- Eulogy for Mary Overlie
Postmodern art practice has lost one of its most ardent proponents. Mary Overlie is dead at the age of 74.
It is fitting that a picture of her life and work will slowly come into focus through multiple viewpoints, as colleagues, students, and friends reveal glimpses of her giant contribution to contemporary performing arts. I offer my perspective here as a former student of Mary, her friend for twenty years, and an ongoing practitioner of the six viewpoints.
The precise meaning of “viewpoints practitioner” is what I want to address in this short eulogy. Despite the global reach of the viewpoints, I suggest it is not a phrase that many people understand in the same way that Mary understood it. The anarchic horizontality of Mary’s teaching, which, while rigorous, caring, thorough, and artful, always resisted systematization and the rigid boundaries of rational coherence. To practice the viewpoints, for Mary, had less to do with composing works for theatre or dance and more to do with living life as art. Mary’s six viewpoints could be used to create experimental theatre and postmodern dance pieces, but that was merely one of its uses. More broadly, the six viewpoints was a breathing theoretical organism, a certain kind of performance philosophy that was equally available to welders, bridge painters, landscape architects, and casual pedestrians as it was to BFA and MFA artists. Bogart’s popularization of Mary’s work and Mary’s own presence as a teacher within one of the United States’s most innovative theatre conservatory programs may have given the viewpoints a semblance of knowability. But I don’t think anyone apart from Mary actually knew what it was and is. Our work, I believe, is to live in her teaching of the viewpoints so as to internalize the by-now all-too-familiar, yet deceptively deep, phrase “the performance of everyday life.” If we do that, then I think we become viewpoints practitioners.
Nowhere was the living aspect of Mary’s viewpoints more palpable to me than in the late stages of her dying. Even after a grand mal seizure stunned her speech [End Page 50] capacity, a panoply of medications coursed through her veins, a fatigued immune system had grown dim from a prolonged entanglement with cancer, and the contours of her own finitude began to show their seams, Mary’s herculean strength permitted her to speak on the phone with the same liquid perspicacity that I had always known. A couple of weeks before her exit, I participated in a kind of duet with her that was not unlike an exercise in the Shape viewpoint. She presented various shapes in the form of thoughts and recollections to which I responded with my own shapes. She pondered, “Why am I still alive?” I asked, “Does it sound like Ornette Coleman?” She recalled of the jazz virtuoso, “He understood shape.” “The shape of jazz to come.” “Creativity.” “In pain?” “No pain.” “What would Barry Lopez say about it?” “The Arctic and Montana.”
We went on like this for a while, touching on motherhood, the inside of time, dizziness, silence, crying, and other such textures. It was a completely normal conversation with Mary. But this time I was struck by her commitment to her own teaching. This was the viewpoints of dying.
There she was, “standing in space,” aware of the fact that everything is moving, attuned to the Cunningham-like expression of the Cageian silence that buttresses all the buzzing, sensing the decay of her dura mater at a cellular level, calmly discoursing with a friend on creativity and the shape of things as the end of her life settled into view. The structures of Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement, and Story were at play here in the grain of her voice and the correspondence between thoughts. I thought to myself: you don’t teach this. You learn this by going where you have to go. The viewpoints are a system for artfully going where we have to go, which is to say, going through life and through the door called death.
Mary’s students will all have memories of...