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The Writing Life: An Interview with Emily Johnson

2014 June 17

The Writing LifeSHOREEmily Johnson (on the right in the photo) is a dancer and choreographer based in the Twin Cities. Originally from Alaska, her work with her company Catalyst explores the fringes between art forms and performance. I sat down with Johnson to interview her about SHORE, a “multi-day performance installation of dance, story, volunteerism, and feasting,” which includes those four different art forms as separate events.

The reading, SHORE: STORY, kicks off a week of SHORE events tonight, at the Loft Literary Center. Curated by Johnson, the reading will feature work by Jayal Chung, Paula Cisewski, Heid Erdrich, Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, R. Vincent Moniz, Jr, , Marcie Rendon, and Ben Weaver.

I started out thinking I would just interview her mostly about STORY, but I soon learned that all parts of SHORE are equally connected, and all involve storytelling in some way. So let’s back up, and give you a bit more context.

SHORE is third in a trilogy of works that Emily Johnson has presented locally at Northrop (aka, my day job). The Thank-you Bar, the first in the trilogy, remains one of my all-time favorite performances I’ve ever seen at Northrop. I loved it because it, too, used storytelling to carry the audience through the performance.

Johnson describes the trilogy taking visual form in three concentric circles: The Thank-you Bar is at the center, with Johnson’s own very personal story of missing her home in Alaska. The performance itself took place on the old Northrop stage, with the audience on stage alongside the performers. Niicugni, copresented by Northrop and The O’Shaughnessy, was about the story of a place, and happened on The O’Shaughnessy stage but with performers coming from the audience to the stage and back. Finally, SHORE is a broader scope, including multiple perspectives and stories, as well as multiple stages, if you will.

SHORE: STORY specifically helps to ground SHORE in the community it’s in. Johnson said she thought a lot about what SHORE will look like when it goes on tour. “How can I help SHORE land in a place? Part of that is stories about that place being an active, vital part of SHORE. Start with stories about here. Know where you are from lots of different perspectives and lots of people’s interpretations and lived experiences. And really, listening. I love that SHORE starts with listening. That’s a direct connection to Niicugni, which means listen.”

Johnson will put out a call for readers in each community SHORE tours to, just like she did here. For the local call, which the Loft Literary Center helped her put out, she asked for work about “place, home, land, your connection or disconnection to those thoughts, ideas, places, words. And all of those words can be interpreted widely,” said Johnson. She had initially wanted five readers, but ended up curating eight in the final line-up. “It was an honor to receive these works,” she said.

“Story is an important part of my work, but I want to tell more than my story. So the curated reading is really about local authors telling their stories,” said Johnson. She followed up with “Knowing they were the first part [of SHORE], it took a lot of care and attention. It’s just so thrilling to invite other people into the process. Those stories are part of SHORE, that’s awesome.”

When reading through the works, Johnson felt for those that had some elemental similarities to her vision and intention for SHORE as a performance installation. She felt she is the “mother” for SHORE, guiding along these different events to feed into the larger, cohesive idea of SHORE. As for a continuing thread throughout the work that she ended up selecting, she told me “what was so palpable to me was how writings about place, land, home, really are so personal. That was a surprise. Some through-line is all the works are very personal.”

At SHORE: PERFORMANCE (which takes place at Northrop), Emily starts outside on the Northrop Mall, telling a story. In SHORE: COMMUNITY ACTION,  she will have experts (Sharon Day and David Wiggins, for example) there telling the real history of the river, of the community that is being picked up. And at SHORE: FEAST at Foxtail Farms, participants are encouraged to bring a recipe that means something to them, and to share that recipe and story with the rest of the feasters. Johnson’s hope is that these stories trigger other stories, both in the audience and for her.

Johnson said, “As I was reading the work [for STORY], the same thing happens: you start to have your own relationship to it, it starts to spark your own ideas, thoughts.” Join me tonight at SHORE: STORY to start this process of triggering stories while sharing community at the Loft Literary Center, 7:00 pm.

 

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