In science fiction, people often speak of "worldbuilding," about writers and filmmakers who can construct an entire universe—its appearance, its laws, its technology, its history, its customs.
Samantha Van Der Merwe is a theatrical worldbuilder. The shows she directs for her company, Shaking the Tree, are immersive, imaginative experiences unlike others in Portland. For Van Der Merwe, theater doesn't begin when the lights go down—it begins when audience members tread across dirty strips of fabric to reach their seats, as they did for last season's One Flea Spare, which took audiences to 17th-century, plague-ravaged London. And it doesn't end at the applause—which may not even come, because the actors remain onstage, going about their business, without a formal conclusion, as in Far Away two years ago. Sound, image, movement—she orchestrates it all.
"I feel strongly that when I go to the theater, I want to have an experience," Van Der Merwe says. "When I do, my world is changed. But it still has to be storytelling, because we thrive off meaning."
Van Der Merwe grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and studied drama in college. She's also an abstract painter. But it took her time to realize she could fuse the two forms: that she could create, as she's called it, "artwork in motion." She admits it was a steep learning curve. Her directorial debut was Oscar Wilde's lyrical, highly stylized Salome, which she staged at CoHo Theater in 2005.
"It was the most dreadful production of Salome that's probably ever been seen," says the 44-year-old, chuckling gently. "Horrible. Terrible." (Then-WW theater critic Steffen Silvis agreed, calling it "leaden and often ludicrous.")
She staged a series of one-acts to build her directing skills. It paid off. Her next full production, South African playwright Athol Fugard's Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act—a daring work that requires its two actors to be naked for the entire show—earned her a Drammy for best director. She's gone on to produce a string of visually entrancing, visceral shows, even while remaining somewhat on the periphery of the local theater scene, which tends to favor naturalism.
That's not Van Der Merwe's style. She's drawn as much to the sinister as she is to the fanciful. Last year's Wilde Tales, for example, braided together six fairy tales by Oscar Wilde to charming, dreamlike effect. "I get very seduced by these magical works, but I'm also attracted to real darkness," Van Der Merwe says. "It feels right for each season to have one flight of fancy and one descent into darkness."
The upcoming season's flight into fancy is October's Masque of the Red Death, a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories adapted by local collective Playwrights West. (The descent into darkness will come next spring, with Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer, about the aftermath of an American boy's mysterious death in Spain.) She has ideas for Masque to unfold as if in a zoetrope, each story being progressively revealed.
One potential challenge? Van Der Merwe has just moved to a warehouse on Southeast Grant Street, which at 2800 square feet is double the size of her previous space and still very raw: She's putting down wood floors but forgoing insulation to keep the rough aesthetic. But as she walks through the space on a balmy afternoon in August, her eyes grow big as she talks about Masque.
"There are tons of ghosts, and it's creepy as heck," she says. "It's about excess and hedonism, but it's also just an opportunity to have way too much fun."