Peerless director Sara Porkalob, an award-winning artist activist, sat down with us to discuss working on Jiehae Park’s incisive new play and what audiences should listen for during the performance. Learn more about Peerless and get tickets here.

Who are you, and what is your role on Peerless?

Sara Porkalob, and I’m the director of Peerless.

Describe PEERLESS in five words.

High school. Murder. High stakes. Twins. Ambition.

Sara Porkalob and Mathew Wright at FIRST LOOK: PEERLESS.

Tell us the story of how you came on board to direct Peerless.

I had a feeling that Peerless was going to get picked up by some theatre for the 2017-18 Season – it was just too nationally popular to not be considered by a theatre here in Seattle. I was waiting to see who was going to announce it in their Season, and I knew I wanted to act in it or I wanted to direct it. When ArtsWest announced it in their Season, I emailed Mat [ArtsWest Artistic Director Mathew Wright] – it was a very quick email – and said, “Hey, just saw your Season – so fricking exciting! Peerless. You should let me direct it.” It was all caps with exclamation points. He emailed me within ten minutes saying, “Fantastic! We were thinking of you for the project. Let’s talk more.” Then I closed my laptop and I just screamed. It was crazy.

There have been a lot of adaptations of Shakespeare’s work over the centuries, and of Macbeth specifically. Why do you think the playwright Jiehae Park chose Macbeth as a framework, and what sets Peerless apart from other Shakespeare adaptations?

I think Jiehae Park chose to do a Shakespeare adaptation because we hold Shakespeare up as the highest example of a theatrical form. And when I say “we” I mean a broad “we” – in academia, undergrad Arts theatre programs, Shakespeare is elevated and held at a different standard then American realism, or farce, for example. And Jiehae Park knows that. She’s smart. So she chose Shakespeare – a thing that we all recognize – and decided to use it for her own means, which is pretty exciting. And what makes it different is that instead of a king and a queen who are hungry for power, we have instead two incredibly intelligent, ambitious and driven Asian-American female teenagers who want to secure their spot for the future – and their spot is the coveted spot at “The College”.

Sara Porkalob in rehearsal for Peerless.

Peerless has become an extremely popular play since it premiered in 2015. Why do you think so many theatre companies across the country are staging it?

There’s some attractive things about this play from a producer and institutional perspective. It’s a small cast – five people – and it can be done ninety minutes with no intermission. It also demands to be cast with racially specific characters, and right now – in Seattle and all over the nation – conversations about EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) are happening, and this is an opportunity for theatres to force themselves to cast people of color. It’s also funny, irreverent and playful, and really politically incorrect and astutely correct at the same time – and that tension is really confusing, seductive and titillating to people.

The 2017-18 I AM Season explores the theme of identity – what it is, how it works, and who defines it. How does identity play out in the world and story of Peerless?

I believe that what makes theatre theatre – versus performance art, dance, and music – is people in a space, over time, saying words to each other. So when we put people in context to each other and the tools of communication are actual words, identity is already part of the formula. Right now we are demanding and looking explicitly at plays that explicitly deal with qualifiers of identity such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. And why we’re doing that is because not too long ago, we were looking at plays that supposedly dealt with all of humanity, and yet what we were seeing was only white people. So now what we’re doing is thinking about identity with a different set of qualifiers in ways that are very explicit. Peerless explicitly holds up these qualifiers and shows at the same time how conditional they are, and how they can be wielded as weapons depending whose hands their in. And that’s pretty exciting. It means that not only are the characters on stage being more mindful than most audiences, it forces our audiences to be more mindful and rigorous with how they look at identity qualifiers for themselves and for everybody else around them.

What should audiences watch for during the performance?

If you are a Shakespeare fan or a Macbeth fan, there are some wonderful textual references and phrases that are repeated in the show. Also, this text is so incredibly stylized. If you look at it on the page, it’s maybe fifty words per page. Peerless is difficult because it’s so contemporary and because we have seventeen-year-olds speaking at the “speed of fun”. In that way, it’s just as rigorous as listening to Shakespeare. I encourage our audiences to lean forward in this show, to listen with a closer ear, because – just like Shakespeare – Jiehae Park has written something that demands that type of attention. And if we give it to Shakespeare, why wouldn’t give it to this new playwright who’s made this incredibly incisive and hilarious adaptation?

Finish this sentence: “You should see Peerless because…”

It’s funny. 

No other theatre is doing it. 

You’re going to see Asian women kicking ass in a way they haven’t before. 

It makes you thankful that you’re not in high school any more. 

Jiehae Park has taken Shakespeare and bent it to her will. 

Our cast is really awesome and funny. 

Our design team is an incredible set of minds who are just as invested in the intersection of race, gender, and class as a narrative and also as a proponent of their design. 

Who knows when it’s going to be produced again?

We need more Shakespeare adaptations that consider race and gender, because they’re rife with possibility.

If you don’t and all your friends have seen it, you’re going to be the awkward one with nothing to say. 

You should just see it.

Interview conducted with Michael Wallenfels at ArtsWest Playhouse & Gallery on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.