Young Chinese-American director/playwright explores Irish mythology

gregory keng strasser, gay news, Washington Blade
Gregory Keng Strasser hungers for more international theatrical collaboration. (Photo by Hannah Ervin; courtesy 4615)

The Infinite Tales
Through Dec. 29
4615 Theatre Company 
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh St.
Bethesda, Md.
$16.50-20

Out director and playwright Gregory Keng Strasser palpably exudes energy, artistic ambition and curiosity. It’s these traits that fuel his avid pursuit of storytelling and collaboration at home and abroad. 

Strasser, 25, was born in China and brought up mostly in Michigan. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in directing, he relocated to D.C. and became affiliated with the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics and 4615 Theatre Company. He’s now the 2020 Allen Lee Hughes Directing Fellow at Arena Stage.

Besides Washington, he’s had work produced Bangkok, Holstebro (Denmark), New York City, Ann Arbor and Detroit. 

At age 6, Strasser was introduced to Irish mythology through a beautifully illustrated storybook. The tales impressed him deeply, prompting him to revisit the tales over the years. 

Today he’s directing his own adaptation of those myths titled “The Infinite Tales,” now making its world premiere at 4615 Theatre Company in Bethesda. 

Crossing time and space, “The Infinite Tales” follows the journey of four children cast out from their homeland and cursed to live as swans for 900 years. Facing incredible odds, they remain hopeful that one day they’ll go home again. But over time, their country and its people change, creating additional challenges for the misplaced quartet. It’s a story of place and the Irish diaspora. 

A U Street Corridor resident, Strasser is currently single (he likes guys who wear glasses). And while he has connected with the D.C. theater scene, he’s not averse to taking on additional far-flung gigs.

WASHINGTON BLADE: What is it about Irish mythology for you? 

GREGORY KENG STRASSER: Initially it was that book, “The Names Upon the Harp,” illustrated by P.J. Lynch. The cover features a gorgeous woman casting a spell on four swans. When I stumbled upon it, I already loved fairy tales and the Chinese myths that I’d heard from my mother. But what I liked about these Irish stories is that they weren’t happily ever after. I loved how grown up they were even though they were about magic.

BLADE: When did you first incorporate these legends into your work? 

STRASSER: In my senior year of college, I was tasked with writing a play. Mine was about refugee children and storytelling. I needed something to wrap it up so I finished it off with a story about home, “The Children of Lir,” one of the tales from “The Names Upon the Harp.” I drew from that. My play wasn’t great but it had potential. Even then, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. But I needed to graduate and do other things first, so I stored it away for a while.

BLADE: What brought you to D.C.?

STRASSER: I needed a job desperately. Shanghai Media Group saw something in me — probably foremost that I speak Mandarin — and they hired me as an assistant content producer. It was a great company to work for even though they were making propaganda, and the job allowed me stability and a way to explore the city. I only stayed with them for six months, but it was my way into D.C. where I found my way into the theater scene. My end goal was always theater. I began networking and eventually met Natsu Onoda Power and Derek Goldman, both playwrights and directors. Through them I was introduced to the Laboratory for Global Performance of Politics at Georgetown University and made connections in Europe and Asia. Also, I became connected with Rorschach Theatre. Rorschach gave me my first production, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “410[GONE],” a take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the world of Chinese mythology and technology. At the time, my family was reeling from a near tragedy, so the experience was cathartic. It was a big play to direct and I was just 23, but it was perfect for me.  

BLADE Would you describe “The Tales of the Infinite” as big? 

STRASSER: Yes, definitely. It’s broad and expansive with music, puppetry and movement that borders on dance. It has a cast of nine. It’s a gigantic adventure, an epic journey, a quest about survival and hope, as well as an internal journey of endurance and the reliance on self and a radical transformation of your heart. It’s born from a deep love of these stories and our shared humanity. We’re on different journeys but we intersect at some point. It’s about those shared intersections.

BLADE: Is there any LGBT content or themes in what you’re doing with the stories?

STRASSER: There is, but you must mine those values. The stories are about homeland, ostracization. I think the older LGBT generation might relate better because they’ve gone through trauma of coming out in an unwelcoming society. And that’s changed a trauma free — well not for everyone everywhere. 

BLADE: And how was coming out for you?

STRASSER: Actually, not easy. I was forced out at 17 when my parents caught me and my then-boyfriend together in my room. My mother is Chinese and very traditional and my father is from the conservative part of Michigan. There were a few tense months at home before I felt for college. Thankfully they didn’t take away my tuition money. I used to believe that my mother was a backward-thinking Trump supporter, the antithesis of me. Then I sat down and did her oral history and realized I was wrong. She survived the Tiananmen Square protests. She was sick of government oppression and having no career opportunities as a woman. She wanted out. So, when she met my white American father and was offered a way to leave, she took it. In her view, I didn’t realize how lucky I was just to be living here. Why make things difficult? My father is naturally curious. He looks for answers, asks people for advice. It’s gotten better. 

BLADE: Is D.C. home ?

STRASSER: It’s a base where I’m building a foundation. There are great opportunities to connect and collaborate here, but I still really want to do things in other countries. I’m in love with the world and in love with international collaboration.

Published at Sat, 14 Dec 2019 01:55:35 +0000