Racheli Mendelson (BFA, 2013) first heard about Naropa through word of mouth. That’s a common thread amongst Naropa students and graduates, but maybe less so if you consider that Racheli is from Israel. While there are excellent conservatories for dance and theatre training in Israel, Racheli was looking for something that would also allow her to explore peace studies and integrate her experience of serving in the Israeli military. Naropa’s BFA in Performance Studies, with a minor in Peace Studies, was the perfect fit.
Things really came together in her first semester, when Racheli took a class in red-nose clowning. Having grown up in a family of performance artists, and being involved in theatre and dance since the age of thirteen, she was amazed by the vulnerability and full scope of humanity available in clown work. She explains, “When I got to the place of doing my thesis, I knew I wanted to do it about the military, and I was debating whether I wanted to do a dance piece or a red-nose clown piece. I realized I had to tell these stories about the military through clown. The piece is an expression of the education I got at Naropa. I got to train rigorously in performance, but also got an opportunity to take those peace studies classes and inform myself about creative solutions for peace building."
Racheli and her ensemble of actors developed a red-nose clown piece following a group of soldiers through basic training and their first experiences of war. The aim was to show the full spectrum of military experience. “When people think about war, they think the worst. That’s not helpful because it’s triggering, it’s too scary to actually think about in a rational or creative way. You’re just shocked—somebody just died, somebody just killed somebody else —it’s so much. …But there’s a lot of things that are not that, they’re just life. It’s a whole life when you’re a soldier, you’re not just killing people 24 hours a day.”
When her ensemble suggested taking the show to the Boulder International Fringe Festival, Racheli saw the opportunity not just to share the work with a broader audience, but also to develop her skills as a producer. Having just graduated, she had some questions about working outside the university system. “How do I market a show, how do I produce it, how do I make money so that I can pay artists and pay myself and do my art and make a living?” The structure of the Boulder Fringe answered some of those questions, with 100% of ticket sales going to the artists. To make sure she had enough to cover all costs and pay her ensemble, Racheli launched an indiegogo campaign. With a great youtube video, and an array of contributor perks, the campaign helped raise funds and provided publicity for the show.
Shoot, Cry & Forget About It! A Military Clown Adventure drew on much of the material developed in Racheli’s thesis project. The actors and audience also enjoyed something new and different every night, with improvisation integral the show. In addition to six performances, Racheli hosted a panel in collaboration with Boulder Veterans for Peace and Colorado’s Iraq Veterans Against the War. “Veterans got to share what’s hard for them about communicating their experiences with civilians, and how can you be allies to veterans. The objective of the show for me is to open conversation between veterans, soldiers, and people who never served, and to encourage people to have meaningful communication, to not ignore the fact that people are veterans, to go in there with them. A lot of times people who never served are very uncomfortable and they don’t know how to ask questions about the experience of veterans and that leaves veterans alone with their experience…. Through knowing people’s stories and knowing their pain, and making our capacity to listen to those stories bigger, eventually we can end war.”
Having served as an EMT in the Israeli military, Racheli is deeply committed to contributing to this important conversation and to the possibility of ending war. “People laugh and say ending war will never happen, and that’s great too,” she explains. “I’m saying it because I know it pushes people’s limits and the limit of possibility. If nobody’s saying it then people can’t express how hopeless they are about it.”
While Racheli continues to explore these important themes in her work, she also encourages us to look at the whole person behind the soldier. When I asked her what her message was for Naropa Magazine readers, she was silent for a minute, then smiled and replied, “When you meet an Israeli, ask them what their favorite thing to do is instead of asking them if they served in the military.” Listen to an interview with Racheli in the recent Words & Wisdom podcast.