#ThrowbackThursday: May Liang on Place and Displacement in As You Like It

Left: Assistant Dramaturg and Social Impact Consultant May Liang answering questions about As You Like It at the show’s Community Night. Right photo credit: Jay Yamada.

Contemporary approaches to a 400 year-old text can reveal new resonances — and deep tensions. May Liang, assistant dramaturg and social impact consultant for last season’s As You Like It, reflects on the questions that surfaced in the rehearsal room as actors explored relationships to place and character within the design of the play.

Interested in learning more about gentrification and displacement in the Bay Area? Check out Causa Justa::Just Cause, Cal Shakes’ community partner from our 2015 Artist-Investigator round.

“Are we gentrifiers?”

A question that one may hear being asked at a new SF Mission coffee shop or on the sidewalks around Lake Merritt. It can be spoken in a self-conscious way – an uncomfortable thought in question of where one should belong. Or, for those who question the concept, it can be heard as an incredulous exasperation.

This question also came up in the rehearsal room for Cal Shake’s 2017 As You Like It, directed by Desdemona Chiang. As the lushness of the Court transforms into the skeletal warehouse-like space of the play’s Arden, we see the exiled Duke Senior and his followers huddled in the cold and barren landscape.

But what comes out of Duke Senior is not how forlorn he is for having lost his place. He extols the virtues of their newfound space:

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Sweet are the uses of adversity…
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in everything.

A translation of this into our modern context can be problematic: it reflects a way of thinking that can be equated to what newcomers may have said about the Mission District in San Francisco just a few years ago, when it was “discovered.” And many of us have heard and seen the results of the changes that followed.

But Duke Senior goes on:

Come, shall we go and kill us venison?
And yet it irks me the poor dappled fools,
Being native burghers of this desert city,
Should in their own confines with arrowheads
Have their round haunches gored.

Let’s first acknowledge the historical problem of comparing communities of people (of color) to animals – Shakespeare’s language can be tricky when making leaps in comparing our modern society using his words. But Duke Senior seems to have an inkling that something is not right in their position within their “newly discovered” space. And he’s not the only one – as reported by one of Duke Senior’s followers:

The melancholy Jaques grieves at that,
And, in that kind, swears you do more usurp
Than doth your brother that hath banish’d you….
Swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place.

And so the question came up – “are we gentrifiers?”

Shakespeare could not have predicted that his words could so pointedly describe a notion that is very present in the forefront of our community consciousness with our current housing crisis and widening wealth gap. But it’s impossible to miss it in Jaques’ lament.

As the play’s Arden continues to transform throughout the play, that question begins to unravel – it becomes complicated with other questions that arise:

Where can exiles belong? How does class influence exile? How does a space create confinement vs. freedom of expression and exploration? Who can own a space? Who can welcome others into it? Is this even possible?

In our Arden, the exiles discover their hidden selves, explore other options that were not permitted breath by the confined codes of the Court. They could proudly present themselves as however they like, from a joker turned lover to a lead character exploring and claiming their true gender identity.

The natives of Arden are also not victims – they are more than capable in their way of life and only through their welcoming spirit can the new exiles start to understand themselves and thrive together.

So, are they gentrifiers? I can’t say that this question was answered within the rehearsal process or even within our version of the play. But the context in which we put the exiles and natives of Arden shed some light on how we can critically think about our modern understanding in regards to place and space.

May Liang is an emerging director/theater artist establishing a career in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a Directing Mentee/Resident Artist at Crowded Fire Theater and has worked with TheatreFIRST, PlayGround Center for New Plays (Directing Fellow 2017), Bay Area Playwrights Foundation, Ferocious Lotus Theater Company (Literary Manager), Bindlestiff Studios, Ubuntu Theater Project, Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Ground Floor Lab, and Impact Theater. She was a participant in the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab 2017 and you can see her work next at the Bay Area Children’s Theater.


Interview with Artist-Investigator Desdemona Chiang

The Triangle Lab recently sat down with Artist-Investigator Desdemona Chiang to discuss her QR code project. Read below for her discussion of technology, new play development, and participatory theatre. 

Triangle Lab: Could you start with briefly describing your project?

Desdemona Chiang: ‪Sure. The project is essentially a site-specific installation of QR codes in the SOMA neighborhood of SF. Each code uncovers a piece of a story that will take audiences on a journey through the area. It’s part theatre, part tour, part game.‬

TL: ‪So did you initially envision this as an exploration of where or how?‬

DC: ‪I initially thought of this as a how project, because I was really interested in the utilization of mobile technology and cell phones as a way of engaging audiences in storytelling. But the more I get into the project, the more I’m finding that it’s taking on a very strong “where” personality as well.‬

TL: ‪How so?‬

DC: ‪I’m realizing that while the piece is using QR codes as the form, the content is so specific to the locations–I’m working with two playwrights to create the story, and we’re connecting the locations of the QR codes to the plot, so it’s taking on a very San Francisco quality, almost like an introduction to the community via a play.‬

TL: ‪What originally drew you to using QR codes for your project? Has your relationship with this new technology changed while working on this?‬

DC: ‪I’m fascinated by how cell phones (smartphones in particular) have completely revolutionized social interactions. And it’s completely changed how we function as humans, and our sense of identity. My phone knows more about me than I do. It has all the contact info for my friends, it knows what my agenda is for the day, it has pictures of my family and loved ones–it remembers stuff about me so that I don’t have to. And I use my smartphone to text/talk to other people’s smartphones rather than actually calling and talking myself. It’s really interesting, this idea of the “virtual” me. So I wanted to see how this behavior could translate into storytelling. And QR codes were the most efficient and accessible method I could think of.‬

TL: ‪Your project has a very strong participatory component—something that the Triangle Lab is very interested in exploring—how has this changed the way you approached this play in contrast with more traditional pieces (with little or no participatory elements)?‬

DC: ‪This is the first time I’ve ever tried creating a theatre piece that is interactive, but strangely enough, I’m still developing it using the same tools I have for directing a straight theatre play. I’m still thinking about things like plot, action, how one event leads to the next event in the story. I guess the only difference is that the audience has the option of disengaging if they don’t like it instead of being stuck in the theatre for two hours.‬

TL: ‪Do you foresee this experiment becoming a model for new play development (or a tool)?‬

DC: ‪I hope so. I’m not sure what that future model is, though. What this project has the potential to do is take the burden of creation off of a single playwright, and make it more about crowd sourcing. One of the things I’m thinking about in the next incarnation of this project is how audience participation can change the story itself. I think I’ll know more about that once I see how people respond to this version. Trying to take things one step at a time.‬

TL: ‪Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, best of luck on the rest of your project!‬

DC: ‪Of course–thanks for chatting with me!‬