Spotlight on: Samantha Van Der Merwe and ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Myth, story, and a striking visual sense have been the hallmarks of Shaking the Tree's creative force. Now she's taking on a Brecht classic.

Every year in the Rose City, a Shaking the Tree production is one of the most hotly anticipated events of the theatrical season. Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s founder, artistic director, and primary engine, has built a sterling reputation for work that is visually striking, thematically powerful and dramaturgically daring. She is perhaps our most adept magician, with an eclectic and facile command of the theatrical vocabulary. Her singular visual sense is part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. She has a knack for making simple choices that feel audacious. Van Der Merwe’s special gift is knowing the one specific detail that will alight the audience’s imagination, and make its members her intimates in the act of creation.

Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s driving creative force. Photo: Dmae Roberts

Now, Van Der Merwe has turned her attention to one of her most ambitious projects yet: Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which opened in her company’s Southeast Portland warehouse space October 6 and continues through November 4. At first glance Brecht, the famed modernist and “epic theater” proponent, would seem an uneasy fit for Van Der Merwe’s particular brand of spell-casting. But if you look a little deeper, the pairing of the two disparate sensibilities seems almost inevitable.

The first thing anyone notices about any piece directed by Van Der Merwe is how it looks. You won’t mistake a Shaking the Tree play for a play put on anywhere else. Her aesthetic is deeply feminine, infused with magic and ritual and, as often as not, whimsy. As with any good director, story is paramount with Van Der Merwe. What makes her work highly unusual is that story is first encountered through the visual. The reason for this is simple: Van Der Merwe was a visual artist first. For a while, in fact, it was doubtful that she might ever be a theater artist at all.

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“FOR ME IT’S ALWAYS BEEN A BATTLE,” she says. “When I was younger it was a battle between what art — what field I wanted to choose. For some reason I thought I had to choose to be a visual artist or to be a theater artist. I kept writing in my journal about this big decision I had to make. And I auditioned for drama school (in her native South Africa) and I didn’t get in. I was told to go and take a year of math, to bring my math mark up so I could get accepted into college. And I thought, ‘Fuck that. I’m not taking math so I that I can do theater.’ And then I rejected all theater. ‘I am going to be a visual artist.’ I traveled. I went to India. I went to Egypt. I started my own flea market stall. I was painting light bulbs and blank CDs. I was, in all essence, a hippie, traveling and selling my wares.”

Somewhere along the way, Van Der Merwe did make it around to college (she “is a licentiate of Trinity College, London, and holds an LCTL Teaching Diploma in Speech and Drama”) … and to marriage and to children and even to America. First the family lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where her husband, Dave, has family connections. In Louisville, Van Der Merwe experienced her first Anne Bogart production: “She blew my mind. There were moments in her play that put me on edge. She gave me goosebumps. I wanted more of it and I didn’t know how she did it. There was such a dynamic strength to her work.”

Eventually Van Der Merwe and her family made it to Portland, where she opened a successful studio teaching children. She continued to cultivate her visual art, even having a few shows and selling some pieces. “For a few years after my kids were born I decided I was just going to paint. My painting was always very abstract.”

But the theater impulse never went away. “I wanted to make some people and tell some stories on the canvas. But I hate drawing. I don’t want to draw realistically. So I was faced with this problem of, ‘Well, if I want to tell these stories, how do I do that if I don’t want to draw?’ Then I started imagining, ‘Well, if I had these shapes and I could move them around in space, that would be pretty cool.’ I had this epiphany one day, ‘What I’m imagining is theatrical.’” She laughs at herself now. “You can denounce something or reject it, but if you’re meant to do something, it’s gonna catch up with you eventually.”

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THEATER MAY HAVE CAUGHT UP with Van Der Merwe, but she didn’t leave visual art behind. It’s part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. A moment early in the first part of 2015’s Passion Play (co-produced with Profile Theatre) perfectly encapsulated the magic of Van Der Merwe’s art. In it, Pontius, the fish cutter (Garland Lyons), dreams of a school of fish. As they are swimming around him, he reaches out to touch them, as if to see if they are real. As soon as he makes contact, the fish instantly dart the other way, just as a real school of fish would do. It was a tiny moment, and yet, when it happened, the audience gasped, fully captured in the spell.

