Samantha Shay is a young American artist and director with a fascination and love for Iceland, its art scene and people. She is a CalArts graduate and founder of the artist collective Source Material, that has put on artistic and ambitious theater pieces that play on the verge of performance art. With Marina Abramovic as her mentor and a deep passion for her work she is sure to go far. This summer, on July 22, she will premiere a piece in Iceland, inspired by the country, that she has been working on for three years called OF LIGHT. We interviewed this interesting artist and found out what to expect from her and her show.
What is your background and artform?
My background is primarily in theatre, although my work is quite interdisciplinary by nature. So I’ve ended up working in other art forms too – I’ve made films and done a bit of performance art. I just like to make work by whatever means is necessary for telling the story, so that can include any relevant medium. Although theatre is certainly my home, I trained classically as an actor.
What does your past work have in common? How would you describe it and what are the key ingredients?
No matter how my work may vary, change, or evolve in different ways, there is always an intention of creating live performance that is empowering the wisdom of the intuition. I have found theatre to be a less popular art form in our modern day societies because it relies to heavily on academia… and although I don’t dislike thoughtful and dramaturgically sophisticated work, I think it needs to include other people in its conversation. I think there is a way to be thoughtful, and sophisticated, and somehow to rip the rug right out from underneath people with the potency and emotional sophistication (not just the intellectual sophistication) of the offering. So I really like to work with the right hemisphere of the brain. I really like to reinvest, again and again, in what something could mean, instead of what it should mean. If we want to have a collective experience, we need to be collectively challenged. We need to be able to question our experiences and values again and again, even with something we seemingly know, its true in art and its true in life. When I didn’t know what to call my work, I adoped that popular term “non-linnear”, but I was never happy about it. Our intuition and our bodies create constellations of meaning about everything, so I’ve started to call my work, Intuitive Narrative. That is my signature as a theatre artist.
When did you first visit Iceland and how has that influenced you?
I first visited Iceland alone in June 2011. I had spent a lot of time inside a house in Massachusetts completely snowed in, almost completely alone, in a very dark and introspective time in my life. I made plans to travel alone after this time, to gain some perspective. My body was so entirely shocked by the midnight sun, and that lead me on a journey to create OF LIGHT. I was so curious about the ways in which we experience light and dark from emotional and psychological perspectives, how it effects us cellularly, what our judgements are around healing and our shadows, all that. I also have just continually been humbled by the land. Iceland is a place where nature is in charge more than most places in the modern world, so unapologetic, wild, beautiful, and at times frightening and truly dangerous. That has grounded me, and in some way, reverberated into my being and I’ve learned to be a bit more wild, beautiful, and at times frightening and truly dangerous (I would say in a good way…). I also am very impressed by the music scene here, and have made some great friends and collaborators. There is such a high standard for making work, and everyone just rolls up their sleeves and goes for it. I’ve been in a lot of artistic communities that are all talk, but Icelanders seem to just make it happen and go for it. I really love that. So I’m pretty thrilled to be presenting OF LIGHT here for many reasons.
Tell us about your piece OF LIGHT that will be shown in Reykjavik this summer?
OF LIGHT is a durational performance, we also call it an opera, and I would say it is kind of like a long form incantation. I have been really interested in the history of initiation, how all humans experience it in one way or another, and how we have these intense transformative periods in our lives where we kind of go to the underworld and come back, or don’t, I guess some of us don’t too. But we all experience transformation and initiation in some way. In ancient times, the first theatre performances were collective ceremonies and rituals that usually were about marking transformations. Our modern day world doesn’t have that. Performance is a place where we can experience collective initiation.
So I wanted to create a space for the audience to go into their shadow realm, to feel held in a container to experience that, and to kind of conjure light from within. It is my most abstract work to date. It really came from my own life unraveling and realizing we can emerge more complex and enriched by getting close to our shadows. I was also excited about sound being a representation of light.
One of my teachers told me a story of how monks will sometimes climb into caves and sing, and their vibrational frequency could create light. I love that. I wanted to make a piece about how our bodies as celestial and incandescent.
What was the process and how was Marina Abramovich involved?
I met Marina several years ago when I was performing in one of her pieces. She is always excited about what young artists are doing and we kept in touch over the years. When I began work on these ideas of making a durational piece in the dark, working with ideas of initiation and celestial bodies, she got really excited and we just started doing skype calls and meeting up every now and then to bounce around ideas. She’s really just encouraged me to get in touch with my deepest and most uncompromising self and to do whatever I want. She’s just gently nudged me towards my original intentions, and helped me strip away any frameworks or conceptual apologies I was making because I was afraid to do something. That is the best thing a mentor can do, just help you get out of your own way.
What is next on the horizon for you and your artist collective Source Material?
After we premiere OF LIGHT in Iceland, and a concert from the collective on the 2_ in Mengi, I am going to be presenting an original performance concert called A Thousand Tongues by Nini Julia Bang (who is in OF LIGHT), at the Grotowski Institute in Poland this November, as part of the European Capital of Culture 2016. We are working in collaboration with the director of the Grotowski Institute Jaroslaw Fret, whom is actually one of my favorite directors of all time. It is a really huge honor and I’m very excited.
We thank Samantha for the interview.
The piece will only be shown this one night!
The interview in Icelandic: here