Natural Sciences

Shelsea Ochoa Creates Community Through Story and Science

Written by Mamie M. Arndt


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Shelsea Ochoa directs boundless energy into the community, beginning with her day job as a bilingual experiential educator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, bringing science alive through live performance. Beyond that, she’s a poet and a filmmaker and, alongside founder Danny Mazur, she serves as creative director for Soul Stories, a platform for community engagement through storytelling. In her spare time, she performs with the Playback Theatre West improvisational group, which re-enacts personal histories shared by audience members.

Looking for release during COVID lockdown, she and soulmate Brice Maiurro also created the Go Outside and Howl at 8pm movement that spread around the world like the virus itself — spreading joy in place of misery.
And that’s just the start of Ochoa’s groundbreaking enthusiasm for bringing people together.

Learn even more through her answers on the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.

Ochoa channels Galileo at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Ochoa channels Galileo at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Courtesy of Shelsea Ochoa

Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?

Shelsea Ochoa: My primary muse is Mother Nature, the ultimate artist. I left home and started traveling at a young age, and have been lucky to find work in many countries around the world. My roaming spirit has led me to regard Earth itself as a kind of home base. I am often overcome to the point of tears by the immensity, profundity and complexity of nature. I adore spending time outside communing with it all — the snakes and the bees in my garden, the dazzling night sky, the dirt, the birds, the squirrels, the humans, the snow, trees! Nature is a wellspring of inspiration that flows on and on. When I feel lost, I study the ways of nature like rune stones.

Nature has always been an intrinsic part of my creative work. Before Denver, I was a River Sister for the San Diego River Park Foundation. When I moved to Denver, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science enthralled me. I have spent the past five years there, inspiring awe and enthusiasm about our natural world through museum theater and education.

My creative work is full of natural themes. As the creative director of Soul Stories, I often reflect on principles of permaculture to inspire experience design for our events. Last year, we worked with Kirsten Wade and Hamish Pike at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to produce a performance piece about the relationship between art and science. This summer, I was lucky to contribute to South Broadway Press’s poetry collection Thought for Food: a Fundraiser for Denver Food Rescue, in which I share a poem about my garden. I also recently produced a short film in Tilt West’s most recent journal. In the film, Brice Maiurro and I each walk 26 miles from each end of Colfax to meet each other in the middle.

My second source of inspiration is the people in my life. My family brings me so much joy and reminds me of how lucky I am to be alive. My friends and colleagues at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science are so brilliant and creative, tirelessly passionate and innovative. My best friend and teammate, Danny Mazur of Soul Stories, is so insightful when it comes to the human experience, it really blows me away. My honey and co-creator of the Howling movement, Brice Maiurro of South Broadway Press, is a brilliant human with a huge heart and endless creativity. The isolation of COVID this year has driven me to cherish the people I do get to spend time with.

Ochoa dissecting a sheep's heart on Valentine's Day at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Ochoa dissecting a sheep’s heart on Valentine’s Day at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Courtesy of Shelsea Ochoa

Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?

Mercedes Sosa: revolutionary and folk singer from Argentina.

Jill Tarter: Founded SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), dedicated her life to understanding the origins of life, searching for life outside of Earth, and creating pathways for female astronomers to advance in the field.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés: Brilliant keeper of stories from cultures around the world, wise woman full of insights, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves.

This dinner would take place under the stars. The crew would weave together conversations around the power of story, creating social change, and a shared sense of awe in relationship to the unknown. Then we would lie under the stars while Mercedes sang, Jill taught us astronomy and Clarissa told us stories of the constellations.

Ochoa with Gio Bard Zero (wizard) and Elda (puppet) at the Skyland House, performing at the Soul Stories event Fireside Stories.EXPAND

Ochoa with Gio Bard Zero (wizard) and Elda (puppet) at the Skyland House, performing at the Soul Stories event Fireside Stories.

Courtesy of Shelsea Ochoa

How do stories bring people together?

At Soul Stories, we facilitate conversations for healing and change. It is such an honor to work in a space where stories are shared. I have, in special moments, been a witness to someone saying something out loud for the first time, or even discovering their story as they share it. It can be so powerful to be seen in your truth in that way. I have seen people build compassion for one another across generational, religious and political divides. I have seen people reckon with their own bigotry and misogyny through stories. Stories can heal us of our blindness. Stories are a salve that heals isolation and builds connection. Story sharing transforms the teller, the listener, and even the story itself, which continues to shift and change as it is told again and again.

Storytelling is a natural part of human behavior; we have an instinct for it. Research has shown that when you listen to a story, your brain fires as if you were actually living the story. When the main character is surprise-attacked by a lion or loses a loved one or gets turned on, your brain reacts as if it is all happening to you.