From left: Colin Kane, Michael C. Jordan, Foss Curtis, Alex Ramirez, Matthew Kerrigan and Garland Lyons in “Passion Play,” Shaking the Tree’s 2015 coproduction with Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder

The “fish” were cutouts on sticks. They were carried by totally visible actors. “I discovered Tyvek, which is the stuff they side houses with. It’s like paper but it doesn’t tear. I ordered some samples of it and cut out a fish and put it together and saw that it could move. Not only could it move but that its tail was actually really fluid and that’s when I started getting excited. I thought all the fish would be like lanterns almost.”

That’s all well and good, but how could she possibly know that an audience would be so completely dazzled by so simple an effect? “I don’t. I have an impulse. And then I have a couple of ideas. And then I have to test it out. You have the feeling of what you want to invoke and you’re not quite sure how to invoke that feeling until you start experimenting with the materials.” It was, of course, a moment that could only happen in the theater, where the audience has to do at least fifty percent of the work. The spell just has to give them the space and the moment to do that. This is Van Der Merwe’s particular gift.

(The end of that segment was one of the most powerful moments of theater I have experienced in recent memory. When the play ended, darkness fell on the stage and the actors stood still in silhouette. Neither they nor the audience moved a muscle. No one made a sound. It’s hard to say how long we all sat there. It felt like ten minutes but was probably only one. No one wanted to break the spell.)

Materials come up a lot. Paper, Tyvek, gravel, linen, string, gauze — what are the materials that will help Van Der Merwe tell the story of a play? What are the necessary materials she needs to cast a spell. “It’s about a feeling, right? I go through cycles where I’m like, ‘Oh, I really want to work with…paper! Or…’ (laughs).”

Steve Vanderzee and Luisa Sermol in the hot house of “Suddenly Last Summer.” Photo: Gary Norman

In Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer in 2015, the space was dominated by a looming garden of massive, overbearing flowers. “To me, the garden was very sexual. And it was very predatory. I wanted it to not only be the garden, I wanted it to be the children that devoured him (Sebastian, Williams’ doomed, off-stage protagonist).” The flowers in Van Der Merwe’s Suddenly Last Summer were an artistic achievement unto themselves, sculptures rendered with remarkable detail and clarity. It took an impressive amount of manual dexterity just to make them. Van Der Merwe, who made them herself, shrugs it off. “That was butcher paper and Elmer’s glue. You put the glue between two sheets and then you can literally mold it any you want it to be molded.” When asked how she even knew such a thing was possible, she responds brightly, “From teaching pre-school!”

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THIS IS ANOTHER DEFINING FACET of Van Der Merwe’s art: the willingness — and ability — to draw inspiration from anywhere, even other artists, other disciplines. Then to let that inspiration fuel her visual storytelling. The most striking element of the set for 2014’s production of Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare was the walls of webbing: “To me that was the plague. The more wool you wrapped the more plague like it felt. I looked at this artist (Chiraru Shiota) who does a lot of these installations with — I think she uses strings — and it looks like these webs on — she uses chairs — and then she attaches them. When I found that image of her work I thought, ‘Oh, this is something similar to what I want to do.’ Because it felt plague-like to me and also what the plague would look like in your body. All these webs. And I wanted them to be trapped by the plague and I wanted us to look in and them to not be able to get out.”

Jacob Coleman in the toylike spaces of “A Doll’s House.” Photo: Gary Norman

For 2016’s A Doll’s House her initial inspiration also came from a different artist: “I always knew that I wanted the audience to see the rooms. I found this picture of this artist (Heather Benning) who had painted this old barn out in the middle of nowhere and she had painted each room in a very bright, very child-like color and then she set fire to the barn. Just beautiful.”

Inspiration grew and evolved with the help of a new collaborator. “That’s the first time I’ve used a set designer, Jenny Ampersand, who’s got a great sensibility. I love her aesthetic. We muddled around that idea. And you can see, that initial impulse of the giant doll’s house was still there — we just ended up putting the audience in it. Because if the audience felt like they were in this very perfect, child-like doll’s house dealing with this very heavy subject matter and it’s really a cage that she’s in, then maybe they get even more involved with the story.”

