Fourth-time iDiOM Main Stage director Shu-Ling Hergenhahn-Zhao talks about the challenges of directing upcoming “psychological horror” piece The Skriker, and theater’s gender gap.
The theater world is known to have a serious gender gap, especially in terms of the number of female playwrights. iDiOM Theater’s main stage productions in recent years have featured a large number of plays written by women (e.g. Adoration of Dora by Lojo Simon, Love of the Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker, and The Emperor of the Moon and The Rover, both by Aphra Behn).
Why do you think it’s so important to address this gender imbalance, and how do you think this play (The Skriker, by Caryl Churchill) fits into that list of recent female-written productions?[Shu:] In iDiOM’s eighteen-year history, women played a large role in the founding and shaping of the organization. Krissa Woiwod was part of the theater’s founding. Jaz Okura-Youtsey was Technical Director and running the booth for about fifteen of those years. I’ve been making theater with iDiOM for seven-ish… eight-ish? I’ve lost count. A majority of the productions we have been putting up lately have been written by femme playwrights. It’s not arbitrary — it’s as much about merit as it is about representing diverse narratives to our audiences.
Yes, the lack of representation of women in theater is profoundly problematic. Half of the population of the world’s narratives, perspectives, voices, and aesthetics aren’t being seen. Take it further: when you break down the roles available to or theaters holding space for playwrights who are trans or people/femmes of color you get less representation and more whitewashing. As a Chinese American and a woman who makes theater, i think it’s a f*cking problem. I see more yellowface on stage and on camera than I see roles for Asian femmes. Despite Crazy Rich Asians hitting the screen. It’s enough to make your head spin.
All that being said, as directors and producers, i feel like iDiOM works to present theater by the people we think are doing the best work. Since its inception that has been the case. And, from my experience, age, race, gender, and sexual orientation aren’t part of the conversation about who works. When you remove a conversation about casting/recruiting by type, I feel like diversity is inevitable. The Skriker features a diverse cast of actors varying in age, sexual preference, race, and gender. As far as our production crew goes, it’s comprised of primarily women and includes one nonbinary designer, and two men. Half the design team are people of color. We’re working on a script by a well-known living contemporary female playwright. All of these choices were made because they are the best people for this project.
We chose the script we wanted to work on because it’s a good script and audiences should see it. When we produce works by Lojo Simon, Annie Baker, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Eugenie Carabatsos, Krissa Woiwod, Aphra Behn, Anne Washburn, Sarah Ruhl, Jackie Allison, and Caryl Churchill, it’s because they are damn good playwrights, who just happen to be women.
TL;DR: If the stories of femme playwrights aren’t produced then it leaves half the population out of the conversation about life and art. And we pick the plays we want to work on. We just happen to read and love a lot of plays by femme playwrights. We set out to do the best work possible for our audiences first and foremost always.
The Skriker has some dark and challenging subject matter, including themes of post-natal psychosis, loss and grief — what are the challenges of presenting this kind of darker material, as a director?
Embracing the honesty of it without being weighed down by it. Finding levity for the actors. I had my daughter at age 19. Some of the scenes are too honest at times. I see a lot of my own foolish choices represented in the text. Churchill knows whats up. The second scene is in an asylum where one of the teens has been committed for murdering her 10-day-old baby. Then the show keeps going. It’s a dense script and it would be too easy to get pulled into a pit when you live with it for months.
Is there anything new or different about the way this production is being rehearsed or directed, compared to productions you have been directed or acted in in the past?
Yup. This is only the fourth full-length show I’ve ever directed. I have noticed that I modify my process based on the text, the actors, and the amount of time I have to work. I feel like that has to be true of every director, though.
This play features gibberish, elements of expressionism, and more than half of the play is pantomimed scene-work happening simultaneously on stage with the dialogue. While I love all of those things, that is a lot of plates to spin. This is my first time working with a stage manager, Sam Stewart, who is keeping my brain organized as well as an assistant director, Julia LaFortune, who is making it remotely possible to direct all of these moments at once. She’s my extra set of outside and editing eyes. She’s my “check myself before i wreck myself.” Having both of them as external hard drives and think tanks is the only way any of this is being made possible.
It’s also a “psychological horror” show. I don’t know if that’s the best way of putting that. We’ll live. Anyway, it requires control and understanding of the atmosphere in the room to immerse the audience fully in addition to pulling the audience into the stories. I’ve never felt the pressure to have that much control of the room.
The show also features a dancer dancing for ninety minutes, to ninety minutes of original music played by a monster. Never dealt with that before.
Oh, and dialects. I am terrible at them, so Evan Mueller [Assistant Professor of Voice/Acting at WWU’s Theatre Department] came in to coach the actors for the show.
It’s been a wild ride.
THE SKRIKER plays for three weekends:
Thursday, Friday and Saturday, October 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26 & 27