Katrina Clarke | October 21, 2016 | Toronto Star
Andrew Henderson is taking 100 secrets to the grave.
The 28-year-old stage manager and performer who is terminally ill is holding a living funeral/performance art piece called Taking It To The Grave in Winnipeg, not far from where he grew up.
Over the course of two, two-hour performances, he’ll invite 100 strangers to whisper their secrets to him, help him choose a symbol to represent each secret and then watch as it is tattooed on Henderson’s body.
The former Torontonian was diagnosed with t-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma two years ago, after doctors found a football-sized tumour in his chest. It became incurable one year ago.
Having come to terms with his terminal diagnosis, Henderson, an ebullient performance art lover with a flare for the dramatic, hopes to give these strangers the same release he now feels by letting them confide in him.
“Death has been the greatest gift of my life because it allowed me to fully embrace my true and honest self,” said Henderson, a gay man who, after the diagnosis, was drawn into deep introspection and now identifies as genderqueer, meaning he feels both male and female.
“Everything comes into perspective pretty quickly (when you’re dying). All you can be is your best self.”
When Henderson was given his terminal diagnosis in August 2015, his immediate reaction was shock and sadness, but within 15 minutes, he was cracking jokes.
“I was like ‘What’s the age all the rock stars die at?’” he recalled referring to Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and other celebrities who died at age 27. He was 26 at the time. “It was like aiming to get into the 27 Club. I was already making light of it.”
At the Friday evening and Sunday afternoon performances, up to 50 family, friends and strangers will enter the softly lit Aceart inc. gallery to find Henderson perched in his seat of honour — a giant champagne bottle that he and his team crafted from white tulle and chicken wire — in the centre of the room, surrounded by trinkets and pictures in gold frames.
Champagne is his favourite drink, he says, and the universal symbol for celebration.
There will be a manicure bar, cushions and cuddle spaces to “rest in peace,” — a nod to his dark sense of humour — and plenty of glitter and shimmery gauze. Hundreds of finger-sized gold foil rectangles will carpet the floor and Eroca Nicols, a choreographer and a collaborator on his project, will sweep the squares throughout the performance. She’ll also dance.
One by one, guests meandering around the room can approach Henderson to whisper their secrets, then watch as Toronto tattoo artist Carly Boyce inks the secret symbols on his skin. At the finale, family and friends will cleanse Henderson with small cupfuls of champagne as he sits in a kiddie pool. Audience members can cleanse him too, with water.
Nicols, Henderson’s friend of five years, finds some relief in knowing she’s helping her friend ease into his death through the performance art, which she calls a death ritual. She recently spent years travelling the world studying death, talking to witch practitioners and others who work with the occult.
“I’m here performing a sacred task,” said Nicols, whose research influenced her own performance, called Truthteller, running Saturday. “I feel in a lot of ways very honoured to be able to do this.”
The two have been researching death rituals, meeting Winnipeg psychics, witch practitioners and alternative medicine practitioners. Their research was supported by a grant from the Young Lungs Dance Exchange, an organization for interdisciplinary artists, but the performance is an independent project.
Henderson hired Sandy Klowak as production manager for Taking It To The Grave. She calls Henderson’s work “groundbreaking.”
“I’ve never personally seen someone engage with their own mortality in this way,” said Klowak. “Death is something that, even though we all obviously are headed towards it, it’s not something we want to engage with as part of our Western culture.”
On Henderson’s part, he’s excited to get the tattoos inked “anywhere there’s real estate” on his body. He already has 16, including “drop dead gorgeous” inked on his fingers, the Birth of Venus on his chest and an image of the Titanic across his back, which he says represents his life post-diagnosis: hitting an obstruction, facing certain death and going down with grace.
He hopes the performances get people comfortable talking about death.
At his proper funeral in his tiny hometown of Clandeboye, Man., he wants to be wrapped in gold fabric and buried in a gold-leaf coffin. He’ll also request a tombstone that celebrates queerness. He wants to address the existing bigotry he feels is prevalent in rural Manitoba — from the grave.
That bigotry and the lure of the big city are what brought Henderson to Toronto. He lived here on and off for 10 years, attending York University to study theatre production and design and working as a stage manager for fashion, art and theatre productions until his failing health forced him to go home in March.
Henderson doesn’t know how long he has left. Maintenance chemotherapy is keeping him alive — without it, doctor’s give him three to six months — but his body’s getting weaker.
He’ll know when he’s ready to halt treatment, he said, and he’s not afraid of what’s next.
“I’m OK if there’s nothing, I’m OK if there’s heaven,” Henderson said. “Whatever it is, I’m OK with it.”