That might have been the first time but it wasn’t the last that Van Der Merwe had someone work with her on the set. Inspiration for the look of Head. Hands. Feet. came from yet another discipline: architecture.

“I was speaking to Reid Leslie (the husband of actor Foss Curtis), probably when we did Passion Play, and said, ‘I’m thinking of doing this Greek piece and I want to create like a Greek amphitheater. When I was first thinking of Head. Hands. Feet. — and this is the thing, you get these initial ideas and sometimes they never pan out the way you think. I was like, ‘How tall I could make something where the audience could keep moving up on it and the actors could descend'” — she finishes her sentence with gestures with her hand –” it was an insane idea. I don’t even know how I thought that was going to happen. But Reid said, ‘Well, let’s put it up on my board’ (of his architecture firm, at the time Rhiza A+D) and I was like, ‘Great.’ So I went in there and we talked about so many ideas. It was the best time I’ve ever had, to have these five brains around the table who think about space. And just pick their brains and tell them what feelings I want to invoke and then have them do this mockup and we talked about gravel and we talked about blue skies and the sails of ships. So that’s what they came up with. They designed that set. It was such a beautiful experience. I wish I could have a team of architects (laugh) — don’t we all?”

From left: Kathleen Worley, Isabella Villagomez, Nikki Weaver, Claire Aldridge, Nicole Accuardi, Rebecca Ridenour, Katie Watkins in “Head. Hands. Feet.” Photo: Gary Norman

The truth is, however, that Van Der Merwe will never leave the design of her shows altogether to someone else. “I need to do that. I need to have my hands on the set. Because it’s a very important part of the storytelling. In fact, it’s a character to me. It’s the way I get to paint. It’s the way I get to visually express myself in the storytelling.”

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VAN DER MERWE HAS A KNACK FOR FINDING strong collaborators. For someone who’s so independent, she’s keenly aware of how important it is to find artists who bring a certain skill level to the table. A list of actors who have appeared in Shaking the Tree plays reads like a who’s who of Portland theater. There is what almost amounts to a company, but what she really has is artists who understand her; familiar faces for whom the quirks of their creativity fit in with Van Der Merwe’s own. Nicole Accuardi, Jacklyn Maddux, Rebecca Ridenour, Luisa Sermol, Katie Watkins and Nikki Weaver come to mind. All of these performers have pretty strong resumes outside of the work they do with Shaking the Tree. A recurring theme from actors working with Van Der Merwe for the first time is how little, actually, she has already made a decision on and how much autonomy they have. “There are reasons why you pick people,” Van Der Merwe explains. “They’re bringing a certain essence. They’re bringing their flair to the piece. I want to build on that. I don’t want to knock that down and tell them how they have to do it.”

Van Der Merwe has had little formal training in the art of directing but she has been influenced by Tadashi Suzuki’s book, Culture Is the Body, in which Suzuki asserts that “the director’s primary objective must be to establish a place where he can quickly make this kind of strong connection between written text, actor and audience. … The fundamental challenge confronting the director… involves the detailed organization of a playing space … that must facilitate the construction of exceptional alternative realities.” Van Der Merwe herself says, “You have to set up the perfect environment for actors to play in. If you create the right circumstances, you can let them fly.” Or, as Jamie M. Rea, who won a Drammy Award for supporting actor for her work in Shaking the Tree’s A Doll’s House, puts it, “Sam doesn’t really give you notes. When she wants something different, she moves a chair.”

Beth Thompson in 2016’s “Head. Hands. Feet.” Photo: Gary Norman

There are the familiar faces — and then there are Beth Thompson and Matthew Kerrigan.

Thompson’s partnership with Van Der Merwe has proven itself exceptionally fertile. She’s appeared in six Shaking the Tree productions. Emotionally available and physically adventurous, Thompson is an exceedingly versatile performer who’s very open and receptive to Van Der Merwe’s particularly organic process. “I absolutely love Beth,” Van Der Merwe says. “She is just an incredibly talented, extremely giving, generous performer. Not only generous with her scene partners but just generous in spirit. And fearless. She’s fearless.” Their collaboration has blossomed into friendship, even extending to working with children.

