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.

Person with gray ponytail, glasses, plaid shirt and gray sweater sits in front of a window.
Photo courtesy the author.


Setting: The large dance studio at MANCC, in Tallahassee, Florida. The room is filled with students, in casual dance clothes, sitting on the floor. Instructors and other staff sit in chairs. SuperGroup and other collaborators sit in chairs at a table in the middle of the room. There is a videographer set up in the corner of the room. A large screen looms at the back. 
JEFF (Wells), Erin’s collaborator and friend, co-founder of SuperGroup, former ETW student
SAM (Johnson), Erin’s collaborator and friend, co-founder of SuperGroup
BYRD (Shuler), in absentia, Byrd is a former, founding, SuperGroup member, and former ETW student, living in Minneapolis 
LARYSSA (Husiak), Erin’s friend, former ETW student, artist, and Minneapolis resident
PAIGE (Collette), Erin’s friend, former ETW student, artist, and Minneapolis resident

jeffMary, can you see us? 

maryYes, I think. 

jeffWe’re not sure how great the wifi is. But we can sort of describe what it looks like here, if it’s not totally clear on the screen?  

maryNo, I can see. Oh, you’ve got a good turnout there! Hi, everyone. 

erinYes. So, for the record, since we have some folks filming this, and since this might be the last—

samOops, there she goes. 

erinI’m not going to be able to make it through without crying.

maryNo, that’s okay. Erin, why don’t you start it off? What did you want to ask me? 

erinWell, I did want to just describe the room in here to everyone, if I could, and—sort of— the score. 

jeffYes, we’ve invited members of the dance department and members of the theater department here, and— 

erin—they’re going to sort of duke it out. 


erinNo, no really. And the experiment that we’re engaging in today, is to hold this scholars’ conversation, and this practitioners’ conversation, about letting go, essentially, or about art and dying. Or, on leaving art behind, as a hypothetical. 

maryI’ll only ever leave art when I die. But maybe my spirit will go on. I think it will. I hope it will go on in the art of my students. 

(Erin is full-on crying now.) 

maryMy death, Erin, it—you wouldn’t even have heard about it. 

erinI know. I know. 

samSo Mary, do you want to introduce the other unnamed element we are working with? Or was that going to stay a secret? 

erinOh, I thought it was a secret.  

samI guess it could remain a—  

erinNo, no, that’s fine. 

jeffI think it will be more interesting for them to watch if they know what they are looking for. 

samSo, we’re going to do Erin’s favorite, parabola-shaped “Percentages of Unnecessary.” So we’ll start off at 0% Unnecessary, go to 20, 40, 60, 80, until we are at full 100% regalia Unnecessary, hopefully at the peak of the drama, so it will be alleviated by the ridiculous things our bodies are doing. And then we’re going to work back down to 80, 60, etc., until we are imperceptibly buzzing, but for the most part, appearing to exist back in the totally normal world of artistic panel.  


jeffFor some context, The Unnecessary is an investigation started by Mary, and described in her book as, “the task of interfering with ordinary, automatic actions such as walking, speaking, reaching, exiting, entering, taking off our coat, or sitting down.”2

samAnd we’re not going to talk about that score again, so our bodies will be moving 100% divorced from what our mouths are doing. Which is talking.  

maryAnd the talking is improvised as well? 

jeffOh, no, this entire thing was written by Erin. 

samByrd’s here too. 

jeffHopefully being played by Laryssa, if Byrd gets called to doula a birth. Instead of a death. But Laryssa, I think, is perfectly comfortable doula-ing a death, right, Laryssa? 

laryssaOh, yeah. You mean like death as an artistic exploration though, right? Not, like, an actual death?

paigeMary, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about your cancer?  

erinThank you, Paige. Paige is here too. She is sad.  

maryWell, they told me about it, and how they thought I should treat it, and I said, “No.” It’s in my brain now. 

paigeCan you say that again?

maryIt’s in my brain now. 

It’s in my brain now. 

It’s in my brain now. 

paigeYes, Mary is the only real survivor. She lasted alone here in a world of wolves—Erin, is this another SuperGroup reference? 

erinIt’s “world without wolves” —like we killed all the predators because we…wanted their…meat. 

paigeTo eat their meat? The bodies of the predators?

erinBand name. 

jeffNo, the meat that they were about to eat.  

samTheir prey?  

jeffI thought we killed them for the trophies.  

samNo, they are the trophies in this situation. 

jeffYou’re talking about when hunters pose for pictures with their…victim? Yes. In that case the animal is the trophy itself.  

erinOh, I always thought you got a trophy for hunting them. Trophy hunters.

jeffYou did not think that.  

paigeNo, they cut the head off—

laryssaPlease, there are children at this show! 

paige—and mount it on the wall. 

erinIn any case, no. Primarily we were killing the wolves because they were stealing our sheep. 

jeffOh, a few, here and there. 

paigeNo, a lot. A whole lot of them. 

erinSo then they were all gone. Like you. And you were gone. And I looked out over the vast landscape of severed heads, like masks really, wolf masks in assorted colors, laying on the ground. Ready to be picked up again and put on, and worn around to various town fairs. In other countries’ towns.  

samNo, no, no.

jeffDid you think you would be doing more teaching today, Mary?  

maryOh, no. But I have to admit, I am glad you didn’t make me memorize my lines.  

jeffYes, for those of you not listening at all, Mary is via Skype. And since you can’t see the table in front of her, we’ve put her script in front of her for her to read. 

paigeHow are you feeling?  

maryI’m really feeling totally great, actually. But I’m getting a little nervous about how you want to spend this time. 

samWe all are. 

jeffWe all have been. 

erinWhat is time, anyway? What’s wrong with spending it this way? 

maryThat’s not the answer I was looking for. 

samMe neither. 

paigeTime and age, it’s all relative. 

erinAgeism is very perplexing, isn’t it? Because death was always an option. 

samAn option? A guarantee!

erinSo, it is obviously a deep, omnipresent death-fear that makes us all make fun of someone doddering around with a fanny pack and a bunch of old scones, getting the conference rooms mixed up. 

paigeOr the breakout rooms! 

allYeah, the breakout rooms! Hahahaha. [all laugh]

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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