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Monday night is when the freaks come out. In droves.
Old freaks, young freaks, gay freaks, straight freaks. Freaks in drag and freaks with cancer. They flock to the Bug Theatre, an old nickelodeon house in northwest Denver.
They pay $5 for admission and a plastic, bottomless cup the freaks of proper age can fill with not-so-freaky Breckenridge microbrews.
Some come to the monthly event, called “Freak Train,” to perform — anything they want, from songs to stand-up comedy, poems to performance art, anything, uncensored. Most come to be entertained.
The distinction between the two groups, though, is minimal, as self-described freaks watch their fellow freaks from the seats, then head to the stage themselves. Those who have signed up by 8 p.m. are given five minutes in the spotlight. One second more, and Alex Weimer, “the guy in the booth,” plays a sound effect of a quacking duck.
At Freak Train, the word “performance” is taken to new heights. And, just as often, new lows.
The comics aren’t necessarily funny. The singers can go off-key. Things can be fascinating or painfully tedious. It’s all part of the show — a very popular show, usually packed with a crowd of hipsters and half-wits, weirdos, wunderkinds and wannabes.
“Freak Train is where the lines blur between virtuosity, sincerity and amateurism,” says bubbly emcee GerRee Hinshaw. “I wouldn’t call it a forgiving audience. The audience never promises to love what you’re going to do. But the exchange is always there. We’re going through something together. And, really, every audience member is hoping the person on stage is about to blow them away.”
Aug. 31 will be the 100th Freak Train. The locomotive has been rolling for the past nine years on the final Monday of each month (except December).
Hinshaw, a veteran stage performer who also works at an ad agency, has watched, performed or hosted 98 of the 99 shows. The perky performer — who releases a bit of a darkly cynical, slightly insulting, yet always endearing side on stage — missed July of last year when her father was in the hospital.
It all started in the summer of 2000 when Hinshaw and other members of the Bug community were brainstorming ways to fill the theater.
“On Mondays, everyone is dark, so the thinking was, ‘Let’s have a play day,’ ” she said.
“Let’s get rid of scripts and preparation. Let’s allow people to deliver a monologue or sing a song from their dream musical, something they’ll never be able to do in real life.”
Amanda Wilson, a member of the Bug’s long-since disbanded resident theater company, introduced an idea from her former Memphis company called Freak Engine. As Hinshaw recalls, “We took the leap and decided to call it Freak Train,’ narrowly avoiding spelling ‘Freak’ with a ‘PH.’ ”
The first act on that Monday in late summer set the tone for years to come. Bug boss Donna Morrison and her dog walked around on stage for five minutes. People laughed.
Seven years later, a woman named Bethany took the podium and performed “Confronting a Silent Killer.” She began by asking the women in the audience when they had their last pap smear. Everybody laughed.
She cringed and continued to read from her homemade cue cards. The laughter died after the phrase, “My cancer is in Stage 3 . . .” Bethany sat down in a chair facing a full-length mirror. She proceeded to shave her full head of brown hair before a shocked, silent audience.
“And she never let go of her hair,” remembers Hinshaw, still getting choked up more than two years later. “It was aware. And her face started to crumble as it was happening. She did it, not the chemo. That was her performance.”
As with all theater, death has a funny way of popping up at Freak Train.
At the July 27 show, 18-year-old Josiah Lovato, took to the stage in a black trench coat and top hat to deliver a “proper” eulogy for his recently deceased step-grandmother. Lovato used his five minutes of open stage time to tell the audience what he felt to be the truth — that his grandmother was a drug addict, a prostitute and a wretched human being. Some laughed, some gasped, some applauded, awkwardly.
A few days later Lovato, who has been coming to Freak Train for the past five years, stood by his words.
“I live a straight-edge life. I’m drug-free, free of addiction of any sort. I used to drink, smoke pot and inject opium into my veins,” he said. “But I’ve been clean for four years.”
Lovato would most easily be described as a Goth. He lives with his girlfriend, Mariah Aguirre, who is also Goth. The two share a room in her parents’ home in Denver. They go to Park Meadows mall and watch movies. Most nights they make dinner and eat it in her bedroom. Lovato has been searching for a job for nearly a year, to no avail. Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart — it’s just not happening, and he doesn’t know why.
On paper, he’s a rather normal teenager. “People used to look at us (he and his girlfriend, who also attends Freak Train events), but we don’t turn faces anymore,” says Lovato. “I loved the attention though, it’s fun.”
Lovato is working toward a degree in mortuary science at Community College of Denver. “I want to work closely with the police department, hopefully in a crime lab, working as a coroner,” he said.
“I also want to open a low-income funeral home when I’m older,” he said. “The price of death is outrageous.”
He’s been Goth for seven years. On a hot Friday afternoon, he’s wearing a black fishnet shirt with silver nipple rings poking through and baggy black pants with chains galore. According to Lovato, his mom accepts his lifestyle, while his dad thinks it’s the work of the devil.
“I’ve sat and talked to a preacher before. It didn’t go anywhere. He kept asking if I feared hell,” he says.
Marleine Yanish is a receptionist at a doctor’s office. At the 99th show, she took the podium to read three poems. Her quiet voice murmured the lines of “Grief as a Gift.”
Most of Yanish’s poetry, including that which she has read aloud at the past three Freak Trains, is of a spiritual nature.
“I once had a dream where I felt connected to a light,” she said. “I knew that knowledge was in that light. I woke up, and my mom called to say that my brother had entered a coma. He was a diabetic. I realized then that I was connected to him.”
She wrote “The Illusion of Death” one week after he died and read it at his funeral, as she has done for many people since.
All of Yanish’s poetry is written by hand, on single copies. She lives in Denver and has no computer.
In her estimation, she’s written about 100 poems over 30 years, at least 20 of them in the past year. She has read at the Mercury Cafe and now has a bookmark with a poem on it that she sells for $2.
“I put a spice into the norm of what they usually do here,” she whispers, “though I would like to be published and go places where people know I read.”
Outsiders move in
There is no place in Denver quite like the Bug on Freak Train Mondays. For that $5, you’ll hear bad comedy, or amazing classical piano, or compelling dramatic and comedic skits, or cartoonish cabaret in hideous drag.
For $5, you’ll have a connection.
Hinshaw speaks of the “total acknowledgment” that happens at Freak Train.
“It’s in sharp contrast to what can occur in the urban world, where it’s essential not to acknowledge certain things. At the end of every show, we tell everyone to go out and be who they are. And, yeah, people will chip away at you — but come back the next month, and we’ll build you right back up. Freak Train doesn’t have to be a support group, but it can be,” she says.
As the 99th show came to a close, Hinshaw sang a rousing Freak Train-themed gospel number, imploring those before her to “Get on board, freaks!”
Her voice rocked the dark theater, and the a capella number rang out like a summer-camp theme song.
A few days later, Marleine Yanish sat on a wooden bench outside the Bug, smiling after talking about her five minutes on stage.
“I don’t feel like I’m a freak. It’s just a place that has a microphone.”