of "found" spaces, as opposed to a traditional theater. The building itself is part of the experience. Actors lead the audience through the space, immersing them in the story.

Wheelchairs line the wall for a scene in Control Group's new production "Aggregate Immateriality."
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Also woven into the production's narrative is the the story of Globeville.

Settled in the 1880s, the north Denver neighborhood was the site of the Globe Smelting and Refining Company. It was isolated by the railroad and the Platte River, and later by the construction of Interstates 25 and 70. In the 1990s, the area was deemed a Superfund site, a point that is referenced in the show during a scene in a makeshift garden.

"The garden is partly our hopes for the future and how we are cultivating the thing that comes after us," Mueller said. "But also this choice was very much based on the knowledge that a foot of topsoil was removed from every residential and public property in Globeville."

But while the performance is largely focused on death and dying, Mueller is careful not to give that same label to Globeville.

"I absolutely don't believe that Globeville is a dead neighborhood," he said. "But this was — there was a passing that happened, actually several of them in terms of the industry that fed the communities of Globeville."

"Arts are an inherently gentrifying force in a certain way. As artists, we can offset that or we can ignore that."

Mueller is cautious because he doesn't want the production to become "a beacon for gentrification."

That's why he worked with local neighborhood organizations, not only to find out more about Globeville's history, but also to find out what the theater company could offer the community, including compensation for people's time and expertise.

"Arts are an inherently gentrifying force in a certain way," he said. "As artists, we can offset that or we can ignore that. And I think whether you're coming in for two months, like we are, or for two years or 20 years, you have a responsibility to that."

Control Group's new show "Aggregate Immateriality" opens this week and runs through April 28.