Gregory Keng Strasser first popped onto my radar when I met him while auditioning for 410[GONE] at Rorshach Theatre. At the time, I thought it quite an anomaly, as there were almost painfully few Asian and Asian-American directors in DC, or so it felt. This was a time before Desdemona Chang came over for White Pearl, and before Chil Kong arrived to helm Adventure Theatre MTC. It is often expected that Asian directors are typically only called in to direct Asian shows, or shows with Asian interest of some sort (a stereotype that first felt broken when Jennifer Knight directed Power! Stokely Carmichael).
And when I heard he was adapting Irish Folklore but focusing on the diversity of the Irish diaspora, how could I be anything but intrigued?
What led you here to DC?
Gregory Keng Strasser: I came here on a sort of fluke. It was always my intention to be an international theatre artist, and so I was hired at Shanghai Media Group’s DC office as an intern. I knew DC was a great theatre town and had suspicions about the city’s art scene being tied to the international community. Suddenly, I found myself working full-time at SMG. Even with the workload, however, I was taking meetings with theatremakers, directing workshops, and attending shows to help get myself established. Lucky for me, it worked. I quit my job after a half-year and started 410[GONE] with Rorschach Theatre and an internship in theater programming at the Kennedy Center.
Since then, I’ve become affiliated with the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics through Derek Goldman. I returned to the USA after living (primarily) in Bangkok, Thailand as Artistic Apprentice for the Lab. Currently, I serve as 4615 Theatre’s Producing Director and am the Allen Lee Hughes Directing Fellow at Arena Stage.
[Infinite Tales] is a story about humans and their resistance to change, despite centuries of imprisonment, wandering, and endurance. It’s about how, at the core, we have an essence that demands to be preserved.
How did you get involved with 4615?
Strasser: My friend from summer camp knew Jordan Friend, and I reached out to this friend and asked if he’d connect me. I primarily wanted to work with a young, up-and-coming theatre company, but was wary. Most companies of that vein are interested in doing classics or new work (basically anything that doesn’t cost money to produce) but 4615 was doing a sexy, vampiric play called Waxing West which traversed Romania all the way to the United States. It smashed history, mythology, and national-identity together and really excited me. We had a mutual aesthetic for impossible circumstances, epic and sprawling text, and a love for the theatrical. It was a match made in heaven, really. Jordan started me off as a line-producer, so I worked extremely hard in developing digital content and delivering rehearsal necessities (props, costume pieces, set dressing, etc.). I feel honored to be now directing for them.
What are some influences on your work?
Strasser: Things that always influence me are the sociopolitical events of the world, language, languages we don’t know we use, popular mythology, self-mythology, and transformations of our heart. In university, I was really influenced by the theatrical greats, namely Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, and especially Mary Zimmerman whose work made me realize that a play like The Infinite Tales was even possible.
Since university, I’ve been exposed to incredible theatre-practitioners all around the globe. I am especially fond of my friend, Hector Flores Komatsu – a Mexico-based director; I Wayan Bawa, a dancer from Bali, Indonesia; Carolina Pizarro and Eugenio Barba at Odin Teatret in Denmark; and Seema Sueko, the Deputy Artistic Director here at Arena Stage. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jesca Prudencio, who really opened many doors for me – particularly in Bangkok where I was fortunate to work for nine months.
That all being said, my time in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Denmark was a wonderful experience for theatrical maturation and experimentation. I’ve never seen more vivid, brutal, violent, stunning, poetic, and gorgeous work in my life! I treasure all the friends I made, the experiences I have witnessed, and, of course, the collaborations that were born from it.
Talk to me about your interest in the Irish Diaspora and what draws you to it?
Strasser: I wish I could say it was because I wanted to connect with my Irish identity, but it’s not. I was drawn to the stories first and foremost. To be frank, I don’t at all feel connected to my “Irish,” side, and that’s mostly due to my life in Shanghai and my conscious investment in my Chinese family.
What does drive me, however, is the evolution of identities within the Irish diaspora. It’s so incredibly diverse, yet in our popular conception of that diaspora, we see it only as white and cis. It’s vast and complicated. I was fortunate to interview many Irish diaspora-of-color for this project to gain more insight on a diverse (I’m using that word literally) perspective and that has opened many doors for me to witness and engage in this complex legacy that has shaped this tiny island nation for centuries. I love to rip our idealized mythologies apart and focus on what was lost or erased.
What has the rehearsal process been like? Any fun discoveries?
Strasser: This has been a great rehearsal process. I value the wonderful contributions of our ensemble, they really have done all this themselves. The nature of this play is challenging – it involves a considerable amount of world building which means creating space for investigating movement, text, and dramaturgy. Not many productions can afford to do this – ours included – and yet we had to! Creating something like this from the ground up necessitates a lot of time devoted to getting the foundation solid.
A fun discovery actually has to do with the animals – we discovered early on that trying to move like animals, or rely on animal puppets to do our storytelling was a disservice to the text. This is a story about humans and their resistance to change, despite centuries of imprisonment, wandering, and endurance. It’s about how, at the core, we have an essence that demands to be preserved. That’s not to say we threw out all of Matthew Pauli’s wonderful puppetry, rather we had to discover in what ways they were necessary in the first place. It’s a much better show for that anyway.
How has working with the cast been?
Strasser: This ensemble has a lot of agency and they work very well on bringing me compositions and material which may or may not find its way into the play. To be honest, I’ve cut a lot out; but these compositions they’ve made have been embodied in their characters in spiritual ways that really create such beautiful color and contour in their personal arcs. To that end, nothing has really disappeared.
