Prolific theater director Desdemona Chiang’s new show, ‘The World of Extreme Happiness’ — a coproduction of Seattle Public Theater and SIS Productions — opens Oct. 13.
Desdemona Chiang can’t see into the future, but that’s not going to stop her from trying.
The prolific director, 37, who has a new show opening at Seattle Public Theater (SPT) this week, is hesitant to ascribe too much responsibility for social change to the theater.
“Theater is often reflective,” she said. “We’re not really changemakers. If mankind is always running forward, theater is that person in the back with the mirror, going, ‘Hey, look back here. This is what you’re doing. This is where you’re going.’ ”
‘The World of Extreme Happiness,’ by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Oct. 13-Nov. 5, at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Green Lake Drive N., Seattle; $17-$34 (206-524-1300 or seattlepublictheater.org)
But can it provoke transformation? Sure, but sometimes it requires a measure of clairvoyance. Or maybe more accurately: It requires the ability to know what you don’t know yet.
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“What is the thing that we’re not talking about?” she wonders. “What is the thing that we think we’re talking about, but we’re not talking about, or no one’s ever bothered to think about?
“That’s just plain hard. Thinking about absence is really weird.”
Since graduating from the University of Washington’s MFA in directing program in 2009, Chiang has steadily built a portfolio that stretches from coast to coast, working frequently here, but also in the Bay Area and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and last year, at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
After working as a dramaturgical intern for the festival and assisting Artistic Director Bill Rauch on a production of “King Lear” in 2013, Chiang was tapped to direct “The Winter’s Tale,” which she set in dynastic China.
“Des’ ideas were specific and thrilling to me,” Rauch said in an email. “[Her] experience with contemporary work and culturally specific work really helped in her approach to this difficult Shakespeare play.”
Scan her résumé, and no clear wheelhouse emerges. There are contemporary works and classics. Bleak drama, heart-tugging romance and stinging satire all make an appearance.
There’s even a musical. Just one so far — “Hairspray” — and she’d like to do more so she can investigate a genre she “judges harshly.”
“I think it’s important to do things that I think I hate,” she says. Her eyes twinkle, but she’s not joking.
“That’s part of the ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’ thing.”
Chiang’s theatrical curiosity is as restless as the physical location of where she works, but she’s a full-time Seattle resident now, with credits at many of the major houses to match.
A 2015 production of “Measure for Measure” at Seattle Shakespeare Company embraced the show’s tangle of contradictory tones, while last year’s “Constellations” at Seattle Rep demonstrated her facility for the delicacy of a two-person, one-act show.
At ACT, she helmed the just-closed “King of the Yees,” and at SPT, she’ll take on “The World of Extreme Happiness,” a play that examines the inhumanities of factory work in China. It’s a piece she knows well, having worked on a 2013 developmental production in San Francisco with playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.
The play is set in modern-day China, where consumerism plays a major role in the plight of the working class. It both confirms and undercuts notions of a “big, bad China,” she says. After all, would those factory jobs run workers into the ground if there wasn’t insatiable thirst — from America and other countries — for the newest technology?
“[There’s] this idea of justice and the ways individuals often become subsumed by the systems that they live in,” Chiang said. “We’re complicit in corruption that we don’t know about.”
SPT is presenting the play with SIS Productions, whose mission is to create opportunities for female Asian-American artists. SIS co-executive producer Kathy Hsieh, who’s also performing in “Extreme Happiness,” gave Chiang one of her first directorial jobs out of grad school: Lauren Yee’s “Ching Chong Chinaman” at SIS.
“[Yee’s play] is hilarious, but it’s hilarious in a very specific way,” Hsieh said. “If it’s done wrong, it could completely backfire.
“[Desdemona] could actually infuse it with a specific eye of having grown up with a cultural lens. Any other director could have come in and done a fine job, but would have had to do so much research trying to figure out that nuance.”
Hsieh, who also oversees racial-equity programs for the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, sees Chiang as crucial to the slowly awakening awareness to such issues in a still predominantly white theater scene. She can count on two hands the number of Asian Americans who’ve ever directed a show even once during her career in Seattle, she says.
“It’s been a benefit for these white-led theater companies to have an Asian-American woman direct shows,” Hsieh said. “It’s opened up different ways of looking at things.”
“A different way of looking at things” isn’t the mission statement for Azeotrope, the theater company Chiang co-founded with UW classmate Richard Nguyen Sloniker in 2010. But it could be.
“Initially, the discussion was talking about starting an Asian-American theater company,” Sloniker said. “There was just a lack of stories being told there. But in our continuing discussions, we expanded our mission to include marginalized stories.”
Or as Chiang puts it: “What are the voids that still exist in the community?”
In 2015, Azeotrope produced Don Nguyen’s “Sound,” a play about parents wrestling with the notion of getting cochlear-implant surgery for their deaf daughter, told in parallel with the story of Alexander Graham Bell, whose anti-sign language stance makes him a deeply controversial figure in the deaf community. The play was performed bilingually, with both American Sign Language and spoken English, and projected supertitles to bridge the language gaps.
Initially, the show was going to be solely directed by Chiang, but recognizing a weak spot, she brought on a deaf co-collaborator, Howie Seago, to codirect.
“This was all new territory for us,” Sloniker said. “It just made sense to give other artists the space to create authentic work.”
Sloniker and Hsieh, who’ve both been directed by Chiang in multiple plays, say that attention to collaboration is key to her directorial style.
“She really relies on actor impulses versus a director having a preconceived idea of what the play should look like,” Sloniker said.
“She has a vision, but she’s still really open,” Hsieh said. “She’ll say things like, ‘I hate this scene. I think this scene just doesn’t work, so how can we make it work?’ ”
From the big houses to the nimbler world of Azeotrope — “It’s me and Richard. It’s us and a jar of pennies,” Chiang says — the director is building a career that isn’t pegged to one world. In December, she’ll direct her company’s first play in more than two years, the Seattle premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall,” written in a fury after the result of last November’s election. And in 2018, it’s back to the hard, for Seattle Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
If it seems inevitable that Chiang’s career is destined to take that next leap that takes her beyond Seattle for good, she might say that’s just what the local community needs to prevent stagnation.
“[Seattle is] all about, ‘We’re awesome.’ I think that’s a wonderful thing but it can get a little limiting sometimes,” she said. “You have to find a way to honor your community and serve your community. At the same time, we still want active trade happening [with new artists coming in and Seattle figures working elsewhere]. The question has always been, not just how do we get folks in, but how do we get our folks out?”