Stories also shape culture. Many cultures use stories as a moral compass and pass them down from generation to generation as a way to remember where we came from, how we are connected to the universe, and how to be a good person. The most important stories, they say, must be hidden in a place where everyone can see them yet no one can reach them, so they will always be remembered and can never be destroyed. That is why, around the world, stories have been kept in the stars.

Ochoa performing with improv team Improv Olympus, directed by Erin Rafaeles.

Ochoa performing with improv team Improv Olympus, directed by Erin Rafaeles.

Courtesy of Shelsea Ochoa

What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?

Best: As an improviser, I’m all about collaboration! The creative community is constantly weaving and interlocking in new and interesting ways. So much innovation comes out of collaboration! I got my start in Denver working and collaborating with the Orbis House, and it was such a great place to build community and learn from other people. I’ve had such a great time collaborating with South Broadway Press, as a contributor to the Thought for Food poetry collection that raised funds for Denver Food Rescue. A few months back, Soul Stories collaborated with Stain’d Arts and Gio Barabadze of Gio Bard Zero to create a fundraiser for the Mercury Cafe. Soul Stories is currently collaborating with those Artibus clowns over at the Savoy at Curtis Park to create a derived performance piece based on the stories of local Denver community members, which will be the second in a series called RECIPE.

Worst: I wish there was more of an artist-led movement to close Suncor, the energy plant in Commerce City that continues to keep zip code 80216 the most polluted zip code in the entire country. They are polluting our air, our water and our soil, and many people in Denver have no idea. Every time they break the law by polluting our city, they pay a fine and move on. Suncor’s very existence is environmental racism, and we do not need them in our city. If any artists out there are interested in creating awareness about Suncor with me, they can reach out to me or join the Facebook group Suncor Watch.

Denver (or Colorado) — love it or leave it? What keeps you here, or makes you want to leave?

I am. In love. With Denver.

I love it here because of the community. I love it for being a place where people can create together without trying to climb some kind of Hollywood ladder. I love that people can come to an open mic at the Mercury Cafe and experience a mind-numbingly brilliant artist absolutely destroying the entire room, followed by a meek first-timer who stammers as they whisper their poem into the mic. I love it that we let each other learn from our mistakes and support each other as we grow. People move to Hollywood to get famous, but the artists that are working in Denver are doing it because they love to make art.

I live off of Colfax, which is my favorite place to be at sunset. I love the spirit of Colfax and its neon grit. When Brice and I walked from opposite ends of Colfax to meet in the middle, it was amazing to watch that street change as I passed from prairie dogs and sunflowers to cigarette butts and bustle. Colfax is like a living oil painting that continues to morph, with colors mixing and shapes layering thick over each other.

And there are so many community organizers that are working to make Denver even better. I have so much respect for the people at Abolish ICE who are working to get that embarrassment of a private prison out of this city.

I love to see people working on alternatives to gentrification such as community housing at places like the Orbis House, the Skyland House, the Village Institute and Queen City Co-Op. I look to organizations like Denver Homeless Out Loud and dream of a day when we can house every human living in Denver. I look to groups like From Allies to Abolitionists as we seek justice against police brutality. It sounds absurd in these terrible times, but I dare say I have so much hope for this city based on the fact that this community is relentless.

Ochoa performing with Playback Theatre West.

Ochoa performing with Playback Theatre West.

Courtesy of Shelsea Ochoa

What’s the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?

All people are born natural creators and artists. The best thing we can do to grow our arts scene is to remove that which gets in the way of people having the capacity to create art. When people have the resources they need to survive, creating is natural.

In Colorado, people are living in fear of eviction, living in fear of the police, living in fear of the ICE detention centers, living with major medical issues because they live next to Suncor, and living in fear of bigotry.

As citizens, we need to recognize that collective liberation is the only liberation and take bold, inconvenient action to improve the lives of those around us. One great way to get involved is to search for Mutual Aid programs in your area. We must all understand that no one of us is expected to be perfect, but it is our collective duty to try and fail, and try again, continuously.

The companies, organizations and institutions of Colorado need to stop being afraid to stand up for what’s right. There are so many countless organizations that have an understanding of the right thing to do, yet they take no action because they don’t want to make waves. They feel that they should wait until no one will be offended to stand up for what is good. Well, that day is never going to come, and in the meantime, real harm is happening, and their silence is compliance.

Ochoa at a photo shoot with Meredith Turk and Kelly Johnson.EXPAND

Ochoa at a photo shoot with Meredith Turk and Kelly Johnson.

Photo by Bri Erger

What’s your dream project?

My dream is to become a play therapist who works primarily with adults. I want to help adults find their inner muse and learn how to play again, and use that play to understand themselves and others better. Then, Soul Stories will open a community space that hosts play therapy sessions, workshops, classes and one-on-one counseling, and also has a stage and a cafe where we can host events.

