Talking to the left of the pantry and under the sugar shack: an interview with Kristine Haruna Lee

Marisa Lark Wallin by Sasha Arutyunova

Marisa Lark Wallin by Sasha Arutyunova

harunalee, the wildly imaginative performance ensemble helmed by Kristine Haruna Lee, is transforming The Club at La Mama into a memory palace. The piece is said to be “a little bit cosmos and a little bit party.” Wanting to know a little bit more, Culturebot contributor Katy Einerson had a beer with Kristine to talk about memory palaces, the art of memory, and what’s in store with to the left of the pantry and under the sugar shack.

The show runs Feb 12 – 21. Tickets are limited and purchasing in advance is highly recommended.


Katy Einerson (KE): I want to start by asking about the title of this piece. Can you tell me where it comes from?

Kristine Haruna Lee (KHL): Sure – Andrew Butler, who is a collaborator of mine, and I were sitting in a coffee shop. Our company had discussed what this show was going to be about, and we were pretty solid on the structure and who was going to be involved, but we still didn’t have a title for it. So Andrew and I were thinking, if we had to give someone directions through a memory palace, what would that sound like? And we came up with “to the left of the pantry and under the sugar shack.”

KE: I’ve been doing some reading on memory palaces, and it seems important that an audience have a basic understanding of what a memory palace is before seeing this piece. So what is a memory palace?

KHL: A memory palace is a mnemonic device. It’s a memory technique that traces back to this Greek poet named Simonides. Basically, you associate an image with what you’re trying to memorize, and then you take that image, and you create an imagined space, like a palace, a home, a school, any space you’re familiar with. Or you can create a space that you become familiar with, and then you place those images in the space that you’ve created.

They say the reason that this technique works so well is because we’re just not built to memorize text. We’re not built to memorize books or names or words, but we have this innate ability to memorize images and locations, which traces back to our ancestors’ survival skills and need to recognize what berries were good to eat, what spots were dangerous, etc.

I think it’s amazing that memories become associated with images and space, and that this way of memorizing has been passed down through the ages. Memory champions to this day use this memory palace technique as a way to memorize decks of cards, long strings of numbers, that sort of thing.

KE: When did you first hear about this concept of memory palaces? Do you have any stored in your own brain?

KHL: Mac Wellman was the first person to introduce the memory palace to me. He also introduced me to this book called The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. So I was reading this book in tandem to researching memory palaces.

Bachelard talks about different spaces, especially houses, as being poetic spaces and how we place poetic imagery onto space. I was thinking about that and my own memories from childhood and how illusive and mysterious those memories are. I was also thinking about traumatic memories, and how fragmented those images are in our brains, in our minds. I was interested in the way memories appear or disappear in one’s mind and was curious if this could be reflected in my own writing, or even function as the structure of a play. That’s where I started getting into it more.

KE: In addition to writing and directing, I know you’re also a fantastic and fairly prolific performer. So I imagine you to be someone who spends a lot of time memorizing. Do memory palaces relate to your own process of memorization? How do you memorize?

KHL:  That’s a good question! I usually try to memorize the text as straight as possible without adding any inflection or any physicality to the text, because it’s so easy to memorize text with a gesture or in relationship to the stage or to the character. I do this so I can have the flexibility on stage to be present with the room and shift my energy accordingly, rather than repeating the same gestures over and over again. Oftentimes, like with this last play, Mac’s play [The Offending Gesture, which ran at The Connelly Theater Jan 5 – 23], the text was so difficult to memorize that I found myself really attached to all the spatial and facial recognition. The text was really attached to those images for me while I was experiencing the play as an actor. And it was only when I had a good handle on that that I could start playing outside of that. But it took a while with this play because it was so hard!

KE: That’s interesting – so that connects to this theory that it’s much easier for us to memorize visually.

KHL: Yeah – I was reading in a book somewhere, maybe it was Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory, about the Globe Theatre and how the open ceiling allowed actors to use stars as tools for memorizing text. They would use the stars as a map for their monologue or oration by associating certain constellations as the space in which to place images that represented thematic ideas in their speech.

KE: That’s so interesting!

