For a writer, the feeling that a story must be forced out is no less painful for its familiarity. At a recent workshop led by Madelyn Kent, a theater artist and activist who works with North African refugees in Tel Aviv, she told us that the smoothest way to navigate the writing process is before the pen ever meets paper. I was first introduced to her work when I saw a poster for one of her Sense Writing classes in Brooklyn that said, “Give yourself permission to be boring.” It was an exciting, counterintuitive challenge to the ego.
Minutes into my first workshop, I was flat on my back, focusing on what Kent calls “body mapping,” attending to details like the weight of my tongue, and the space between my chin and shoulder. Gentle movements in one part of the body inadvertently soothed a different part. The goal was to keep everything at ease. No sweating! Next, we applied Kent’s philosophy in a series of writing exercises. Our outcomes were always surprising. Sometimes I thought I was writing the beginning of something, only to find that I was really writing a middle of some other seemingly unrelated but more urgent story. Many of the workshop attendees didn’t self-identify as writers per se. But during these exchanges, what poured out of us was startlingly vivid and articulate. We got wherever we were going precisely because we weren’t trying to get there.
Kent works with practitioners of Sense Writing in Europe, North America, and the Middle East. She has facilitated communication with students across geographic lines, connecting groups in New York to refugee communities abroad, bridging assumed differences and distances. Kent and I discussed what it was like to conduct writing workshops where legal status and personal safety is always in flux—a subject that resonated with me, as a former child refugee myself—and what role storytelling plays in those settings. Kent and I sat down to discuss how her method originated, and how we can move beyond a singular story and the debilitating myth of the struggling artist.
—Raluca Albu for Guernica
Guernica: You’re a playwright by training. What made you start to investigate the relationship between language and the body?
Madelyn Kent: I first noticed this relationship when I first noticed the disconnect. During my last year at university, I was writing my undergraduate thesis on the medicalization of premenstrual syndrome, entitled Body Bound and Tongue Tied: The Politics of PMS. It was about how medicalization conceptualizes pain into categories that rob or take away the individual’s ability to articulate their experience and express it because the language doesn’t exist beyond categorization. How do you keep that nuanced subtlety, our own subjectivity? At the same time, I was writing my first play about an eleven-year-old girl who would dress up and seduce Hitler.
Guernica: I have to stop you for a second. Who is this eleven-year-old girl and why was she seducing Hitler?
Madelyn Kent: In the story, her grandmother was a survivor who committed suicide. And she goes into the room where her grandmother lived and performs this ritual, this redressive act of trying to seduce and then kill him. I left that part out.
Both projects could have been called Body Bound and Tongue Tied. They were both explorations of my awareness of this gap between what I was feeling in my body and what I could articulate. But you could see why creating imaginary worlds won out. Theater became the place where I could settle into the relationship between language and the body—not just write about it, but inhabit this place between, and to explore it as it widens and narrows. Theater work is so physical. Whether you’re dealing with traditional or experimental texts, actors inhabit their bodies on stage no matter what is happening with the language. This allows for this inherent tension between language and the body to exist.
Guernica: How did you go from playwriting and theater to the kind of teaching you’re doing now?
Madelyn Kent: As a playwright, I was always interested in improvising, especially in the long-term processes of filmmaker Mike Leigh. After graduate school, I found myself working [like Leigh], devising plays with non-actors. I was mainly working with Japanese women. Since they were improvising in English, their second language, the dialogue was full of ruptures and silences. I became very interested in the rubble left by such mistakes. This was around September 11th, nd the work became very much about extreme displacement, and also extreme intimacy, especially in the process of making these texts. I added another layer of displacement and gave these texts to English-speaking actors to perform.
The plays were not artifacts of people trying to speak English. They formed into worlds of their own. In theater, the momentum of narrative and action is language. I felt like I was witnessing what happens when it falls away. The Japanese language is so fragmented. The culture, though, accommodates and tolerates those pauses and silences. To preserve all this, the plays required a different approach, or else the actors would sound like they were mad or having a stroke or just imitating Japanese people speaking English. It was an interesting problem to have as a director.
The solution came from what I was going through at the time in my personal life. My body had shut down. I was dealing with trauma in my marriage, and I eventually weighed less than one hundred pounds. One of the things I started to do to get back to my body was study Japanese Butoh, an intimate and non-technical dance that works with the connection between image and internal sensation. I began to bring Butoh into this theater company, which gave the actors a whole landscape to inhabit separate from the language of the text we were working with. When that space between the body and language widened, the actors went inside themselves and found ways to fill those spaces with shared images and sensations that the actors were feeling kinesthetically and were invisible to the audience.
Guernica: So in a way, the narrative you found was wordless?
