Julieanne Ehre and Eli Newell are long-time Chicago-based artists and Co-Curators/Producers of The Memory Place, a unique multi-arts experience centering cultural memory and hidden histories June 1-11. Julieanne is the founder and Director of Pivot Arts. She has developed multidisciplinary works by over 25 artistic groups, and she was listed as one of “50 People Who Perform for Chicago” by New City Stage in 2019 and 2022. Eli Newell is a Pivot Arts Artistic Associate. His intersectional work as a director and writer for live performance, organizer, and multicultural faith-builder has brought him to collaborate with a number of theatre, environmental, and Jewish organizations around the city, including being named a 2022 Avodah Justice Fellow. We sat down with these two heavy-hitters to discuss their work on The Memory Place, opening Thursday, June 1 — get your tickets here.
PIVOT ARTS: The Memory Place is a unique multi-arts experience about cultural memory and hidden histories that uplifts collective memories from groups that have too often been left out of the public narrative about our collective past. Can you each speak to what inspired you to curate this project?
JULIEANNE EHRE: I traveled to Poland last summer on a cultural exchange through the Center for International Theater Development in Baltimore. While I was there, I met several theater artists who were also academics researching the field of “cultural memory.” We don’t really have this as a field of study in America and I became fascinated by how we collectively remember and talk about our past. Poland is still grappling with the annihilation of Jewish people during the Holocaust in similar ways to how we’re first grappling with the erasure of indigenous peoples and our history of slavery and institutionalized racism in the United States. How we talk about our collective history and who gets to control that narrative has become a hot button issue in the U.S. and it’s an extremely dangerous discussion. When you look at authoritarian regimes, one of the hallmarks of totalitarian governments is the controlling of history and the public narrative. I wanted to empower groups to tell their own stories and for us to gather as a community to learn and lean into our collective past– because that’s what a healthy democracy enables.
ELI NEWELL: For the past couple of years, I have been researching and exploring for a writing project that tugs at some threads of my own cultural history across many centuries. Simultaneously, I’ve spent a great deal of time organizing around environmental justice. I noticed these two different pursuits – one narrative, and one communal – share a strong common tie, which is the guarding and sharing of cultural memory. Cycles of story and memory are at the heart of organizing for justice, just as they are the beating heart of art-making. Telling and listening to accounts of our collective past helps situate us in our present and even drives towards a transformed future. Taking a Birds Eye view of these two different projects in my life really inspired me to think broadly about the way we encounter memory as a part of our collective consciousness. I discovered through some engrossing conversations with Julieanne that she was thinking about many of the same things! Suddenly, we felt this new project emerge not about one particular narrative but about how personal stories are expressed by those who feel them in their bones, and how they become our collective story.
PA: Julieanne, Pivot Arts recently celebrated their 10 year anniversary — congratulations! After a decade of leading such an exciting, multidisciplinary arts organization in Chicago, what are some of the most important things you’ve learned about yourself as an artist and about the community Pivot calls home?
JE: I’ve learned to be a better listener and when it’s time to step back and let other people take the reigns. As a founder, the risk is that the organization becomes your “baby” and you want to have control. But a not-for-profit doesn’t belong to one person, it’s there for the community. So, stepping back when I’m able and letting others have decision-making power is a freeing experience. As far as the “community” we call home, I think there’s two communities we serve– one is geographic and that has to do with us being tied to Edgewater, Uptown and Rogers Park. The reason that we’re up here is because one, I live here and wanted to give back to my community. And two, these neighborhoods are less segragated both racially and economically than many Chicago neighborhoods. Pivot Arts doesn’t serve one population, our goal is to build bridges in Chicago and these far north neighborhoods feel like the best place to do that. The second community we serve, is everyone who is looking for adventurous, multidisciplinary and unique performance experiences– those are our people.
PA: Eli, you were recently named a Pivot Arts Artistic Associate. You’re also a director, with a particular focus on site-specific theatre, as well as being an environmental justice organizer and a leader in the Jewish community. How have your different work channels influenced your vision for The Memory Place?
EN: In many ways, The Memory Place feels like a beautiful synthesis of the broad community work in which I’m lucky enough to spend my days participating. Both movement work in organizing and community-building in the Jewish world have exploded my world as an artist and in doing so have deeply inspired me around ritual and physical space as crucial aspects of storytelling. When participating in a protest against a local polluter or an elected official, the site and tone of our actions hold tremendous power in sharing our story with the public, which can further empower community and move the needle in the direction we want it to go. In many ways the same principles are true when creating space for ritual, which I do primarily with Jewish families and young people experiencing transition in their lives around adolescence. Something changes in our body chemistry when we are activated through physical place and movement to interface with story. That’s one of the things I find so transformational about site work for performance. Humans are kinesthetic creatures; there are numerous untapped channels for experiencing art. I can think of no better way to interact with stories of cultural memory, than one that exercises fluidity of space, modality and genre. Cleanliness, control, symmetry— those are overrated! There’s a time and place for them, sure, but life is messy and the inertia is real. It’s important that we feel the unevenness and the newness of these transformations on a molecular level when engaging with stories of personal experience. It’s an act of empathy to go on that journey.
PA: The Memory Place is described as “a promenade performance, moving through the space at the Edge Theater as if in a gallery setting,” and involves some interactive experiences and opportunities for audience reflection. What would you like folks to keep in mind about the pieces when they enter the space, and what do you hope for them to take away by the end of the performance?
JE: I’d love for audiences to enter with an open mind and heart and allow themselves to fully experience the pieces and the structure of the performance. I hope they take away a greater sense of the collective and how we all have unique stories to tell but are bound by our own humanity.
EN: Julieanne and I have had many conversations about the iconic Carol Hanisch phrase, “ the personal is political,” and similar echoes of something many have expressed: the specific is universal. These concepts feel immediate in a production where multiple artists are convening to cultivate their art practice around their own memory, while holding space for one another’s and further welcoming an audience to experience it all. The unnamed final ingredient here, of course, is our audience’s collective memory. We hope to facilitate a performance space that is brave, vulnerable, surprising, transformative and alive. Audiences may not hold a direct familial connection to some of the memories visited in The Memory Place, but they will certainly recognize figures, patterns, places and ideas in these stories and will, hopefully, draw connections to their own lived experiences of past and present. That genuine response is part of the performance experience, too. It’s not just about what we’ve created these past several months to being to our communities.
PA: Finally, in celebration of the cultural memory being brought to light by this project, what Chicago landmark would each of you say speaks to your personality most, and why?
JE: I would have to go with the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza. I’m a big fan of abstract art and of ways of looking at the world through a unique lens.
EN: I am approaching 10 years of living in the greater Chicago area – which is pretty hard to believe! I’m not sure it speaks to my personality per se, but I’m quite partial to Promontory Point. On a micro scale, it’s just an exquisite site for viewing the city in multiple directions, a fabulous spot to stop on a run or bike ride, sit with your chosen family for a picnic, and a storied (86 years old!) Chicago landmark. Expanding the lens a little, you’ve got Jackson Park all the way to Washington Park right there and the site of the World’s Fair which represents layers upon layers of loaded cultural memory and so many dynamics about the way our city tells its collective story. As an artist and an organizer, those are sacred sites – not because of what they formally present or what you might read on a plaque when visiting, but because of the people and communities whose memories hold different fragments of these sites forever. Those are the real landmarks of our city, and you might find portals to them in the unlikeliest of places.
Many thanks to Julieanne and Eli for this discussion! Don’t miss your chance to experience The Memory Place.