Making art is often a difficult and thankless proposition. Producing theater, in particular, can be even more of both. It follows that for most fringe theater companies, producing either Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra OR his Troilus and Cressida would be an arduous enough undertaking. Tackling both at the same time, as Salt and Sage Productions is doing with a repertory that opens on Friday, would be an epic task of Herculean proportions – maybe even a little crazy.
Salt and Sage artistic director Asae Dean probably wouldn’t even deny the charge. “Theatre is hard work,” she says on her website, “it’s supposed to hurt a bit – you should break a sweat, you should shed a tear – you are doing work that stretches the soul.”
IN THE DIGITAL AGE, THEATER IS THE LOWEST RUNG on the pop culture ladder, and Dean is the outsider’s outsider. She’s been knocking on the door for the past seven years and just can’t get in. “I’d be totally lying to you if I didn’t say that it disappoints me that it seems so hard to gain traction in this city,” she admits. Many who have tried to break into the Portland theater scene have found it a tough shell to crack. If you’re trying to break in solely as a director, it can be even more difficult. When you’re on the fringe level, producers either hire themselves or artists whose work they’re familiar with for the spots that do come open.
For someone else, this set of circumstances might be deflating. But for Dean, whose particular brand of insanity is fueled by equal parts hunger, ambition, passion, and obstinacy, such obstacles are fuel for her fire.
Every show that Salt and Sage has produced, Dean has paid for the majority and sometimes all of it out of her own pocket. For this T&C/A&C rep, some money has come from “family, friends and former colleagues” and one unnamed “angel donor.” But a massive chunk of the money comes from Dean herself. “Sometimes I think to myself, ‘am I just some eccentric mad lady who’s funding this work, who should listen to the universe and go do something different?’” she says. The answer always comes back the same: “No. I’m making an investment in the thing I was put here to do.’”
Such statements illuminate some of the perplexing puzzle that is Asae Dean. She can be straight-up cocky or disarmingly humble, fierce or gentle, incisively intelligent and bewilderingly naïve, sometimes all within moments of each other. Many actors who work with her adore her, yet for much of the theater community she remains an unknown commodity. She believes in herself but has a heck of a time asking for money. Shmoozing is not her game, and neither is marketing. She knows who some of the big donors are, but doesn’t have relationships with them. She has an adult job that pays for her passion, but she’d leave it behind in a heartbeat if making her living as a director was an avenue that was laid open to her. As it is, she can’t keep paying for theater forever. She knows this. So what keeps Asae Dean going?
“Nothing on earth makes me happier than working with actors and telling stories,” she says. “I think it’s that simple.” The feeling is mutual. Dean’s actors appreciate her talent and intelligence, but also her respect for theirs. “Asae really takes care of her actors,” says Salt and Sage vet Samson Syharath. “She never says no until we need to start shaping. It’s a really free and open experience.”
Heath Hyun Houghton, who has previously acted on the Salt and Sage stage but this time is assistant director, concurs. “I appreciate her ‘actors playground’ approach to the work,” he says. “Her work tends to be built around the choices actors are making and the kind of relationships they’re building. As an actor it’s really exciting because there’s a lot of freedom. It’s a very organic, dynamic process. “
THIS IS THE METHOD TO DEAN’S MADNESS. “I’m really, really collaborative,” she says. “I have a vision and a voice but when casting someone I choose them in part because I want them to help shape the show.”
A desire to tell stories and a joy for working with actors might explain some parts of Dean’s madness. Ambition might be the third pole in her tent of insanity. The fourth is deeper and more profound still: Asae Dean loves William Shakespeare.
Since 2013, six of Salt and Sage’s twelve productions have been Shakespeare. That’s a lot for a theater company that doesn’t have Shakespeare in its name. “I’ve had that since I was a kid,” Dean says of her deep connection to Shakespeare. “My dad read me Shakespeare.” The familial connection didn’t stop there. “My grandmother worked at James Madison University, which is where Ralph Alan Cohen, who founded the company that’s become American Shakespeare Center, worked. Whenever I would go visit Grandma for the summer, seeing free Shakespeare plays was part of the agenda. Those are some of my earliest memories of theater. I can’t remember not loving him. I can’t remember the pre-Shakespeare Asae.”
Her education reflects that. A New Mexico native, Dean got her undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico. From there, “I went to study at Mary Baldwin College in Stanton, Virginia which has a relationship to the American Shakespeare Center. That’s where I got a Masters of Letters and a Masters of Fine Arts in Shakespeare and Performance.” She interned at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its inaugural F.A.I.R. (Fellowship, Assistantship, Internship, and Residencies program.
