Interview #116—Jamie Marie Lewis

by Nithya Nagarajan

Jamie Marie Lewis is an artist, facilitator and dramaturg. She creates and curates participatory experiences, facilitating meditations on culture, place, and time, through autobiographical stories, conversation and food.

Committed to diversifying practice, Jamie seeks alternative models of working, and a re-imagining of leadership, governance, and structures. She is currently also Communications Manager at Theatre Network Australia, on the Board of Multicultural Arts Victoria, and was in the 2018 cohort of Australia Council for the Arts’ Future Leaders program.

Jamie spoke to Nithya Nagarajan about personal responsibility, food as communitas, and what diversity truly entails.

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You work across performance making, dramaturgy, facilitation, marking and strategy. How do you juggle your multiple hats?
Getting sufficient, decent, deep sleep. It comes down to being able to switch between the different headspaces required for each of these roles. Which means it’s really about making sure I haven’t overcommitted in terms of actual projects or workload. Which also means it’s more about administration more than anything! (Boring!)

When I distill it down though, the truth is whilst the contexts and outcomes are different, the work and the process is actually rather similar across these roles:

  • Listen, understand, research, read, expand...grasp as much of the picture as you can

  • Identify the crux(es), connections, meaning, purpose, goals...

  • Dig deeper into the crux(es), make the connections, join the dots

  • Arrive (write the report, score the performance, wrap up the conversation…)

  • Start again

So it’s really less about juggling the hats, and more about being absolutely responsive to the room I am in at any one given point in time. 

I think of you as a serial collaborator—what are the joys and challenges of such a process in contemporary artmaking?
I don’t know if I do identify as that—I’m very economical in my efforts and energy output, and am thoroughly averse to constant back-and-forths/over-discussing things, and have a tendency to make quick decisions - so working solo, or being the lead artist suits me because I get to drive and determine the process, and I am ultimately accountable for the decisions and outcomes.  

Having said that, I’ve definitely found myself mostly collaborating with others on my creative projects. Maybe instead of joys and challenges, here are what I look for when collaborating:

  • How well do we know each other’s practice, temperament and working styles? (this translates to - how honest can we be with each other? when are the best times for feedback? do we need to adjust our vocabulary and language when articulating ideas?...)

  • If we don’t know each other well, then what needs to be in the process to enable some of that to fast-track some of that understanding?

  • What are our roles? Is there a lead artist driving the work?

  • If we are sharing the producing/planning, how is that shared?

  • Where are the strengths that complement, where are our gaps and do we need to bring someone else in to fill in that gap?

I think these questions are about being able to manage expectations between collaborators and understanding these allows us to carve out a process that enables us all to work most fruitfully, efficiently and economically - minimum effort for maximum results. In that the actual interrogation and making of the work is the part we get to dig deep and work hard, and the circumstances in which we make work are often less than ideal in terms of resources, I reckon we need to take real personal responsibility to let the interpersonal aspects of collaborations run as smoothly as possible. 

I reckon we need to take real personal responsibility to let the interpersonal aspects of collaborations run as smoothly as possible. 

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I’m particularly interested in how spirituality subsumes your craft. How do you hold this space in an arts world that aggressively pursues atheism?
Perhaps it’s that I just do it—in that I’m not overthinking it. My own inquiry into my spirituality begun before I started making performances—as a practice, my spirituality came first. So naturally, this informs my artistic practice. 

Growing up Catholic in Singapore, as an articulate, creative smarty-pants, I’ve had my fair share of questions, and have come to distinguish my different relationships to the faith, the institution, the community, and my spirituality. Also, I grew up within a very mixed-race, multicultural, multi-religious context—my understanding of religion, faith, and cultural practices intersect a lot!

The word ‘spirit’ in the bible, in Greek, is pneuma—which also translates to breath. In my theatre training, so much of the work as a performer came back to our body and our breath, and us being the vessels in which carried the work. I thought a lot about the ritual as and of performance, and decided that it was communitas that I so desired in a live performance. This continues to make sense for me - why does the work need to be live? So that all who gather share spirit/breath—and that for that moment, an hour, or five - here we are, making and being community. 

I think this desire was pretty instinctual, and perhaps pretty universal - all though my language for it derived from the context of a particular western religion. (also: ala intercultural theatre studies and theatre anthropology of a particular era referenced a lot of eastern ritual and spiritual traditions as theatre training practice - so I’ve continued to borrow language across multiple layers and time!)

My spirituality is my life practice, as is my artistic practice! Do I believe in one/many gods? I can’t be sure and I’m certainly not about to impose that on anyone. But can the atheism of the (art) world change my life practice so affected by the ongoing journey that is my spirituality? Nah!

Food is a leitmotif in your performance works.
It came out of an observation over a couple of different collaborative residencies I was a part of - where we were often pretty quiet and stuck for ideas when we were actually in the studio but had so much to unravel and discuss when it was meal times. 

I’m interested in communitas, intimacy and conversation - and what better vehicle for all that than being around a table full of food, and being given the simple task to savour the meal? 

