The tale of how a premed student came to direct ‘The Winter’s Tale’

Desdemona Chiang

Desdemona Chiang is directing “The Winter’s Tale” opening June 19 on the Elizabethan Stage at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Born in Taiwan and raised in Southern California, Chiang “fell into” the Dramatic Arts Department at UC Berkeley as stress relief from her pre-medical studies. Then she decided medicine wasn’t her path. We met at Mix.

DC: It was spiritually hard to pursue the sciences in a way that a good doctor has to: to be able to look at someone and treat them as a patient, not as a person. I had a hard time looking at suffering, and having to turn myself off to it, in order to do my job well. Lack of compassion made me feel bad as a person. I’m too sentimental. I know that great doctors are able to be compassionate, have great bedside manner, and at the same time tell you, “I’m sorry, you have stage-four cancer.” I didn’t know how to do that.

I mucked around in Silicon Valley, for a while designing websites and programming. It was cool, innovative, creative and cutting edge. But it didn’t make me happy. We weren’t asking the humanistic questions, the big life questions that we ask in theater around: “Why?” and “What does this all mean?”

And then I decided I wanted to do theater professionally. I was looking at Berkeley Rep, ACT, at The Magic Theatre, and I thought, “There is a world in which people can do this as a job, and not the fringe thing.” I decided grad school was the way to go. I went to The University of Washington at Seattle. Jon Jory (the acclaimed director) was there at the time. He was my mentor for three years. A lot of my approach to rehearsal and to actors has a lot to do with his influence.

EH: Tell me about the world of the play.

DC: We’re taking a note from the original Shakespeare impulse. We’re making our own fairy tale based on certain cultural inspirations from Dynastic China and the Old West, set historically. It’s timeless in the way that, “Once upon a time there was a jealous king.” We place fairy tales in a time. We know they exist out of our time, but we don’t know in what time they do exist.

EH: There is an Oracle in the play?

DC: The Oracle is present in the play, but is not tangible material. You have to believe what you can’t see. There is so much in the play about seeing and not seeing. Once you see something, you have certainty. Once you’re certain of something, what’s the need for faith? That’s what’s so dangerous in religion now. Some say, “We’re certain of this.” Faith is in the space of certainty. That’s where that bridge is to get across. That’s where faith is necessary, “I don’t know but I believe, I hope and I believe.” For me, faith and certainty are opposites.

EH: Is this play tragicomedy?

DC: It’s one of Shakespeare’s Romances. “Cymbeline,” “Pericles,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” are the big four Romances where you start seeing magic. You see magic in “Macbeth,” but that is more of the occult. Here you have resurrection happening: People die and come back. You have the intervention of the Divine. You have playing with time. Nowhere else, in his other plays, does he jump time and generations.

There’s a lot of study around what it means for Shakespeare to be writing these Romances in the later years: That’s to be more spiritual, more existential.

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