In Conversation with Desdemona Chiang

Desdemona Chiang is a stage director and University of Washington MFA graduate based in Seattle and San Francisco who puts the spotlight on the marginalized and forgotten. In her work with Azeotrope she’s directed edge-seeking plays like Adam Rapp’s bleak, graphic Red Light Winter. At the more traditional end of her oeuvre, this month she directs Measure for Measure at Seattle Shakespeare, their first restaging of the play in twelve years. It’s been acclaimed as “perhaps the best show Seattle Shakespeare has ever produced.” 

I talked to Chiang about the show, finding contemporary relevance in Shakespeare and the challenges of bi-urban living.

Measure for Measure is a play that many people aren’t very familiar with. Can you tell me about the choice and what it’s like as a direct a play that isn’t in the “canon?”

Measure for Measure has always stood out to me as one of the plays that aren’t about the kings and queens and royalty and nobility. It doesn’t take place in a lady’s boudoir; there are no ladies-in-waiting or garden shenanigans.  

It’s his most populist play. It’s about social justice in a way that I don’t see very often done in Shakespeare. It’s not about love or monarchy or parentage. It’s about the difficulty in balancing morality and economy. It’s about a city that’s destitute and morally corrupt. Sex work is rampant as the way of the town and Angelo, the new deputy, wants to clean it up, so he makes fornication punishable by death.  It’s an Old Testament biblical rule that hasn’t been enforced, just like we don’t really enforce sodomy laws in this country but they exist, technically.

So it’s the question: What right is it of governments to legislate people’s personal lives? And what do you do when a city is so poor and in so need of that economy to survive? How do you balance that?

Is that what you look for, some sort of current relevance?

I think we keep doing Shakespeare because it is constantly relevant, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. It sounds nice and the poetry is lovely, but certain plays continue to persist—why do we do Shakespeare and not Marlowe? Why aren’t we doing more Thomas Middleton? Something about Shakespeare still rings true.

How does a director “bake that into” a script?

I always have my own personal in. I think it varies from director to director, but for me it comes down to being able to answer: why do we do this play today and why do we do it here?

Lately all the conversations about who’s in power and the legislation on sex and women’s bodies—these aren’t all things Shakespeare wrote about, but they’re in the zeitgeist. I’m a woman who is very pro-feminist; it’s a streak in me that is conveniently amplified by the script.

This play presents a very patriarchal world. Women are either prostitutes or nuns. Women have very limited options, and when you live in a world that gives you limited options, what do you have to do to make ends meet?

Is there a thru-line between your Shakespearean choices and some of the more boundary-pushing work you’ve done with Azeotrope? How do you square those sides of your directorial career?

With Azeotrope, our mission has always been to tell stories that people don’t want to talk about—sides of humanity and community that typically go unrecognized and unacknowledged. We think that Shakespeare writes about fancy people and the wealthy and the middle class—and he does—but I’m always interested in the part that no one sees.

In this case it was the difficulties of sex workers. I totally understand the play is not about sex work—it’s actually more about the eternal struggle between the moral right and the human right—but my way in is always to look for: Who’s the person that’s not being talked about? What is the side of society we’re not getting to see?

You’re still toggling between here and the Bay Area. Does that give you any insight into each city’s theatre scene? Does it inform how you operate within those different scenes?

Going from city to city, you find that most theatre communities are constructed very similarly. If you were to take a cross section of Seattle and the Bay Area you’d find the same layers. You’d find your top layers of equity houses, your middle-sized houses, your fringe houses, your kooky avant garde house, your Shakespeare house. I think there’s just  indifferent proportions—we’re all looking at the same slice of pizza but it’s just different toppings, I guess. That’s a really bad analogy! [Laughs]

It’s cool to be able to work in both cities. They’re both progressive, more or less liberal communities that have very pro-art cultural omnivores who are interested in arts education and a future for our children. Those are values I see across the board in both communities.

We’re having discussions in Seattle about displacement and gentrification and artists being able to live in the cities where they work. Do you see that as part of the theatre dialogue, the role of the artist in the life of the city?

It’s a tricky conversation. I work in both cities because I can’t afford to not do that without compromising what I do for a living. There’s just not enough plays being produced in Seattle and too many directors who are directing, so I have to go where the water is. It’s challenging because the Bay Area has greater demand financially as a resident, so I can afford to live in Seattle more than San Francisco, but I’m loyal to both cities and I love them both. They’re both artistic homes for me. But I’d love to be able to stay in one city and work if I could without having to be a barista or wait tables on the side.