Dean’s love for Shakespeare is thrilling, invigorating, a rhapsody of devotion. “One of the things I find with Shakespeare,” she says, “is that if you really invest in his language, it will do a huge percentage of the work for you. His work will carry you if you invest in the rhythm and the sounds. It’s written in this way that the words will play you. You just have to take them apart and really honor what they’re doing. Explore, what are the options suggested by the fact that my verse lines and my thoughts end at the same time? That’s someone who thinks in a very different way than someone who can never finish their thought at the end of the verse line. Those are two completely different people.
“Someone who doesn’t speak in poetry but speaks in prose, that is a very different person than someone who speaks primarily in verse. You can’t lie in a poem. You can try, but ultimately if you’re speaking in verse and you have rhyming couplets, and you have these ten-syllable lines, well, you’re wearing your heart on your damn sleeve.”
DISTILLING DEAN’S SHAKESPEAREAN PHILOSOPHY down to a communicable directing practice can be challenging. Her actors have to share a little bit of her madness. “If the idea that you’re going to get notes about meter or that we’re going to talk about end-stopping or enjambment on or any of the different technical ideas around the language as a poetic tool and device – if I get any sense that that gives you the willies,” she says, “you’re probably not the actor for me and I’m probably not the director for you.”
“She’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” says McKensie Rummel, who plays Cressida in Troilus and Cressida. “She knows so much about Shakespeare. I’ve learned so much about language.”
Allison Andersen, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, agrees: “The amount of language work that we do, the way we use it as our basis and really explore it – it’s not just our brains that are getting involved, it’s how do these words affect your heart.”
All of this might explain why theater and why Shakespeare. But why two Shakespeare pieces in repertory for a small, fringe company in a corner of the Pacific Northwest? Dean responds with borderline maniacal laughter. Where others might see madness, she finds order.
“Our brains naturally work with compare and contrast,” she says. “That’s how we’re taught in schools. There’s something about really purposefully choosing what you’re twinning and pursuing that. That puzzle is so fun to pull on. I also find that it makes everything a little less precious because it can’t be precious because you have the time crunch.”
Dean’s been doing two Shakespeare shows in repertory for the past three years. The first year it was All’s Well That Ends Well and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The second year was Twelfth Night and Hamlet (starring recent Drammy winner Sara Fay Goldman in the title role). This year Salt and Sage was this close to doing Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra AND Romeo and Juliet before the latter was dropped. But don’t think for a second that the R&J was abandoned for logistical reasons or because cooler heads prevailed. The decision was purely aesthetics. “It ended up feeling so small,” remembers Hyun, “compared to the sprawling epics that are the other two.”
What may look crazy from the outside always has its own internal logic. “There’s some synergy,” says Dean. “These pairs are chosen because there’s something I want to explore that’s present in both plays. All’s Well and Midsummer I’m like okay, Shakespeare wrote these two plays that revolve around a woman who’s into a guy who’s not into her. And then he named them both Helena. What is up with that?”
“Hamlet and Twelfth Night, these are both about grief and madness. And then Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida are both about love and the constraints of your society and politics and war. The prep isn’t always double the prep because there are some parallels and overlaps that feed each other.”
“IT’S A LOT,” SAYS SYHARATH, “BUT IT’S REALLY FUN. She played really close attention to the casting in each. In Antony and Cleopatra I play Eros. His relationship with Antony is almost on the parallel that Pandarus’s is with Troilus,” who Syharath is playing in Troilus and Cressida. “So if you were to see both shows you can see a resemblance. The way she double-casts in Troilus and Cressida, I’m also playing Menelaus. It’s interesting that Troilus falls in love with Cressida and then she gets taken away but then that’s also Menelaus’s story, who falls in love with Helen and then she gets taken away. So it’s seeing a chapter and then seeing the next chapter.”
“I’ve had a hard time switching mind-sets between the two,” Rummel concedes, “but also I’m enjoying the marriage of the two. I’m finding similarities between the two that I wouldn’t have found on my own.”
Anderson agrees: “It is a really a challenge because they’re very, very, very different worlds. The way that we’ve created the worlds, they’re definitely very distinct. It’s exciting.”
Dean has a long-history with Troilus and Cressida. “I always loved Cressida. She’s such a badass. She’s so bold. She’s so courageous. She gets crushed by her circumstances but not for lack of will and intelligence and fire. I’ve always been drawn to her. I’m like, ‘Here’s a woman who captures the experience of coming to terms with your sexuality and coming to terms with being a woman in a patriarchal world.’”
