On April 5th, Nicki Pombier Berger and Liza Zapol delighted us with an interactive, participatory workshop on creativity and the interview. In this blog post, Shira Hudson reflects on the relationship between the interviewer, narrator, and audience and how oral history can be viewed as performative.
Throughout my time studying at OHMA my understanding of the relationship between the interviewer and narrator has continuously deepened and evolved. Through class discussions, readings and lectures, we have learned about the power dynamics and intersubjectivity that exist between each interview pair, and how numerous aspects (physical space, narrator’s feelings toward subject matter of the interview, the silent spaces the interviewer gives, etc.) contribute to the way in which the interviewer and narrator interact. These notions have impacted my actions and awareness as an interviewer – I am now mindful to conduct interviews in a neutral space or one that is familiar to the narrator, am conscious of the nonverbal cues that are given, and am able to examine the interview for meaningful silences and subtexts.
During the April 5th Workshop entitled “Push Play”, the way in which I understand the interview interaction itself was further strengthened as we had the opportunity to learn with talented alumnae Nicki Pombier Berger and Liza Zapol. Nicki and Liza are both working with oral histories in inspiring and artful ways and have collaborated to create a participatory, interactive workshop in which the audience is pushed to explore oral history by engaging with their senses, memory, body, and gestures. A powerfully dynamic duo, Nicki and Liza utilize creative methodologies to push participants out of their comfort zone, into a place of focused, deep listening and awareness.
Prior to the Workshop session, Liza and Nicki introduced us to the work of Della Pollock, a professor in the Department of Communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, who specializes in the areas of Performance and Cultural Studies. She explains the following in her book Remembering: Oral History Performance:
“That insofar as oral history is a process of making history in dialogue, it is performative. It is co-creative, co-embodied, specially framed, contextually and intersubjectively contingent, sensuous, vital, artful in its achievement of narrative form, meaning, and ethics, and insistent on doing through saying; on investing the present and future with the past, re-marking history with previously excluded subjectivities, and challenging the conventional frameworks of historical knowledge with other ways of knowing.”
This passage struck a chord with me, as I began to think about what it could mean that the oral history interview itself could be viewed as a performance. Before the workshop session began, I had the opportunity to interview Liza and Nicki and asked if they agreed with Della Pollock’s notion that oral history is “performative.” With a resounding “yes”, Liza says, “ …I always think about it as a theatrical exchange…Dwight Conquergood (…one of my professors)…he really talked about interviewing, as really you are entering your whole body as a recorder and you are entering that exchange really trying to capture everything you can about what that other person is doing and listen with every gesture, listen with your body to every little bit about what is happening…” Nicki added, “I don’t know that I called it performance, but I did think we talked about it explicitly a lot in the program [OHMA], or oral history generally, that you are attending to not just what is said, but the way that it is said, the way things are shown, I think I am actively doing this in the moment, thinking, what is going on here?, what is being conveyed, not just what is being said…”
Like Nicki, I had not previously called the oral history interview itself a performance, but after reading Della Pollock and experiencing the “Push Play” workshop, the similarities are evident. Though there is no prewritten script, a premediated intentionality exists behind the questions asked and stories told. While each party is not playing a different character other than their own self, they may each be representing a different facet of themselves depending on the various circumstances surrounding the interview experience.
The oral history interview also inherently creates an audience, another parallel to a performance. Perhaps the audience is someone sitting in a library, listening to an archived interview, or perhaps, as we have previously learned from Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, there is a live audience, listening to the interview in real time, using embodied remembering to preserve what was heard. Nicki and Liza demonstrate this same concept through their Push Play workshop, as they invite a pair to the front of the room and ask each to share a recollection. The listener then shares what they have just heard back to the other, complete with the same gestures, movements and intonations. It was a fascinating to experience this as an audience member and be a part of what Nikki and Liza insightfully call “supportive witnessing in an ensemble”.
Learning with Nicki and Liza sparked a new way of thinking about the interview itself as a playful performance and I look forward to integrating their creative techniques or methodologies into my practices as an oral historian.
Shira Hudson is a student at OHMA and is also the associate director of planned giving at UJA-Federation. She comes to the program to explore how oral history techniques can be effectively integrated into various aspects of non-profit organizations.