My ultimate fantasy is that we also close down Suncor and the building is handed over to the local community of Commerce City. I would love to see what people do with the place! Maybe they would turn that building into a kind of cyberpunk rec center or a food co-op.

Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?

An impossible question! Here are my top ten:

Danny Mazur and the Soul Stories Team: It seems that Danny is doing exactly what he was meant to do with Soul Stories. His never-ending hunger to understand the human experience has driven his work into some fascinating spaces. He is such a wonderful facilitator and is often able to bring the conversation to deep, honest and vulnerable spaces where real connection can occur.

Playback Theatre West: If you have never seen a playback show, there is nothing else like it in the world. This team has been playing together for decades, and they are the reason I got into improv.

Brice Maiurro and South Broadway Press: It is rare to know anyone who loves anything as much as Brice Maiurro loves poetry, and that comes through in his work. His style is so alive and refreshing. He seems to have found a dream team of writers and editors with South Broadway Press.

Bri Erger of Bri Erger Photography: Bri has an incredible eye for capturing people’s natural radiance, and her photographs always make me feel like I am in the moment that the photo was taken.

Niko Kirby of the band Starling: Niko is an artist on so many levels. I love producing events with her because she seems to understand beauty in a way that translates into many fields; her music, her graphic design work, and her writing and production skills all have this same flavor of clean beauty.

Leslie Conzemius of GROOV3: When Leslie Conzemius is dancing, it is hard to see anyone else on stage. She is so talented and so radiant. Her choreography is so gorgeous, and I love taking classes from her, because she is so good at celebrating people and making them feel like they shine.

Nick Trotter with Circo de Nada, the most honest, avant-garde, weird-ass improv clown team you will ever find. Nick Trotter is as brilliant as he is raw, and the honesty behind his make-believe is next-level.

The incredibly talented artists at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science!: Keep your eye out for upcoming work from: Minae Groom of the Romero Theater Troupe, an amazing Theater of the Oppressed-focused improv team; Kenya Fashaw, who is so multifaceted and uncontainable, but you could start by checking out her poetry that will bring you to tears or make you scream or both (she will be featured at the DAM at the end of January); and Tessa Nelson, who is a freight train of creative energy, currently working on her next play, which will likely be one of the most imaginative pieces you see on stage.

Gio Bard Zero: a musical wizard! Gio’s musical skills seem to be accelerating at a rate that might just break the chart. He plays everything from folk to jazz to classical, on a variety of instruments. I’m so excited for his upcoming album release this year!

Meghan Frank and Buba Basishvili at Theatre Artibus: I love their theater style! How can these two people be such delightful performers, such fascinating creators and such excellent organizers? I have so much respect for the level of care and integrity they put into their work.

What’s on your agenda now and in the coming year?

Soul Stories has some really cool projects in the works! We are collaborating with Theatre Artibus to create a derived performance piece, the second in a series called RECIPE.

We are also constructing a pop-up tent installation to commemorate all of the losses that we have collectively experienced. This piece will provide a grieving space for the community to process losses related to COVID as well as lost relationships due to our very painful political divide. Keep an eye out for this tent, as it will be popping up around town! Finally, we are currently working on a workshop series that will be coming out later this year.

Playback Theatre West, my improv team that plays back real-life stories from the audience, has been doing some really unique performance art online, and is looking forward to returning to the stage as soon as possible!

Niko Kirby and I are currently collaborating on an interactive, immersive game event that will take place this spring. Last year we created a murder mystery game for forty people based on time travel. This year, participants will show up to the event dressed as their “ideal self,” and the rest of the story will be revealed at the event!

Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?

Franklin Cruz: Franklin is known as a poet that absolutely slays, but he is so multi-talented! I think people will be blown away by Franklin’s ability to dance, speak like butter and educate you all at once in 2021.

Brenton Weyi: Brenton is an absolute joy, and one of the hardest-working artists I know. He has earned himself a very high skill level at a lot of things. He is currently working on a musical, charming people in the a cappella group the Storytellers, performing with Playback Theatre West, teaching workshops and probably five other things. If you haven’t come across him yet, you will.

Mitch Slevc: Mitch is one of the most fun people I have ever known. He has written over 100 plays, many through Buntport Theater. He is an amazing physical and comedic actor, and I have learned so much by watching him work.

Florence Blackwell: Florence is a brilliant person and photographer. She is incredibly wise and thoughtful. Her photography is quietly striking in a way that makes your eyes just want to rest on the image and soak it in. She is about to graduate from CU Denver, and I am so excited to see what kind of work she creates next.

Soul Stories and Theatre Artibus present RECIPE for Community: Stories From Denver’s Past online from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 27. Admission is free; the program streams on Facebook Live.

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About the author

Mamie M. Arndt