I love my children cast – Jordanna Hernandez brings such warmth, compassion, and furiosity to Finnoughla. My Aed, played by Niusha Nawab is dashing, sharp, and heroic. Seth Rosenke makes Fiachra a geeky, but diplomatic genius; and Emily Sucher just breaks my heart every day as our youngest – Conn.
The rest of the ensemble is great too. DJ Horne energizes us with his excellent musical ability and his BEAUTIFUL baritone voice; Melissa Carter is a dreamy, fairy goddess that levitates among us mortals; Shaq Stewart steals the show in every scene he’s in; Amber Gibson has succeeded in making the most unlikable character in the show lovable; and Steve Lebens ties us all together with his grounded, and impassioned Lir. And then there’s the rest of the characters they play!
What about you all: who are you and who/what do you play?
Nawab: My name is Niusha Nawab and I’m playing the roles of Aed and Lugh.
Hernandez: My name is Jordanna and I play Finnoughla. I’m originally from Phoenix, AZ but have been living in DC for a little over 8 years. I went to Georgetown and stuck around after graduating, because DC theatre is worth it.
What’s been your favorite thing about the process so far?
Hernandez: All of the early process experimentation! It’s so fun to have time and space devoted to playing and exploring with your castmates. We don’t always know what we are capable of creating as an ensemble until given the opportunity. Throw a couple of talented artists, some music, and a prompt together and poof! Magic!
Nawab: Definitely the cast. Greg assembled a pretty strong group of performers and I’ve really enjoyed playing alongside them.
What drew you to the story of Infinite Tales?
Nawab: Mythology is often very disparate and messy so I was attracted to the way that Greg wove these distinct stories into one entity that seems both true to its source material and still points to ideas and issues that we think about in the 21st century
Hernandez: I was drawn to the feeling of home‘s presence with the lingering sensation of displacement. As first-generation, I was raised Mexican in an American environment, which leaves me feeling like I’m missing a part of my root system. When I visit Mexico, I’m more at ease with my culture and traditions, yet still left feeling incomplete. Over time, I’ve learned that I have to create my home within me, wherever I am. I’m Chicana. The Children of Lir have to learn that lesson themselves too, over centuries of time and exploration. We can mourn the loss of a past home, but we must make room for a new one.
How has the piece changed and evolved over the course of rehearsals?
Strasser: It hasn’t. Just kidding, my god the script isn’t even the same when I first wrote it.
When we had our initial workshops, this play ran three hours long. I had to cut out an entire Act of performance for the Page-to-Stage Festival because we simply didn’t have the time!
Fortunately, there has been much progress made and the show is healthy 2 hours and 10 minutes now.
In rehearsals, I wear two hats – adapter and director. However, since I’m adapting mostly from oral tradition and we’ve reshaped the major boundaries of the cycles of Irish mythology, I’m essentially a playwright and 90% of the text is original (that’s the reason why it’s The Infinite Tales, and not Names Upon the Harp, or Over Nine Waves). The cast has known from day one that new pages will come in every day and so they are mentally prepared for me to make cuts and additions at any moment.
On my team is Aria Velz, our production dramaturg and associate director. Aria is crucial in helping me switch between these hats. I’ll often turn to her and ask her: “Do we need more text here?” or “Should I cut this?” And she’ll say “Yes, the actors need some more words to reach this moment/make this track dramaturgically,” or “No, there’s enough text, I think they need direction here…” which has made breathing this play to life in a much more dynamic way. In fact, just the other day, I rewrote a scene because Aria realized that the lines contradicted a character-arc we had been trying to specify. The actors learned it that day in rehearsal, and the next day came memorized.
What is something you’re excited to share with audiences?
Nawab: I’m excited to show off the different storytelling styles that are used in this piece and the ways in which the mythology is handled.
Herandez: The design! Of course, all of my cast-mates are pristine actors but that design though! It makes the world come to life. The set, the sound, the lighting, the costumes, the puppets…all of it! Woweee! And our director, Greg, has carefully crafted images that I hope will stay with our audiences.
What are some design elements you’re excited about?
Strasser: I’m excited and terrified for all of it. As a director, I enjoy rehearsals because of the possibility – there’s so much possibility!! Then when we get to tech, there’s this sad act of violence where we sacrifice and kill all of it since we must choose what costume they need to wear; or that the floor isn’t precisely to scale in the way we hoped; or we can’t get lights on a certain place because of an unforeseen blablabla.
That all being said, I really adore this team. Willow Watson, our scenic designer, has conceived a dynamic and stunning world for us. Matthew Pauli is animating it all with some of the coolest puppetry I’ve ever seen. Jeannette Christensen has conceived a practical but poetic way to demonstrate all of the transformations everyone is going through. Dean Leong is our lighting designer, and he didn’t walk out of the room when he saw the ginormous list of ideas I provided him; but rather stated: “We’re gonna art the fuck out of this,” which is a good sign, I suppose! Lastly, Jordan Friend, our sound designer and composer, has already composed some gorgeous music for us! I love his music, so I’m looking forward to it.
I also want to shout-out our great stage management team: Paola Vanessa Losada is our stage manager (SM) and fight director and she is QUEEN; Grace Sperber-Whyte is our ASM, and is fantastic work with. Zayn Thiam, our rehearsal SM early on in the process set us up for success, so I want to give big love to them as well.
We’re in good company here at 4615!
Infinite Tales at 4615 Theatre opens This Saturday, December 7th at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda!. Tickets can be found here! www.4615theatre.com/tickets