KHL: I feel like stars and constellations have a lot to do with memory. During the Renaissance there was a guy named Giulio Camillo who was commissioned by a king to create a memory theater. He drew out blueprints for this theater where only one person could enter at a time. And in this theater there would be knowledge of the entire world placed in these cosmic constellations. And if you could master the knowledge of the world it was thought you were divine, that you were magic. Memories and stars… memories and the occult, I love that stuff. It’s so fascinating.

KE: So I know you’ve been collecting memories as source material for this piece. How has that been going?

KHL: It’s been incredible to read people’s submissions. It was a blind submission process so we didn’t know who was giving us the memories. Receiving these memories out of the context of the person who wrote them – to just read them as these short stories or fragments, has been really incredible.

KE: How did you reach out to people to collect the memories?

KHL: Our main push has been through social media and through our website. I have a sense that a lot of people may have just stumbled upon somebody’s facebook post and sent in their memories.

KE: Since we’ve been talking about how important images are to memory, I’m curious to know if the memories you’ve received are already inherently visual? Or do you think you’ll be embellishing them to make them more visual?

KHL: I think the memoires are very visual by nature. Some of the memories are one or two lines while others are paragraphs long. We essentially parceled out the memories while thinking about the different genres our artists are working in. So we’ve divided them up depending on if they would make a great poetry piece or a great dance piece.

KE: So you’re sort of curating the memories.

KHL: Yeah, so if one feels like it naturally has more movement in it we’ve given that to a dancer or dance company to work with.

KE: Will everyone who submitted a memory see their memory in this piece?

KHL: We’ve given out all the memories, but it’s really up to the guest artists to decide how these memories get incorporated. My hope is that even if you didn’t submit a memory, just watching a memory on stage will inspire your own memories.  Reading other people’s memories has been so fascinating because these experiences feel very familiar even though they’re somebody else’s memories or experiences.

KE: That actually leads into my next question – what I find really exciting about this idea is that you’re redefining the boundaries of a memory palace. Rather than something that’s locked up in one human’s brain, it’s a shared, communal memory space. Which is interesting because so much of the way we navigate and understand the world is inherited through shared, cultural memory. So I like that you’re building this physical monument to that idea. And I’m curious to know more about what sort of role community and shared memory play here.

KHL: Yeah, as a company harunalee was really interested in a new way of investigating theater. And for us that really meant involving other people to create this work. We were asking ourselves, how do we involve people? What kind of platforms can we create such that it becomes easy for people to get involved?

So this idea of collecting memories and handing them off to artists in our community, and then inviting them to share brand new work with an audience really fit that idea for us.

KE: People love to see themselves reflected, you know, so I feel there’s a lot of appeal in seeing an artist reinterpret your story on stage.

KHL: Yeah, I’m really interested in creating an ‘ego-less’ space. So often when I’m writing a play or making something, my ego is so much a part of it. It’s been a really cool learning experience for all of us to act as facilitators in this made up community, which is going to be our audience, which has been our guest artists, which has been the visual artists who are lending us pieces for the memory palace. We’ve been learning how to navigate that and create a space where all of this can be shared.

KE: So I know you have an enormous and outstanding list of collaborators and performers working with you on this piece. I’m wondering, are they all artists you’ve worked with before? How did you assemble this team?

KHL: There were three of us curating these artists. It was myself, Andrew Butler and Sasha Arutyunova. Between the three of us, we made a list of people we’re excited about in our community, and just started sending out emails! So one of us has a connection with each person, one way or another. One person, though, a neurologist named Sonja Blum, who’s going to be giving lectures on neuroscience, memory and art, came to us after we put out this call for memory art. We actually got a lot of responses from the visual art world in that way. There are a ton of people working on memory as a theme, specifically memory and technology, and how that becomes a visual art piece. So we have a few people showcasing their visual art / memory pieces, and Sonja is one of the artists working on that. And she also happens to be a neurologist. So we’re really excited about that.

KE: Well, we’ve come to the end of my questions… is there anything else you want to mention? Anything I forgot to ask?

KHL: There’s a quote I was thinking of on my way over here, from Poetics of Space. “Inhabited space transcends geometrical shapes.” I feel like that’s the motto of this piece. We’re creating this memory palace in this theater, and the memory palace physically has walls, edges, defined space. There are boundaries. But inside that, what’s being created, the art, the connections, the relationships being made between the audience and the artists, we hope those will transcend geometrical shape. That they will spill over and become more than just the space that we’re providing.

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