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Meet Emily Mendelsohn, Theater Director

Emily Mendelsohn will be facilitating CFPA’s upcoming event, Imaginative Mapping: Performance and the Personal Politics of GeographyEmily is currently on an artists retreat, but she emailed us some thoughts about her work and the upcoming workshop before she left.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those solely those of the artist.


You are a white American woman who has built enduring collaborative relationships with artists in Uganda and Rwanda, countries with deep and violent colonial histories that continue to shadow the present time. This relationship is, on its face, potent and fraught across so many dimensions. How have you negotiated history, geography, language, culture, gender, class, and citizenship to build genuine collaboration?

Our work and our relationships are not happening in a vacuum. When I went to graduate school at CalArts about ten years ago, I was grappling with foundational questions about witness, and what staging contemporary myth looked like. I stumbled into an international community of artists/peacebuilders who happened to be asking questions that resonated with my own. I particularly connected with the Dean of CalArts at the time, playwright Erik Ehn, and with my MFA classmate, Deborah Asiimwe. My friendship and collaboration with Asiimwe led me to move to Uganda to direct her play, Cooking Oil. And then, our teacher, Erik Ehn, asked the group who had worked on Cooking Oil to stage his play Maria Kizito. Over time, we grew into a group of artists holding a shared aesthetic investigation in our bodies: an investigation of orality, contemporary myth, and messy interdependence. The barriers around power dynamics embedded in race, gender, culture, global political and economic systems persist, but our shared interests, vocabularies, and care are as strongly present. The negotiation is ongoing, not always enduring. Our shared commitment to investigating witness, contemporary myth, and ways of performing/representing messy, ecological identities remains both a grounding and a limitation of our work together.

What have been your greatest challenges and joys while building these collaborative relationships?

Relationships, by their nature, aren’t built by one person. I tend to think of relationships as having their own agency outside of the individual. The greatest joy is definitely in the people themselves: Asiimwe, Tonny Muwangala, Allen Kagusuru, Esther and Sam Tebandeke, Kaya Kagimu Mukasa, Albert Mabiru, Achiro Olwoch, and so many more. It’s a joy to meet each other, and a privilege to collaborate with artists who are thinking deeply about their voice(s) – and to be in a room where you can’t take for granted what “to meet each other” means. Every detail – from what time rehearsal starts, to how we begin, to when money is delivered, to how we break for lunch – is an opportunity to examine the meaning, rhythm, and ethic of our gathering. In Uganda in particular, there’s a long virtuosic practice around hospitality and the building of ensemble that sharpens this opportunity. Challenges include funding, of course, and an internalized superiority/inferiority that shuts down our ability to see what is actually unfolding in the room. I am most susceptible to this, coming in with positions of privilege. I am also challenged to let conversations take the time they need to develop, even while only having short-term residencies.  


Emily Mendelsohn
is a Brooklyn-based director for live performance. Through residencies in Kampala, Kigali, Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans, she worked with an ensemble of  Ugandan/US (and sometimes Rwandan) artists to develop productions of Deborah Asiimwe’s
Cooking Oil and Erik Ehn’s Maria Kizito. They are currently collaborating with short story writer Doreen Baingana on a multi-media performance about memory, place, migration, and home. With Sage Lewis and Adolfo Madero, she curated a two year micro-festival between artists and independent arts organizations in Tijuana and Los Angeles. Other recent collaborators include Kristina Wong, Virginia Grise, PearlDamour, Caridad Svich, and Rachel Jendrzejewski. She is a recipient of TCG’s Global Connection In the Lab and On the Road programs, a Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs grant, and a Fulbright Fellowship to Uganda. MFA CalArts. She will be guest artist at NYU Abu Dhabi this upcoming fall.

Emily’s Writings

http://howlround.com/citizenship-as-listening-cooking-oil-in-kampala-kigali-and-los-angeles

http://howlround.com/a-hope-i-can-live-with

http://blog.calarts.edu/2010/07/12/two-calartians-receive-fulbright-fellowships/

http://www.tcgcircle.org/2012/10/fulbright-storiesemily-mendelsohn/

http://pq15.usitt.org/exhibition/submissions/production/cooking-oil/

http://www.dusie.org/Mendelsohn.pdf

http://www.tcgcircle.org/2014/12/conversation-on-maria-kizito-at-kampala-international-theater-festival/