With Matthew Kerrigan, it’s something else again. Their partnership has been one of the most dynamic forces in Portland theatre of the last several years. Kerrigan, a Dell’ Arte alumnus, is a magician in his own right, a prodigiously gifted performer with as expansive a skill set as any actor in Portland. For Van Der Merwe, he hasn’t been just a collaborator. He’s been a muse, a champion, the instrument that is the extension of the musician’s body.

“He can go to that imaginary place. I live most of my life in this imaginary place because I teach and spend the day by myself, dreaming about what I’m going to do next. Actors are pretty good at it but there’s always a ‘Are we really going to play in this child-like way?’ Matthew is one of the few actors who will totally play in a child-like way and also take it really seriously. Because in order to get to some of those places, play is the way in. And if you can’t let down your guard and go to those places you’ll never discover what’s there.

“I think he exists in that fairy tale place. There’s this fairy tale place of storytelling. It’s probably through really understanding the art of clowning that you’re able to tell more of the story through movement than words or combine both of them very elegantly. To have this vessel where you can say, ‘Can you make this magic thing happen that I’m not quite sure what I’m asking but I know where I want to go with this?’ I always considered him an ally in the room. I never felt silly asking for stuff when Matthew would just jump right in and do it. For Suddenly Last Summer I didn’t quite know how to articulate to the actors that I wanted these melting moments. And to have him there and he’d — melt. It helped the other actors. When I found that way of communicating and that language that we learned to speak together, obviously I wanted to have as much of that on my stage as possible. It’s a very pleasurable way of creating work.”

Matthew Kerrigan in 2013’s “Wilde Tales.” Photo: David Van Der Merwe

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“THAT FAIRY TALE PLACE.” Fairy tales. Passion plays. Myths. These are recurring and profound themes in Shaking the Tree’s work. The Tripping Point, Wilde Tales, Head. Hands. Feet., Passion Play, Orpheus and Eurydice, Venus and Adonis, all have to deal with stories that delineate the parameters of our collective consciousness. Even pieces like Masque of the Red Death or We Are All Mad Here, if not exactly fairy tales or myths, are stories that have achieved the status of cultural touchstones. This concern with myth, with the stories that make us, is one of the driving engines behind the work of Shaking the Tree. The primacy of story as the defining characteristic that makes us human is the essential theme of theater in general and Shaking the Tree in particular. Story is paramount:

“At heart, I’m a storyteller. I want to have the story live through whatever I’m creating. No matter what I choose, no matter what material I choose, at the heart of it is story. You can go back to any ancient myth and that’s the cool thing about story. We just keep recycling, right? We can keep boiling it back down to the very first stories. Something like Gilgamesh. You’re like, ‘Oh, you can see this in a modern day soap opera.’ We have been doing this since the very beginning.”

In that sense, then, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a natural step in Shaking the Tree’s progression, a type of meeting place between the ancient history and the 20th century. Brecht’s play is based on a Chinese masterpiece from the 14th century which in turn has distinct echoes of the Judgment of Solomon story in the Bible.

“It’s a fairy tale, isn’t it? It’s a simple fable meshed with a very political tale.” And there is music and movement and ritual. Like fairy tales, ritual is a profound facet of Shaking the Tree’s work. Brecht’s art was predicated on making the audience think by exposing the bones of how theater works, to pull back the curtain and let you see how the trick was done so you didn’t waste valuable brain space trying to figure it out, while he was talking about much more important things. But what attracted Van Der Merwe to the piece initially wasn’t the intellectual but the visceral. “The thing that hooked me was the physicality of the bridge. It’s about people moving in space, for me, this play. The minute I realized it should be in a circle I was like, ‘Oh, that’s already challenging in and of itself; making all these shapes within a circle. For me it was that segment of (the heroine) Grusha’s journey through the northern mountains that was the hook that I couldn’t let go of. It was more about movement first.”

Samie Pfiefer (foreground), Will Sieversten (center) and Clifton Holznagel in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Photo: Gary Norman

For The Caucasian Chalk Circle Van Der Merwe felt the need to alter her already fluid process to suit the needs of this particular show. The first step was to learn the songs.