You blog with a refreshing honesty about the breakdown of your marriage, and the rituals of both grieving and moving forward. Who do you write for?
Cliché - but myself. So as to be seen. And to know that I am seen. And perhaps in having family and friends across continents, it has also been some form of a shortcut to updating everyone, and a way for me to say, “here I am, and I am ok.”

I’m interested in communitas, intimacy and conversation—and what better vehicle for all that than being around a table full of food, and being given the simple task to savour the meal? 

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You’ve said before, ‘I never felt more Singaporean than in my first year in Australia – when I was a new migrant’. How do ideas of identity and citizenship mark your practice?
I continue to express this: that I’ve been here long enough to know the arts sector intimately enough and understand its workings, but still carry the lens of an outsider to maintain criticality through multiple viewpoints. 

I think it’s this thought in particular that marks my practice - that emboldens me to approach certain things in certain ways at certain times, and yet allow me to step back and walk away when needed; that sometimes it gives me an “immunity” that allows me to be even more critical, and sometimes knowing that it is not my place at all. 

In the same vein, diversity dialogues in Australia unsettle you as an artist and advocate. Please elaborate. 
A lot of the current dialogue on diversity in Australia - I find - reside in seemingly superficial “goals” like representation, or on the need to tell the identity story. And whilst is important, it leaves me dissatisfied. I am also hungry for conversation on diversity of process - how does straddling multiple identities and narratives affect the way we move in the world? And in that, challenge the dominant ways of working - which are conventionally linear and hierarchical? I I reckon the leadership many of us bring because of the ability to hold multiple narratives for ourselves and for others will look very different, but is very needed as we move towards decolonising our practice and systems and society!

Do you remember what instigated your initial foray into a professional life in the arts? 
Gosh—so many things lined up in order to enable this. It was a number of years in the making—a combination of my defiance against an uninspiring education system, and an extremely supportive family that took me another step further at every stage of this process, and a whole lot of good fortune and chance. 

A lot of the current dialogue on diversity in Australia - I find - reside in seemingly superficial “goals” like representation, or on the need to tell the identity story.

Do you have any advice for emerging cultural leaders? 
Take your time. Work out what your practice is. Is this a “career move” or do you want to be an artist (substitute practice) for the rest of your life? Pace yourself. Good buy must buy. But just because something is a cheap buy doesn’t mean you should buy. My mother says - try everything once. Don’t be shy. If you’re shy, you lose out. Drink more water.Moisturise. And use sunscreen. Sleep. 

Who are you inspired by? 
My grandmother, my mom, and her four sisters. I am also very lucky to have become friends with a number of women of different ages in the arts who continue to hold me up, who in their own different ways, I aspire towards. 

What are you listening to? 
Ibeyi, H.E.R, Thando, Erykah Badu, Solange, The Orbweavers; and using the discover function on spotify to find the likes of them.

What are you reading? 
I just finished Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future (for pleasure), and am just starting to read Journey to the West (as in the story of the Monkey King) as research for a work I am dramaturging. But also, on my couch in the evenings before bed, a couple of entries from the latest Australian Poetry Journal. 

How do you practice self-care? 
To echo question 1 - Getting sufficient, decent, deep sleep. 

I’m generally good at compartmentalising - my work and my emotions. So it means being able to work on multiple things at a time, but carving time out for each without feeling guilty or anxious - as well as holding multiple feelings at the same time. (This time last year, I was especially holding the weight of my marriage falling apart whilst completely savouring the thrill of pitching for a million dollar proposal!)

If you’ve parked something to be dealt with at a later time, then make sure to deal with it. Sit with it—whatever it might be. Let it pass—the yucky and the good and the in-between. Stay warm. Take vitamin D from mid-April. Eat well. Pause. Make time for friends and laughter. Sleep. And more sleep if you can. 

I really think a well-rested body and mind is what allows me to move through what’s in front of me - usually outside of my control - with grace and wisdom.  

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
A label other (Asian-)Australians put on me. Growing up in an identity obsessed Singapore - where ‘CMIO’ (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) was a constant marker and boxes to tick—I ticked the box of ‘Other (please specify): Eurasian’. In that alone —my otherness is also so much more nuanced and layered than being (non-)Australian or Asian-Australian.

I also relate the word Australian to nationality—of which I’m not. I still hold my Singapore passport—and will probably never ever give it up for as long as I have family there. And so struggle with referring to myself as Australian. 

I reckon a big part of the distance is also that I moved here as an adult. And whilst I bring my own complexities of growing up mixed-race in Singapore, I have always been very certain and confident of my identity here—carrying an embodied privilege as the majority (middle-income, educated, can speak Mandarin majority) in the midst of living and working in White Australia. 

I suppose I tend to say— ‘Singaporean Eurasian living in Australia.’

And maybe that too—is about remembering home is many places all at once, and that I am only a guest on these unceded lands. 

I’m generally good at compartmentalising… it means being able to work on multiple things at a time, but carving time out for each without feeling guilty or anxious—as well as holding multiple feelings at the same time.


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Interview by Nithya Nagarajan
Photographs by Leah Jing

2, InterviewLeah McIntosh