UNM instructor and alumnus Juli Hendren has recently returned to the United States after a trip to Krakow, Poland in which she worked with Ukrainian refugees to stage a performance telling stories of life in crisis and finding identity outside of home.

Early in her theatrical career, Hendren made connections with experimental producers and directors involved with theater movements in Eastern Europe and Poland specifically, which first drew Hendren toward the community. Through this, she also became interested in physical theater, which prioritizes the use of movement to tell stories. She is especially drawn to the visceral and unknown nature of allowing the body to lead the performance.

“You know, I came from a traditionally trained background … Actually, for a long time, I think I sort of wanted to be Meryl Streep, but you know, really early on, got sort of introduced to a lot of experimental and circus theater and community theater; I mean, theater in the sense of learning culture and stories in communities, through theater,” Hendren said.

This most recent trip to Krakow was part of a global project called “Mother of Exiles,” which allows global artists to share their own stories involving borders, homeland and identity in times of conflict. Artists workshop, prepare and perform original works based upon their personal stories, culminating in a cumulative performance. The project has worked with artists in Poland, the U.S. and Colombia, according to Hendren.

“One of the things that we are interested in doing is exploring the ways that art and creativity and being in community together in artistic pursuit can be an imperative component of providing space for processing, for grieving, for healing, for surviving. So I feel like we wanted to contribute or be a part of something that would maybe be a small contribution to that space for people who are displaced right now in Poland by the war in Ukraine,” Elsa Menendez, long-time friend and colleague of Hendren, said.

This most recent trip to Poland was planned before the outbreak of war between Ukraine and Russia which has led many Ukrainians to seek refuge in Krakow. Originally, the trip involved many visiting artists coming together for a new iteration of the performance, but the trip was reworked after the outbreak of war; only Hendren and Menendez went out for the workshops, and cohort Dagmara Żabska was able to find eight Ukrainian artists and a few Polish colleagues to participate.

“It was really profound … We used a lot of creative storytelling through the body, creative writing and just creating a safe talking place for people to create and tell stories … and some of them were very literal, about the war. Some were less so: they were more abstract. The stories that were coming out, they were really intense. There’s a lot of loss,” Hendren said.

What made this performance cycle most important to Żabska was that both Ukrainian refugees and the Polish citizens opening their doors to them in the midst of the crisis were able to tell their own stories.

“It was like really, really needed. And it has value on several levels and one of is, we gave them back they dignity. They are artists; they could come on the stage and create situation, speak with they own voice, tell they own story and not be only refugees … but someone who is standing in the light, and tell the story,” Żabska said.

The “Mother of Exiles” project was first conceived of by Hendren following several conversations she had about immigration and xenophobia. To Menendez, Hendren’s tremendous vision and remarkable skills as a director and writer are the driving factors in allowing “Mother of Exiles” to truly thrive.

“She just brings tremendous vision, tremendous leadership. She’s an amazing director, she’s an incredible writer …There’s a lot of balance that she brings and a lot of courage and structure,” Menendez said.

When Hendren first approached Żabska about “Mother of Exiles,” she was initially skeptical of the impact it would have until their trip to Bogotá, where she realized the power the project held to connect people and touch local audiences going through the same conflicts and oppression.

“ … I have friends in Bogotá right now, and they have friends in Poland, and how it could happen: because we met in work, we asked some questions, and we ate together, and when people meet, work, share stories and eat together, this is the starting point to change the world,” Żabska said.

A profound part of this project for Hendren is the community of interconnected artists worldwide that they have been able to build, the space they’ve created for people to come together and tell their stories in times of great crisis and the continued connections and opportunities between artists made through the project.

“War is  just really complicated, and it’s different everywhere, and, you know, life doesn’t stop in conflict … A lot of times you’re still trying to exist and still build community and things, and one of the best things I think we could do in those moments, whether it’s going pretty okay or whether it’s really, really rough, is to find ways to come together in community and share stories,” Hendren said.

Zara Roy is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at copychief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle