Theater & Arts

Want a distinctive post-Christmas art experience? Tour the ‘Memory Palace’ with Blake Morris

Blake Morris will lead the Former Fresnans Memory Palace walk in the Tower District on Dec. 26.
Blake Morris will lead the Former Fresnans Memory Palace walk in the Tower District on Dec. 26. Chris Wellington

Take a walk through the Tower District and tour the Former Fresnans Memory Palace.

Blake Morris, a Roosevelt High School graduate now working on a doctorate at a London university, is offering his “Former Fresnans: The Boxing Day Tour” to 20 lucky participants in a one-time event. The post-Christmas Day experience combines a walking tour with an innovative exercise in memory.

The Saturday, Dec. 26, walk will visit a number of Tower District landmarks. But the important part of this 75-minute tour is imagination. Participants will be asked to visualize “artifacts” created by former Fresnans in a virtual museum. Morris “built” this memory palace by taking walks with former Fresnans living in New York City, San Francisco, Oakland, and London. They then selected particular memories of Fresno shared during those walks to “place” in specific Tower District locations such as, say, the parking lot of Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.

Each work is specific to Morris’ relationship with the walker and his or her relationship to Fresno and new city. What you get, then, is a combination of Fresno memory and other-city experience, rooted in a specific Tower District location.

“This is my way of bringing back some of the stories of Fresnans to Fresno and stay rooted in my upbringing, even if I only get to visit Fresno once a year,” Morris says.

The concept might take a few moments to wrap your brain around. Here’s a rundown.

The inspiration: The ancient Greeks came up with a good way to improve your memory, based on the story of a lucky poet named Simonides who left a banquet hall just before disaster struck. He then was able to identify those killed by remembering where they sat at the banquet.

How it works in theory: A memory palace, Morris explains on his website, “uses the strength of human spatial memory to record and retrieve memories.” A specific space is chosen, and vivid symbols are placed throughout it. Each symbol is linked to a specific memory. The more absurd the image, the easier it is to remember.

How it works on the Former Fresnans tour: In order to make this somewhat abstract concept more concrete, Morris shares a work on the Former Fresnans tour. Created with Justin Weatherby on a New York walk, it is installed behind the 2nd Space Theatre in the back alley. “Imagine you are walking through the parking lot and coming to the back alley where the stage door is. When you turn the corner, you see a large cherry blossom tree growing between the trash dumpsters and the door. It is quite large, and the pink blossoms are vivid and gently swaying. If you go up to the tree you can see there is a knothole, and if you desire, you can peer inside the knothole and see that inside the tree there is a tiny chessboard, and the board is inhabited by members of the Roosevelt Class of 2000 drama class.”

But what do those images mean? The cherry tree, Morris says, records the fact that he and Weatherby in New York walked to the Cherry Lane Theatre, one of the first professional theaters he worked at (and where he is now producing Tony-nominated shows). “The chessboard in the tree also reflects the area we walked, a street in Greenwich Village known for its chess shops. The knothole in the tree relates to our discussions of 2nd Space’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in which Justin and I were double cast in the role of Jem, and the people on the chessboard inside are our fellow classmates who were integral to our experience in Fresno together.”

Other works in the museum: Other walkers whose work will be highlighted include Erin Jacoby Hickman, Kelsey Bergstrom Young and Bryan Miller.

The credentials: Morris is a scholar of walking as an artistic and cultural practice, not a common field of study. (When people ask him the definition of “walking art,” he replies that instead of going to a theater and seeing a play, or going to a gallery and looking at a painting, you show up at a location and go on a walk.) After doing a double major in theater and history at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he found himself drawn to “walking as art.” He wound up at the University of East London, where he expects to defend his doctoral thesis in 2017. (“I usually tell people I am getting my doctorate in walking, but technically I am doing a practice-based research degree through theatre studies,” he says.) One of his goals is to establish walking as an independent art form.

The academic twist: As far as Morris knows, no one else has combined walking art/tours with the age-old practice of memory palaces.

The impact: Morris is intrigued with the transformation that takes place when we create a memory image to record our experience. “It makes us wrap our experience in metaphor,” he says. “We don’t just record it: We imagine it, we embody it. I like the idea of making art you can’t Instagram. Sure you can take a picture of the back alley of 2nd Space, but unless you imagine the cherry tree, it’s just a picture of dumpsters and brick walls. I have also found that our capacity for memory is amazing, we just aren’t trained in it, because we don’t need to be.”

Another benefit: The Former Fresnans tour originally began as a way to show his parents the kind of work he was making. They weren’t able to make it to any of the walks he conducted in New York, so he figured he would bring the walking to them. “Since embarking on the project I have had such a great time walking with people and sharing what it means to be from Fresno. I think it’s so important to bring the work we are making back to the place that made us.”

Former Fresnans: The Boxing Day Tour

Art preview

  • 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 26
  • Tower District (RSVP for exact location)
  • Space is limited. RSVP to blake@walkexchange.org for reservations
  • Free

More online

For an extended interview with Blake Morris, go to www.fresnobeehive.com. For details about the Fresno walk and memory palaces in general, go to http://thisisnotaslog.com.

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