Madelyn Kent: That’s a good way of putting it. This was a time when a lot of downtown theater in New York was interested in the slipperiness of language and the gap between language and meaning. We were working in theaters blocks away from the World Trade Center. Meaning and language and grief were continually hijacked, and there was a feeling that this external narrative was overtaking us. I felt that there was this other place, this place, that offered refuge. When these different kinds of narratives—language and the body—start to separate from each other, it has a destabilizing effect. When the actors finished a performance, they would say to me, “I had no idea what was going to happen next.” Sometimes they would just lose it on stage. They’d start to laugh-cry because even though they knew the next word, they had no idea what was going to happen next. And the audience too. It was all moment to moment.
Guernica: I felt this kind of suspended guidance in your workshops. There’s no pressure to develop a linear narrative.
Madelyn Kent: I was spending more and more time in this place before language, and I found that it helped writing students engage with time and place differently and ground them in their characters. But at the same time, I was in an environment where there was a lot of emphasis on product, but no one was teaching process. I knew that I wasn’t addressing underlying issues of sustainability for myself as a writer or my students, and to do that I would have to go back to the body. This time I was doing that rigorously, without prematurely interpreting it for my work. So I left New York to study the Feldenkrais Method, a form of Somatic Education, which works with the body and nervous system.
The main reason I was attracted to Feldenkrais, rather than to other somatic practices, was that while these other ways of working could feel creative, the Feldenkrais Method felt like the creative process itself. I remember stopping in the middle of a sequence and looking around the room at dozens of people— watching them do these small, slow movements—and recalling so much of what I had been doing back in New York, in rehearsal studios and in classrooms with students. Everyone was trying to get out of their own way to allow something new happen. But here we were all learning how to work with our nervous systems, intentionally, to bring ourselves into a state where new movements, new connections, would appear spontaneously. This was a complex system that led to a state of flow.
As I spent more time in Feldenkrais training, the similarities grew more specific, concrete. I noticed its constraints. Artists use constraints all the time as a way of gently squeezing out the unexpected—I had used constraints all the time with theater, with writing students or devising text. In training, I started to learn that there are forms of neuroplastic healing that work with constraint called “constraint-induced therapy.”
Guernica: You said constraint-induced therapy, and it reminded me of how sometimes you’d give us these restrictive prompts. The frustration of writing in constraints made it so that when I didn’t have them, this energized creative freedom followed.
Madelyn Kent: When I was a child I had constraint-induced therapy. I had something called amblyopia, or lazy eye. I had to wear a patch over my strong eye. But it wasn’t a question of weak or strong eyes. They weren’t treating my eye muscles. They didn’t know it then, but they were actually treating my brain. It’s one of the most common constraint-induced treatments, and I think that’s why I have so much patience for this process.
Guernica: You taught me how not to push the nervous system. You’ve often said that while we’re creating, making art, trying to get to a place of flow, we end up taxing it too much.
Madelyn Kent: Most of us have created art through over-activation or stress, and that’s how we were trained. The whole myth of the struggling artist has formed around this. And it’s great to feel those surges of inspiration and flashes of courage that let us take leaps in our work. But a lot of the time we don’t know how to come down from these states. Because we have such a strong tendency towards survival and vigilance, it’s easy to get stuck up there, and these feelings of inspiration and courage can turn into anxiety and overwhelm. They become blocks. But if we can learn how to gently take ourselves down from these states into more sustainable, generative ones, we have more options in how we create. By learning to be in that place before language and to work with the nervous system and not push it, we uncover richer processes of artistic discovery, and that we choices in the way that we work. What motivates us and how we exist as artists in the world can begin to change.
I think the movement community is one of the most responsible artists’ communities because they have had to talk about self-responsibility, as well as how to take care of yourself so you don’t injure yourself or others. That conversation evolved eventually beyond knees and vertebrae and became about process, sustainability, and the balance between the health of an individual and the community. There’s a lot that we, as writers, can learn from this community.
Guernica: I like the idea that writers can borrow from different artistic communities. You work with many communities, not just with self-proclaimed artists. How did you get involved with East African refugees in South Tel Aviv? I didn’t know very much about their situation until you had us read some of their work.
Madelyn Kent: Neither did I, but I moved to an area of Tel Aviv right near a neighborhood with many Sudanese and Eritreans. I soon learned that there were 50,000 refugees in Israel and a lot of them lived in this neighborhood. And in the center was the bus station, the biggest in the world, half-deserted. A labyrinth of stores and businesses of the migrant population– Eritreans, Sudanese, Filipinos. You could walk on one of the empty floors and find that kids had turned a nook into a breakdancing space. With Israel as a backdrop, a country with an airtight narrative of identity and history, this neighborhood felt a bit like New York, back when I used to cut school and hang out in Times Square in the late 80’s. It felt familiar somehow.