Rummel says: “It has been a bit of pressure because [Dean] has such a connection to the character.” At the same time, she adds, she’s benefited from that connection: Dean’s “insight into Cressida specifically has really helped me figure out who she is and bring myself to it.”
“Why Cressida alongside Cleopatra,” explains Dean, “was because I was like, ‘Okay, Cleopatra is at an older stage in her life and development. And also, she has power. Cressida has no power and Cleopatra has a lot of power. I was interested in, how are the things they push up against similar? How are the things they push up against different? What will I feel and discover from being in the room with both of those shows?” Her focus on the two women as the centers of their respective shows is characteristic of Salt and Sage, whose work, according to its website, “ is dedicated to foregrounding the female experience.”
BOTH OF THESE SHOWS, IN DEAN’S MIND, have a lot to say about the times we’re living in. “Troilus and Cressida,” she says, “is about war. It’s about rape culture. It’s about toxic masculinity. It’s about apathy. It’s about topics that I don’t think are going to stop mattering any time soon.”
The demands of the play go deeper than that. “Troilus and Cressida asks you to put a world on stage. No person can carry that play alone. The way Cressida is, if all you’ve got is a good Cressida, you don’t got nothin’. If you don’t create a rich world, you’re screwed. You don’t get the luxury of, ‘Well, I’ve got a few really strong people in these key anchor roles and then everyone else just supports them.’ No, I’ve got to figure everything out.”
At the center of both pieces is power. “I feel like something I am wrestling more with as a person right now is, to what extent am I not in control right now? I think these plays really wrestle with that. One of the things I enjoy about these plays is that both have really powerful figures, who don’t know they’re powerful and act like they’re powerless. How much individual control do I actually have over society, and if my power is something that is shaped by other forces, do I actually really have it? Once I subvert it, will I just lose it?”
Dean’s vision for how these two pieces would function together demanded a physical representation in space – a set, something neither Hamlet nor Twelfth Night had last year. “Hamlet and Twelfth Night don’t need a set. Hamlet, we go everywhere with Hamlet. It’s through Hamlet’s lens. If it was a movie, Hamlet is our camera.” That wasn’t going to work for this repertory, Dean says. “These plays, there are constant shifts of focus and give and take and you’re being whipped around. So to move the action the way I wanted, I needed a set.
“I came to Trevor [Sargent], and I had a napkin and said, ‘I want the audience on all four sides and then I want playing space behind them.’ And that’s all I said. Then he went away and put together a model that is pretty close to what the set is now.” What Sargent came up with is remarkable. It’s theatrical and dynamic and does, indeed, give Dean the movement and the energy that she’s looking for. It promises to be one of the defining characteristics of repertory. “It has steps,” says Dean. “It allows me to see across. It allows me to play behind the audience. It allows me to play in front of the audience. It allows me to keep moving things.”
THE PAST FEW SEASONS HAVE SEEN DEAN FIND a steady stream of artists, like Sargent, who are picking up what she’s laying down. Syharath, Houghton and Anderson have all been through multiple journeys with the director. Alex Albrecht and the versatile Alwynn Accuardi, who both appear in the rep (and who starred in Salt and Sage’s earlier rep this year[!] of Gruesome Playground Injuries and Brilliant Traces), have become indispensable allies and cohorts to Dean. Accuardi not only acts in the repertory, she’s also the fight choreographer. “Alwynn’s been awesome in being another brain,” says Dean. “ I can go to her and say, ‘I want to build this into this moment and I think it involves violence,’ and she’ll be like, ‘I think we can get to it another way.’ Or she might say, ‘Yeah, that’s rad. Can I go play?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah! Go have that moment!’ Because I trust her.”
Trust is essential in a collaborative art form. That Dean is slowly but surely finding her tribe is going to greatly facilitate her accomplishing everything she hopes to accomplish in art. One day, she might even formalize them all into a company. But not now. “I don’t have an infrastructure,” Dean says. “I don’t have a space where we can routinely go. I don’t have the funding to routinely pay people. So, I bring people in when I have something to offer.”
Meanwhile, there’s always the elusive ring of being able to support herself by other people paying her to do what she does best. But Dean doesn’t dwell. “You know,” she says, “on the one hand, I have to remind myself all the time to be really grateful. Things are affordable enough that I’m pulling this off. I have work. I’ve found connections. If I haven’t gotten so lucky in terms of jobs, and I couldn’t do my work, that would be worse.”
Because for an artist – any artist – finding someone to share your madness is what it’s all about.
- Salt and Sage’s Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra play in repertory July 18-Aug. 17 at Shaking the Tree, 823 S.E. Grant St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.