Fulbright Stories:Emily Mendelsohn

by Jake Lasser

in Global Citizenship,Interviews

Post image for Fulbright Stories:Emily Mendelsohn

(Photo by Emily Mendelsohn. Pictured:  COOKING OIL workshop at Ishyo Art Center, Kigali, Rwanda, August 2011. )

The main goal of TCG’s Fulbright Stories is to dispel the common myth that the Fulbright Program exists only for scholars. On the contrary, the Fulbright program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, offers opportunities to artists in all stages of their career to live and work abroad. If you haven’t read the first interview in the series with Fulbright Ambassador Roberta Levitow, it is a wonderful introduction to the Fulbright process and the benefits it affords. We hope these posts will inspire theatre artists to expand their work globally by demystifying a powerful tool for U.S. theatre practitioners.

The Fulbright program was designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and the people of other countries. “Mutual understanding” is a classic and ever-elusive phrase in discussions of global citizenship. It wasn’t until I met with director Emily Mendelsohn, who lived in Uganda as a 2010-11 Fulbright Fellow, that I began to understand what those words actually mean.

Emily spent her Fulbright in Kampala, Uganda directing Cooking Oil by Deborah Asiimwe, a current TCG New Generations Future Leaders grant recipient, and will bring the show to LA in Spring 2013. Two of her shows are performing in New York this fall—Maria Kizito at La Mama (part of Erik Ehn’s Soulographie project), and the U.S. premiere of Katori Hall’s play Children of Killers at Castillo Theatre.

J: Can you give me a brief overview of all of your Fulbright activities? What did you do there?

E: Well, I showed up, I kind of had just a very, very vague understanding of what I would do. I had friends in the region, a friend that I had studied with at graduate school, [Deborah Asiimwe.] So, all I knew was that I wanted to keep working with her, and that her friendship kind of felt—you don’t get to be friends with people who grew up halfway around the world very often. So I was like, how much can I be changed by that amazing accident? So I moved to Uganda. I directed one of her plays at the National Theatre there called Cooking Oil. And then I pretty much made a point for the first six months after Cooking Oil to say yes to everything that came to me.

And then in the middle of my Fulbright I had to have major surgery, and so the State Department flew me to South Africa and I was bedridden for six weeks. And I mention it only because I think it gave me a deeper understanding of what Fulbright was, of what the intention was and what the opportunity was that was given me. Because I’d really been in Uganda thinking, “I have to DO so much.” And having to not be able to do anything and to be really dependent on the people and the relationships around me, it taught me. I think the deepest thing that Fulbright allows is this work of being together over a long period of time, and learning how to need each other. Out of that patience, there are long-lasting relationships that grow, and a deeper conversation. That has now allowed me to be making a lot of work—the fact that you get to be somewhere for ten months and be changed by that.

J: And was that unexpected for you?

E: Yeah. (laughs hard) Yeah.

J: What did you expect?

E: I kind of wanted to go and like…(laughs) this is…I don’t know if I want anyone to know this! I think I kind of wanted to go in and be like, “I’m changing the field, I’m blah blah blah,” and, “I’m gonna create like so much work in ways people have never seen before,” and just these kind of…not unbelievable goals, but I think goals that are a little bit more about me and the idea of wanting to make a difference, as opposed to being made different.

Production Still from COOKING OIL

J: Do you have one particular anecdote that pops up into your mind as the most illustrative or memorable from your time on the Fulbright? Or just a story you want to tell?

E: I don’t know…this is one that just pops into my mind. And this may be a boring story to anyone else, but I was sitting in my room and I was writing—I was just writing kind of like a short story for myself. And my roommate, who I met on the airplane, which is another story–

J: That’s adorable!

E: Yeah, she’s a fashion designer and she was on the plane from Newark, and we started talking and it turned out she had a free room. So I lived with her the whole time I was there. Her friend walks in and is like, “Lemme just read your writing,” and starts reading it out loud. And I’m thinking, “She owns a tourist store and doesn’t work in the arts,”and I’m writing my weird language-heavy, I-don’t-know-what-it-is-yet writing, and thinking, “Oh, this is so embarrassing, I’m going to alienate her.” And she reads the whole thing out loud, and then she looks up at me and she’s like, “Oh, this is like people who have weird dreams or visions.” And I was like, “That is kind of the rhythm of how I chart the mind and my dramaturgy.” It was the event of being recognized as familiar in a context that in my own culture would be recognized as experimental or odd or alternative. It was a moment that reframed in that instant my sense of family or difference.

J: Did the impetus for picking East Africa come from meeting Deborah Asiimwe in school? Why Uganda?

E: It was through Deborah, and through Erik [Ehn.] And also, something that they told us in the Fulbright orientation is that less than 5% of scholars and artists that are working outside the country are working in Africa.

J: Wow. That’s a frightening statistic.

E: Yeah, and it’s an area of the world that we just don’t get a lot of information about. And yet, an area of the world that we’re very connected to, like through coffee and tea and the metal in your cell phone. And also, an area that it feels like has a lot of momentum in the arts there right now. People are fifty years out of independence, and are really, really deep inside of trying to carve this question of what is our aesthetic, what is our identity, what is the narrative of who we are?

Photo of 2012 Cooking Oil ensemble in costumes designed by fashion designer Stella Atal

J: That’s so exciting. Well, I guess we’ve heard a lot about what you did there and what led to you going there, but can you talk a little bit about moving forward after the Fulbright? What happened?

E: So after the Fulbright, with Cooking Oil, we took three of the actors from that show, and we traveled them down to Rwanda, and we worked with a Ugandan and Rwandan cast in Kigali. And being able to go back outside of the Fulbright and outside of any kind of plan—I learned so much by doing that, because it taught me that even still on Fulbright you can have the sense of “venturing out into the faraway world, and you will be changed, and you will come back”—that it’s this complete process. But the relationships I found there are relationships that I’m going to continue for the rest of my life, and that I’m devoted to continuing the rest of my life. And being able to travel back and forth just reinforces that sense. We’re not in a different world. It’s one world.

J: That’s beautiful. Well, I just have one last question. Do you have any advice for theatre artists who are considering applying for a Fulbright?

E: The simplest thing that I can think of is just to stay open. I think it helps to have a clear question that you’re following, as opposed to an answer or a sense of “I’m going to achieve this.” Because it’s just too long a time to control or to know how it’s going to affect you. Go in with a really deep and healthy sense of curiosity.

J: Do you feel like you learned that there?

E: Oh, I learned that there. I probably had some vague idea of that before I left, or, like, wanted to know it, but I feel like I really learned it by doing it.

Emily Mendelsohn is a theater director from Los Angeles. She was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Fellow to Uganda and is a six-year collaborator in IGSC/ CalArts summer exchanges to Rwanda and Uganda. She directs an East African/American theater ensemble, whose production of Deborah Asiimwe’s Cooking Oil is scheduled to travel to Los Angeles this spring. She is currently directing a Ugandan/ American production of Erik Ehn’s Maria Kizito for his upcoming Soulographie: Our Genocides project. She holds an MFA in directing from CalArts and teaches at Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theatre program.

Jake Lasser is the Artistic and International Programs Project Coordinator at TCG. He is an Artist in Residence with Theater in Asylum in NYC, as well as a freelance actor and dramaturg.