I eventually got involved in an NGO in the neighborhood and started a theater group mostly with young guys from Darfur. That was my way into the community. For me, there was a palpable sense of dislocation but also a sense of creativity. People were living in between cultures—in limbo. This limbo was especially stark because Israel doesn’t have any regularly practiced Refugee Status Determination process. It offers protection to people from certain countries as “groups,” but not as “individuals,” so it is extremely rare that anyone gets refugee status. So you, as an individual, are forever an asylum seeker. There is no RSD process, which allows for the refugee story to get heard.
Guernica: So you had them tell their stories?
Madelyn Kent: At first it was just theater work. The writing came later. In Spring 2012, things began to take a darker turn. Politicians started using the refugees as an issue to agitate economically marginalized Israelis in the area. Refugees were attacked, businesses were set on fire. The last month I was there, right before moving back to New York, I remember the feeling on the street changing dramatically. Rumors about deportations to random African countries where they would have no protection at all started to spread. An air of mistrust took over the neighborhood. Back in New York, I was getting calls and emails from my former students. This was when people were first getting notices to go to Holot, a newly-built detention center—one of the biggest in the world. If you got a notice, you had to go, because if you were stopped in the street and they found out that you ignored the notice, they would send you to prison. During this time, a group of activists who had worked with refugees but were now living in the States started Right Now, an advocacy group. We were looking into ways of helping refugees leave the country for Canada and the States, which was virtually impossible back then.
Then a few of my friends were sent to Holot, which was a devastating experience. They were to be there for an indefinite period, and no one knew what their fate would be. They were allowed to leave the facility, but had to check in three times a day which made mobility, in the middle of the desert, impossible. When I visited in 2014, I started to give Sense Writing workshops to refugees. Because I knew a few people in Holot, they helped to spread the word and see who wanted to join. I came down with some Americans and Israelis who had taken Sense Writing and wanted to volunteer. A boarding school nearby let us use their classrooms, so we would spend hours there until it was time to return to Holot for check-in. They loved the body mapping, the slow scan of weight and sensation while lying down. They were five to six in a room, in the middle of the desert, so sleeping was difficult. When we did the body mapping at one point, they wanted to do it again and again. And so I eventually stopped leading, and someone else would lead it in English or Fur or Amharic while the others were lying down. At the end of each day, we would drive them back and drop them off right after sunset at a huge complex in the middle of the desert.
Guernica: Why would that community need writing? That’s something we hear a lot these days amongst guilt-struck writers: “Why should I write?” It seems so indulgent or irrelevant at a time when we need to mobilize.
Madelyn Kent: Before things got especially bad, back when we were all doing the theater group together in Tel Aviv, bits and pieces of stories would come out as we were hanging out. These were traumatic stories of genocide. But then, when the atmosphere started to change, and there was a threat in the air, you had to know your story of escape and survival. That was your way of resisting the narrative that you were an economic migrant, an infiltrator, a cancer, which is still the rhetoric, and insisting instead that you were a refugee. Though this was an important part of self-advocacy and mobilization, I felt that the stories became calcified. They became so attached to one story for themselves, the same one the world hears. Their survival narrative was, “And then I was running across the border, and then the Egyptian soldiers started shooting at me, and I made it across the fence, and then I was wandering in the desert, and if I go back to my home country, I’m going to get killed.” So that’s the story that they were telling, and we were missing so many other parts of that story. I knew this group of refugees before all of that became that story, and before I started noticing that everybody has this story of survival and escape. So when I returned, I felt like the Sense Writing was a way for them to start softening this and trying to allow these other stories to emerge.
Guernica: That softening leads to other openings.
Madelyn Kent: Right and then other stories start to come out. Details and multiplicities began to emerge, and stories of before they had to flee before the genocide. Even if someone did write about his escape and survival, it was no longer determined by the functional necessity of having to convince anyone that they were a refugee. They could settle into some of the details, like writing about the last card game they played with their younger brother before the Janjaweed came, or being helped by an Israeli soldier after crossing the Sinai who sang Bob Marley and asked if you knew who Bob Marley because you were black, and you pretended that you did. The way that we tell these moments make up our individuality, our subjectivity, and that’s what gets threatened when these larger forces bear down on us.
Guernica: Why do you think we cling to this idea that we only have one story?
Madelyn Kent: I think about that a lot, especially after living in the Middle East. We all have stories that protect us, that keep the meaning in our lives—all these particular stories that we’ve told ourselves and others, consciously and unconsciously. But there’s a lot to gain in allowing the multiplicity and the intricacies of those other, less explored stories, too. There are so many different beginnings, middles, and endings to these stories, and we have to allow ourselves to have these as well in whatever realm: memory, imagination. This shows that we have more options for expression and other choices in life. Not having your story makes you vulnerable, but having only one also does.
Guernica: But the trick is to find a way to see what we can’t always see?
Madelyn Kent: Right. How to make the invisible visible. That is the trick.