“The best way to learn is to teach,” said American theatre director Peter Sellars. He was speaking as one five panellists gathered to discuss the topic of mentorship at the annual PEN World Voices Literary Festival in New York this May. He was recounting his time as Rolex mentor to Lebanese theatre director Maya Zbib, adding, “My own life opened profoundly in getting to know Maya.”
Sellars was joined on the panel by Michael Ondaatje, author and Rolex literature mentor; Jennifer Tipton, renowned lighting designer and Rolex theatre mentor; Bulgarian writer Miroslav Penkov, who is a Rolex protégé working with Ondaatje; and Julia Leigh, a former Rolex literature protégée. Irish author and festival chairman Colm Tóibín moderated the conversation, asking the panellists what it means to be a mentor and, vice versa, for a protégé to work alongside an artistic master.
“A mentor gives permission, allows you to expand the boundaries of your field,” said Ondaatje. He explained that his own mentors were people he never knew. The artists who most influenced his work spanned cultures and disciplines, ranging from the paintings of Mexican artist Diego Rivera to Sri Lankan dancer Chitrasena.
Penkov, who has written a well-received collection of stories called East of the West and will soon publish his debut novel, emphasizes the point: thanks to his mentor he is trying his hand at adapting his short stories to screenplays, something he would not have attempted before meeting Ondaatje.
For Tipton, it was important for her protégé, Mexican lighting designer Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez, to be exposed to different mediums. He observed her working on lighting for dance, theatre and opera and Tipton has seen Solórzano Rodríquez’s work in Mexico. Their time together has been a “rich full year, exciting for both of us”, she said.
For Leigh, mentored in 2002 by author Toni Morrison, simply having the affirmation of such a great writer gave her the encouragement and confidence to keep going. After her mentorship, Leigh published a highly praised novella and went on to write and direct a film that competed at the Cannes Film Festival.
Drawing on stories of mentorships among great Irish writers, Tóibín noted that in his later years, James Joyce gave literary guidance to the young Samuel Beckett in Paris while writing his last masterpiece, Finnegans Wake. Eventually, Beckett broke from Joyce’s fuller prose style to write in the minimalist tone that would characterize his famous works.
“He had learned enough from Joyce to know how to go his own way,” said Tóibín. “And maybe that is one of the primary functions of the mentor.”