Imaginary Conversations with Mary Overlie

On the passing of a mentor and how art lives after dying

Two black and white portraits of women with hair pulled back, looking into the camera.
1Image courtesy the author, including photo by Peggy Jarrell Kaplan.

Two black and white portraits of women with hair pulled back, looking into the camera.
Image courtesy the author, including photo by Peggy Jarrell Kaplan.

Sometimes our mentors are just wedged in our mind, egging us on from a distance. In March 2020, our performance company SuperGroup was preparing to go to a residency at Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC). My longtime collaborators, Jeffrey Wells and Sam Johnson, and I had originally planned our residency to include a workshop with Mary Overlie, our former teacher and founder of The Six Viewpoints.1 Since SuperGroup formed in 2008, we continued exploring Viewpoints materials: from rehearsal, to hours-long gallery improvisations in the Yves Klein and Merce Cunningham exhibits at the Walker, to our keen curiosity about applications of Mary’s “The Unnecessary,” I always thought I would work with Mary again, even though I hadn’t seen her since college.

Mary was one of the first teachers hired to form the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (ETW), when it was founded in 1975, and where Viewpoints training is part of the core curriculum. She is known as the originator of the Six Viewpoints, a toolbox and source of inspiration which analyzes and practices the ingredients of live performance: Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement, and Story.  I moved to New York in 2000 to study at ETW, where students learn developmental movement, floor-barre, Grotowski, Aikido, Afro-Haitian, Suzuki, and Meisner techniques, along with self-scripting and choreography. I found practical tools and inspiration at ETW, with the excitingly malleable base of the Viewpoints framework. 

When we learned in January 2020 of Mary’s worsening cancer, she insisted that she would still be coming to work with us. She had just gotten back from teaching the Viewpoints in China, and was feeling miraculously energetic. However, as her health rapidly declined, we began to plan a possible alternative “Skype” (pre-Zoom!) workshop instead. After the residency was postponed because of COVID, we eventually experienced her death from a distance, as so many did, on June 5, 2020. I wish to offer my own piecemeal processing of the loss of this artist, teacher, and mentor, as a record not only of her passing, but of this tragic year in which “processing” anything seemed like an impossible luxury.

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  1. Disclosure: The editor of this publication was also scheduled to attend the residency as a collaborator.

  2. Mary Overlie, Standing in Space: The Six Viewpoints Theory & Practice (New York, 2016), 119.

  3. Rosemary Quinn, Wendell Beavers, Paul Langland, Lisa Sokolov, Kevin Kuhlke, Catherine Coray, Terry Knickerbocker, Raïna von Waldenburg.

Erin Search-Wells

Erin Search-Wells is a founding member of SuperGroup along with Jeffrey Wells and Sam Johnson. Their work has been presented at the Walker, Southern, Red Eye, Bryant Lake Bowl, Joyce Soho @ Invisible Dog NYC, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and multiple tiny cabarets and basements. We are into the horizontality of performance (as opposed to the traditional, often exploitative, hierarchical model), and we explore this both in our performance materials, and our relationship to audience. …   read more