Did You Know? Mugwumpin

By Natalie Greene


Mugwumpin is an award-winning San Francisco theater and performance ensemble, whose vision is to create live art that ignites radical collaboration, empathy and curiosity. Mugwumpin was formed in San Francisco in 2004 by Joseph Estlack, Denmo Ibrahim and Christopher W. White, with the aim of reinvigorating live performance as a communal event. Since 2004, Mugwumpin has created 13 full productions and many smaller scale performances, all Bay Area world premieres. Dancers’ Group interviewed dancer, actor, and educator Natalie Greene, Mugwumpin’s new Interim Artistic Director about her work with the highly physical interdisciplinary company.

What’s a Mugwumpin?

A Mugwump is an independent politician with high, definite principles, who refuses to sit on either side of the fence. As for Mugwumpin, the founding members just liked the name. I like that it’s a word that sparks curiosity and sounds like a verb or an action.

What is your background?

I was raised by writers and musicians in Arizona, and as a kid I worked professionally in musical theater, TV and film. When I discovered modern dance in college, I fell in love! Release technique suited my body and I started making dance theater pieces while moonlighting as a singer-songwriter and sketch comedian. In 2003, I came to San Francisco to create and perform in interdisciplinary work. I spent my first 10 years here working with dance theater artists like Kim Epifano, Emily Keeler, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Deborah Slater.

What’s unusual or unique about Mugwumpin?

We work together to make performances from scratch. We dig deep into research and whims, focusing on questions instead of answers. The inquiry is highly physical and incredibly playful. A few years ago, we did a 60-hour performance marathon called Asomnia at CIIS (California Institute for Integral Studies). We performed every two hours for nearly three days, with not one wink of sleep. It was wild. We’re not kidding when we say that we are boundary-blurring.

Mugwumpin, Photo by Pak Han
Mugwumpin, Photo by Pak Han

Who is a part of Mugwumpin? How do they become part of the group?

Mugwumpin artists are a very special group of people that we work with regularly. The existing company members vote unanimously to invite artists into the fold of long-term collaboration. Right now the company is: El Beh, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Katherine Bickford, Madeline H.D. Brown, Mariana Olvera, Michelle Talgarow, Soren Santos, Stephanie DeMott, Susannah Martin, Teddy Hulsker and Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky.

Where does the company perform?

We have ongoing relationships with Z Space and Intersection for the Arts, both of which have co-produced Mugwumpin productions in the past. Our work has been featured in the SF Fringe Festival, the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre, and many different venues both locally and internationally, including the Asian Arts Museum, Theatre of Yugen, and a wide array of site-specific locales.

In addition to your work with Mugwumpin, we know that you are a dance educator. What is your teaching style/philosophy?

I work with people of all ages and abilities, and I’m trying to learn as much from everyone else as I can. Instead of asking my students or performers to be the same, I use movement, theater and rigorous play to better understand and bridge differences. I try to create a teaching environment with the kind of mutual respect that promotes learning, creativity, risk-taking and laughter. At this point one of my great pleasures is witnessing my students becoming my colleagues. It’s both thrilling and humbling, and allows me to sense the past, present and future at once.

What is it like to be leading a theater organization?

After being a theater person in the dance world and then a dance person in the theater world, I have to say that it’s a relief to lead something that is decidedly interdisciplinary. We recently sat down as a company to talk about what roles we might like to take on in the next production. People who are known as directors said that they want to perform, and designers want to direct, performers want to dramaturg, and so on. The fluidity of roles creates a lot of space for growth and inspiration, but there is still the safety and comfort of working with an ensemble of long term collaborators with whom you share a history, an aesthetic and a work ethic. We get to come to the table with all of our skills and ideas, not just those predetermined or prescribed. And because I’m an educator who facilitates creative process, I love developing forms and structures that allow interdisciplinary collaborations to thrive. I don’t feel like I’m in one world or the other. Instead, I feel like I finally have the opportunity to combine the things that I love.

Photo by Pak Han
Photo by Pak Han

What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

I like to think of myself as a choreographer of community exchange. I love dreaming up collaborations, performances and learning experiences, and then mobilizing people to make things happen. I also love to sing, dance and act, and to be a performing artist working under an inspiring director. The most rewarding thing is that I get to do both.

Do you have a favorite performance or memorable moment with the group?

The first time that I worked with Mugwumpin was a workshop for Future Motive Power in 2011. The energy was electric, and that’s not just because the show was about Nikola Tesla. It was the ultimate hardcore playtime: I got to dance, act, sing, nerd out on research and have a say in the development of the production. Sparks were literally and figuratively flying.

What’s a future goal or dream that you have for Mugwumpin?

I’m really interested in immersive, site-specific work, and radical collaborations. I’d like for us to tour and continue to build relationships with artists and ideas outside of the Bay Area. We’re also building a new Education Program and deepening our local roots across disciplines.

What inspires you?

I’m constantly inspired by my students and colleagues, and these days, I’m thinking a lot about resilience. In the past year I studied dance in Cuba, helped SFArtsED open a new space in the Minnesota Street Project, and stepped into this new role. Through Mugwumpin I work with one of the most resilient arts organizations in San Francisco, Intersection for the Arts. I’ve been thinking about resilience as fuel, as evolution, and as art in and of itself.

Do you have a favorite dance move?

I love to talk to students about the mobility of the hip joint, and show them how hip movements with locked knees make you ‘look like the awkward guy at the party.’ Then we practice moving our hips to a good beat with soft knees, and suddenly everyone is grooving and looking groovy. ‘This is the most important thing I teach,’ I jokingly say, ‘tell all of your friends.’

A favorite song to dance to?

Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” all the way.

What haven’t we asked that you want people to know?

What’s up next?
In July and August we will be in residence at Pro Arts in Oakland. We will be remounting Luster, a piece that integrates performance, photography and audience engagement, in collaboration with photographers Pak Han and Kegan Marling. We are also hosting a workshop and beginning research, planning and public dialogue towards the creation of our next evening-length production, slated to premiere in 2017.

Natalie Greene is the Interim Artistic Director of the innovative devised theater company, Mugwumpin. She is Adjunct Faculty at the University of San Francisco where she co-directs the intergenerational performance company, Dance Generators. Natalie also works through the San Francisco Arts Education Project, and has a dynamic history as a performer working in dance, music and theater.

Natalie Greene loves working at USF. In addition to teaching, she is a singer, dancer and actress who enjoys creating and collaborating on performances of all sorts. Natalie has been honored to work with many different companies, mentors and friends in the Bay Area and beyond. You can reach her at njgreene@usfca.edu.