Enchanting the Imagination: An Interview with Nehprii Amenii

Nehprii Amenii is our Visual Storyteller for Oliver Twist, running October 28—November 13 at TCC's Roper Performing Arts Center. What is a visual storyteller? Nehprii describes one as someone who "imagines and integrates all visual elements of a story from scenic design to puppetry to create a truly memorable experience." Nehprii is an artist, writer, and director with a passion for both puppetry and grand-scale spectacle. She creates experiences that "dismantle the wall between players and audiences, aiming to enchant the imagination and inspire new ways of seeing and thinking." Check out our interview with her below!

 Photo by Valerie Caesar

Photo by Valerie Caesar

Marketing Intern: So, to start out with some background info. Where are you from?
Nehprii Amenii: I live in Brooklyn; I grew up in Georgia. Spent nine years in Minneapolis in the middle. My dad was in the military, so a little bit of everywhere. I’ve been in Brooklyn for the past eleven years, so that’s the longest I lived anywhere.

MI: That’s a long time! Could you describe your education for me? College, etc.?
NA: Undergrad was University of Minnesota, and I majored in creative communications, which was a combination of studio arts, creative writing, and journalism. And then while I was at the University of Minnesota, I also went to another private school, which was studying creative anthropology, and cultural epistemology, and African spirituality and culture.

MI: So how would you describe your job to a stranger? Or, rather, a brief history of your career.
NA:
[laughs] You want to know my job?
MI: Well, yeah! I would like to know how you applied your education to, you know, real world jobs.
NA: Oh, wow, okay, yeah, I get it now. So that was undergrad, and my master's ended up being in theatre production with puppetry. It went toward teaching, and so it’s always been using art and imagery in combination with words. Because, to me, the two are totally married together. So, I started off teaching at a home school cooperative that was pretty grassroots and underground too. And now that has spiraled me into moving to New York and teaching story-telling creative therapy with young kids and turning to puppetry and dance. Which now leads me to work with international students, which are great, who are like just arriving into the country, and I use art to give them the confidence to tell their stories.

MI: Wow, that’s wonderful.
NA: Yeah, that was all kind of mixed in together, while, in between all of that, doing my own writing and art and theatre-making.

MI: That’s so much.
NA: It is, yeah [laughs].

MI: So I bet you travel a lot for your jobs; what is your favorite place you’ve traveled?
NA: Oh, good question. Two!
MI: Okay, two.
NA: Haiti. Yeah, it was a total shock, and I almost didn’t go, because its Haiti, and Haiti has this thing going on, but you know, that wasn’t my experience there at all. I got to Haiti, and I encountered this Haiti that was totally beautiful that never makes it into any of the pictures or on TV, and it's like, "Whoa." And I went, and I had this children’s book that I was in the midst of releasing that tells the story of African people, so it had its pre-launching there in the classrooms of Haiti, and it was great. And my next favorite place is Aswan, Egypt. And that’s just because it felt great. [pause] You didn’t ask my least favorite place.

MI: Ooh, what’s your least favorite place?
NA: So far, South Africa.

MI: Really?
NA: Yeah, my anxiety off the charts. It was twenty years post-apartheid, and it really is like, having eaten apartheid for breakfast. There was no Lion King soundtrack in the air yet. It was stressful and tense, and there is still a huge divide. It was a part of a conference, so then I was in this academic setting, but all of these social issues were all around me, and it was like, "Whoa, I’m in Africa and there’s no black people here!" And then, "oh, kitchen door, there they are." And only in a working capacity. And you know, the stress and the tension in the air is what made it so hard. But the landscape is beautiful. [laughs]

 Photo by Valerie Caesar

Photo by Valerie Caesar

MI: So, creatively, where do you being your process?
NA: Backwards. Totally backwards. I always try to imagine the end visually, but also the end in terms of impact, so it’s never just, “Oh, I just want to make something pretty.” Instead I think about if anything that I were doing were to have the greatest amount of success and impact on another human’s heart, what would I want that to be? And then walk backwards from there, how to give people the experience. And whatever the art form is, be it writing to a visual piece to theatre, how to make it so the other human being actually gets to experience it in an active way.

MI: You’ve mentioned puppets a few times. How is puppetry an effective story-telling device?
NA: I think it forces participation to happen. So, we live in this world now where everybody’s like, “Okay, we just get to sit back and watch everything happen,” but people are also very jaded, and all of a sudden you can take a napkin, and move it in a certain way with the breath, and no matter how jaded you are, and how passive you’ve become about existence, in that moment you’re lured into the magic. And it’s one of the few places where trance is allowed to exist still.

MI: You seem very inclined to tactile work, things you can touch. I think that’s interesting.
NA: Yeah, I’m definitely that kid in the museum. “Don’t touch it!” I always touch stuff.

MI: This is one of my favorite questions to ask in these kinds of interviews: What artistic piece has influenced you the most as a person? It could be an album, or a painting, or something along those lines, but what do you think has shaped you the most to be who you are?
NA: ….I hate when I have to say something that’s going to sound so corny!

MI: It could be totally corny, it could like a top 40 song, or..
NA: One??

MI: Yeah, just one. 
NA: Okay, well, I’ll just say what the toss-up is. The original inspiration that was informing my subconscious when I was four-years-old, and I didn’t even know it, was Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal. That’s who I am [laughs]. And then later one, the one that I'm like, "Oh, its going to be so cheesy," but it was The Lion King. Because I had no idea. I had never been to a theatre show, growing up in Georgia. So we moved to Minneapolis, and it was opening there, and my mom said, “A friend of mine, a client, just gave me tickets to The Lion King, do you want to go see it?” I’m like, sixteen, and I was like, “For what? I saw the movie.” And I had no idea. And then I was in her room when they had a snippet of it on the Tonys, and I was like [makes explosion noise]. I had never seen that level of creativity expressed or released before, and I remember standing there saying, “I want to do that.”

MI: I hate when people dismiss Disney, because its such an accessible art form.
NA: And The Lion King is on a whole other level! It's beyond Disney.

MI: It transcends Disney.
NA: Yeah, it totally does. Julie Taymore and her whole approach with image really brought out the mythology of the story, which is what she does.

MI: What drew you to the story of Oliver Twist?
NA: This guy [points to Patrick Mullins, who had quietly stepped into the interview earlier] wrote me an email [laughs]. But, really the story itself is Oliver and how innocent he is. Because I also feel like I came into this world with way, way, way too many doses of, um, naiveté. And so to see a character that is able to maintain his purity and innocence and naiveté through all of the struggles..that’s my favorite part, how clean it is. He’s a clean person.

MI: So what kind of things have you learned in your illustrious career, such as the puppetry and the textures, do you plan on applying to Oliver Twist?
NA: Definitely the trance and the magic. Being able to have the audience, even if they can’t stand up and participate, they can use the symbolism and the themes to create these visual symbolisms that their mind can actively participate in, teasing through. I don’t know if that answers your question.

MI: No, it does, absolutely.
NA: I really love the art of the enchantment. So how to take people into those trance states, and while they’re in it, get 'em right there in the heart. You know, with something good. It sounds so hokey-dokey, but that’s always what I’m aiming for: how to penetrate the heart with something good in those moments.

MI: If you could give a message to a group of people, say, a graduating class at a commencement or something, what would you say?
NA: That, you know, as played out or old or simple as it may seem, that it really is okay to be good. It’s okay to just try to do as much good as you can at all times. And that beauty is something to aim for as well, and that instead of striving for the external, try to put a little more of the internal. Emphasis on making that inner world as beautiful as possible.