“Because there are so many of them. I know that he used them to bring the audience out of the illusion, to narrate what is happening now or next and to keep the audience thinking. He didn’t want the audience to be sucked into the illusion. It’s a beautiful journey the songs take you on. Each act feels like it has a different tone. So that needed to be in place before we headed into piecing the show together. I think it paid off. Because we were always very certain of what we were singing once we got up on our feet.

“The next step was to map it out in terms of movement. In Act II more than any other act we’re building this world. We use cloth to make a bridge. We’re using sticks. We’re using bamboo. They’re really beautiful. They can create so many different things. It’s a wonderful material and I think I’ve used them in a really different way. People are always moving around in the circle so I needed them to know where they were in time and space. Once they did that, we started deepening into character and what each scene meant and what everyone’s intention was.

“Each play reveals itself to you and what it needs and our job as directors is to be intuitive to that unique need. This is what this one seemed to need.”

Emphasizing the circle during “Caucasian Chalk Circle” rehearsal. Photo: Salim Sanchez

The process has been one of the most exhausting Van Der Merwe’s ever worked on — the toughest, she says, since Passion Play. “It’s these two (Passion Play and The Caucasian Chalk Circle) where I felt this bone-weariness. Yes. It’s a hard thing to keep the audience in this world of magical realism and trust that you’re being an authentic storyteller.” But taking the easy way out has never been Van Der Merwe’s way. “Brecht was an amazing storyteller. He’s very wordy and he’s very political and he’s making us think a lot. I’d much rather seduce the audience with my magic. He doesn’t allow you to do that very often. It’s always good for me to choose someone that I can’t use my tricks with. Because then I’m forced to really step out of my comfort zone a little bit and try something new. I always pick playwrights that are going to teach me what I need to know for my next leap into the chasm.”

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AND IT’S QUITE A CHASM that Van Der Merwe has provided for herself. Next up, early next year, is a play that once again seems perfect for her particular passions and skill set: William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “For the Scottish play I know exactly how that stage is going to look. I just don’t quite a hundred percent know how it’s going to operate. But I know what I want to invoke and I know the mechanics of how it will be built. There are a few unknowns. For me, it’s all about shadow. So, I’m going to sit in a room with the lighting designer and the (technical director) and be like “How can we make shadows? What materials do we need to make silhouette, to make shadows?” (Those materials again.)

After that in the spring will come Salt, a political piece made in direct response to the current administration. “Salt came out of my horror and outrage after the election. I am committed to doing four years of theater in direct response to getting Trump as our president, and everything he stands for. The inspiration comes from Mahatma Gandhi’s famed salt revolt in India. I was so amazed that — looking back at Gandhi’s speech, how he mobilized thousands upon thousands of people with just a single idea and they realized their power. Every day we get distracted and we become complacent. Even now, there’s all this craziness going on. But it doesn’t mean we just give up and say, ‘Oh well.’ How do we respond as artists?”

It all sounds like a lot. And it is. Especially when she’s running the whole show herself. “It’s a love/hate relationship because it’s really hard work and it’s lonely. I get to make all my own decisions. I get to do the work that I want to if I can fund it. And I wouldn’t trade in that freedom for pretty much anything. But man, it’s hard. It’s hard paying the rent on that space every month. It’s hard sustaining that space. In order to sustain that space I have to rent it out. In an ideal world I wouldn’t be renting it out. The business of keeping my vehicle for expression alive is my day job. I do enough of my day job to ensure that I can have these eleven weeks right now of full creative freedom. Every now and again I think, ‘Should I just pack it in? Should I just not sign the lease and then become a freelance director? That’s when I think, “Oh. Who am I gonna have to go to for a job?’”

At any rate, she’s not there yet. The trick, it seems, is to keep moving, keep searching, keep challenging herself. “It’s about not being stagnant. When we find things that work, we like to do those things again. I think that that’s the danger. We always have to reinvent. Otherwise we are going to keep picking up those same tricks. That’s my biggest fear, is that the older I get the more crotchety I’ll get and the more boring I’ll get. And then I should stop.”

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues through November 4 at Shaking the Tree Warehouse, 823 S.E. Grant Street. Ticket and schedule information here.

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