Closeup Image of polished vintage wood flooring at CFPA - Center for Performing Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Emily Mendelsohn on technique, witness, and the power of “smallness.”

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.

What are the questions you are currently exploring as an artist?
I have a life commitment around witness, contemporary myth, and ways of performing/representing messy, ecological identities. Inside of that, right now I’m curious about ways of staging witness that allow distance without objectivity. There’s a push against the passivity implied in witness and I’m really interested in that. And also what are the ways that patience or listening or surrender, things associated with passivity, are useful for social transformation.

In your view, what is the difference between learning a technique and engaging a process?  In which cases does the field of theater and performance teach/encourage/practice these two modalities well?  Where are there challenges?
I’m a big fan of technique. I’d like to think these are two different ways into the same goal, of having a rigorous relationship to form that allows a freedom of impulses and responsiveness. And that responsiveness is both moment to moment, but also to the larger cultural movements of our time. I think when a technique entry point is centered, a danger is the technique itself can get mistaken for an endpoint. And the questions of intent can get underdeveloped. As can context: the set of circumstances that technique developed in response to. In engaging a process, there can be more space to hold intent, context, and strategy together. This also rightly leave one with a more ambiguous sense of the repeatable tool, but I think there’s something honest in that struggle too. That techniques may not be concrete. Maybe they are always already on the move. They come out of specific circumstances, communities, needs and they have specific, evolving purposes.

You have written about the power of “smallness.” How do these big ideas take on shape and action in your process of making work? How are they made manifest?
When working on Maria Kizito scenic designer Jeff Becker and I had a hard time with Ehn’s stage direction: The sun burns out. Drawing on an African Rights report, Ehn asks an audience to bear witness to the events of a massacre at the nun Maria Kizito’s convent. Kizito and her Mother Superior Gertrude N were convicted of crimes against humanity at a Belgian court for participating in the massacre. We tried to capture this stage direction with grandiose design gestures and none of them felt as big as the events they were pointing towards. So, we went the opposite direction and poured a bag of rice over a single lightbulb. This unlocked the focus of the piece for us. It became about the small “hand-made” moments of cruelty that were made possible and made possible the great force of genocide, and the small moments of choosing humanity in genocide’s midst.

For me, it’s also a felt sense of going toward the places that ask us and then an audience to meet in vulnerability.

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.

More about and by Emily