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  • Channels of Witness:Space, Abstraction, and the Commemoration of Genocide
  • Erik Ehn (bio)

Soulographie just finished its run at La MaMa in New York. The project is twenty years of dramatic writing on genocide, spread across seventeen plays, presenting an array of perspectives (victim, perpetrator, witness, bystander) in various styles (from narrative time-lines to abstract puppetry), directed in cities ranging from Kampala (Uganda) to Warsaw (Poland) to San Francisco, Minneapolis, San Diego, Washington DC, Providence, Bronxville (New York State), and New York City (Brooklyn and Manhattan), staged by seventeen directors, supported by an extensive team of producers, dramaturgs, designers, managers, and other collaborators.1 Genocidal crimes are constructed to be unspeakable and they are maintained that way, defended from an accountability to the fabric of reality and historical memory. The ambient method of production stands against this strategic inaccessibility by approaching from all sides at once. Genocidaires booby-trap their hundred paths into the human soul; we have to find a hundred others. Memorial theatre as a species of dissent and chthonic retrieval is multifarious: held in common by makers (including audiences) and disciplines.

I wrote the plays and coproduced. Soulographie persists as a collective, after the production; we sustain a commitment to large scale, collective, theatre-of-witness projects.2

The process overall was—sublime. The labor was strange and huge; it is still working its lessons out in me.

Below is an address to recurring questions; renewed statements of purpose, and fresh precisions. The article finishes with a close look at the production's heavy reliance on puppets as a way of reifying theories, tracing out immediate and more global reasons for their apposite fellowship. Some of this material is sourced from the online journal we kept at; please visit for expansions.

Witness, Memorial, and Performance

The witness consents to entanglement with a story; more than caught by it—consents to be a part of the tangle (to be that which entangles). The witness is in the story as a willing agent, wills to change the story by seeing it—by offering [End Page 67] testimony, by confessing to point of view and standing where facts will stand when facts are possible. Witnesses translate experience into an audience perspective, inducing audiences to coherence (assembly, co-hearing) on the basis of that test. In this way a rehearsal process is witness to a play, for example.

Entanglement is an open structure; a mathematical sponge.

Language in address to ongoing violence is honorably useful when descriptive and memorable.

Language moving into the tangle of historical violence (language threading tangle into tangle) can only move into the spaces, can only honor the snare by leaving space; an open, actively cooperative language. Openness and cooperation (deference) aspire to silence (the ground of listening). Memory and description also want primal attention (memorials are quiet places; descriptions are musical rests). "Be with" is the touchstone.

I don't want the plays of Soulographie to contain the history or repeat the history—I want them to provoke a memory of history, even if you haven't remembered it. I want to create a space for remembering by going there.

A writer, especially a writer for performance, is most articulate in witness and waiting; plays are a failure of witness and waiting; articulation is failure.

We fail because our questions are not yet perfect, and we can't pretend that they ever will be. A question is the work up and down Jacob's ladder—a series of actions performed without hesitation and also without outcomes (questions achieving identity in questioning, not in getting answers; one may have a well-made question that has no suitable answer). A performance (or writing for performance) moves by "subliming" (as water from ice to vapor); performance is fully, presently alive when what is happening can only be stopped or spent or imperceptibly, unreadably, utterly changed; it/we cannot be finished. A question is perfect when it is used up sooner than it is resolved. Successfully instrumental theatrical writing is badly broken and full of possibility, weightless and unpredictable as motes. Stirred dust shapes sight. We know light by what it falls on—obsession with sanitation...


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pp. 67-104
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