Shaking the Tree’s Storytelling Magic

Artistic director Samantha Van Der Merwe on displacement and dismemberment.

By Jason Buehrer October 13, 2016

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Things get bloody in Head. Hands. Feet. 

Image: Gary Norman

In the quiet warehouse district between Ladd’s Addition and OMSI, you'd be hard-pressed to find people walking around, let alone spot a theater. A lonely strand of Christmas lights strung across a fence gives the only indication that this lightly tagged warehouse—the current home of Shaking the Tree—houses anything special. Inside, though, a small troupe of actors stomps and splashes in a pool of stones in a show called Head. Hands. Feet: Tales of Dismemberment.

The show is Shaking the Tree’s season opener, and it includes retellings of the fairy tales Blue Beard, The Red Shoes, The Handless Maiden. Its second half is a 2003 adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia by Irish playwright Edna O’Brien. So what inspired it?

“I love fairy tales and myth. I think people really understand them on a different level, beyond the brain level,” says Samantha Van Der Merwe, the South African-born artistic director of Shaking the Tree. “It’s like a waking dream where we understand the images and symbolism.”

The dismemberment of the title is not employed for mere shock appeal: in some ways, Van Der Merwe sees it as a symbol of our modern-day detachment. “There is so much in the world that is given us through social media, so it is easy to become detached. Detachment for me is similar to cutting off different things, different parts for myself,” she says. “How do we acknowledge that? How do we name it. How do we gain it back? How do we become whole?”

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Samantha Van Der Merwe

Van Der Merwe takes a remarkably imaginative, immersive approach to her work at Shaking the Tree, which she founded in 2003. Productions have ranged from the Ibsen classic A Doll’s House to adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde.  “The minute [people] step in the space, if they can believe there are somewhere else, their imaginations will take them to a different place and then they are very ripe for storytelling,” she says. “So that has always been my desire, to create this altered, prepared space. It doesn’t excite me to go into a traditional theater space—I don’t like the formality of it, like this is my role and this is your role, and I’m going to sit back while you tell me a story. I want the audience to be participants as much as they can.”

Her instincts have paid off—not only has her work been lauded, but the company was awarded a $30,000 seed grant from the Robert Rauschenberg foundation in 2013 to “support to early stage, groundbreaking projects in ten cities across the United States.”  

Despite the success, however, there are continuing challenges. After her Portland Monthly interview, Van Der Merwe was slated to meet with a representative from the County Assessor’s office about the theater’s non-profit status. Like many arts organizations in the Portland metro-area, Shaking the Tree offers rental space and classes alongside their shows to keep in the black. Van Der Merwe wishes she had additional support from the city through grants or rebates, or even some kind of indication that the arts have value to those walking the city’s administrative halls.  

“We moved to this space at the end of 2014, and we have a five-year lease,” she says. “Already we are hearing murmurings that the neighborhood is about to explode and wondering what will happen when our lease is up. We need arts embedded in all the neighborhoods, and my goal is to actively speak to my neighbors, so that they know we are here and that we are valuable and also understand that the space, this property is valuable. Developers won’t take into account the arts.”

It’s a tough time for small companies like Shaking the Tree, where displacement is a scarier word than dismemberment. Der Merwe’s determined, but she wishes she had more support. “The city should be on my side,” she says.

Head. Hands. Feet: A Tale of Dismemberment runs through November 5th. 

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