11 Questions: Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao

interview by Brent Cole

The ever flowing Bellingham arts, music and theater communities are possible because of people and organizations that form a foundation. For the thriving theater community, one of the foundations is Idiom Theater and with that, its founder and (after a few years away) Artistic Director Glenn Apollo Hergenhan-Zhao. Now in its 11th year, Idiom has not only survived but thrived at a time most start up community theaters don’t last, and that’s in a large part to Glenn’s passion for theater and Bellingham.
Ladies and gentlemen, Glenn Apollo Hergenhan-Zhao.

Tell us about yourself Glenn.
My wife is encouraging me to answer this question: “I AM GLENN HERGENHAHN-ZHAO, BITCH!” So there is that… but should probably elaborate. I mostly consider myself a playwright, but I spend more of my time directing plays, producing plays, and teaching classes in acting. Once in a while I get to act in plays, which is always a treat of sorts. I guess you could say I do theater. That is my gig. I am a guy who does theater.

You left Idiom for awhile and recently came back. Where did you go and what brought you back into the fold?
I ran iDiOM Theater for seven seasons, and I was ready to expand my horizons a bit in the big city. I moved east and spent three years in NYC where I studied, taught, acted and directed with incredibly gifted people who taught me more in three years than I had learned in the previous few decades. Even during my time back east I came to Bellingham once a year to do a new play. During one of those trips back I met my wife Shu. I moved back to be with her, and was fortunate to have iDiOM and Bellingham welcome me back into the fold.

If you weren’t involved in theater, what would you see yourself doing?
Visual Art. I studied painting in college and my degree is in art history. I was a painter before I turned to the theater. Someday when I am old I will paint pictures and maybe write a couple novels, if people still do that sort of thing.

Do you remember the first time you saw a play and thought “that is something I’d like to do?
”I saw Man From La Mancha in 1st grade (It was discovered that I had the chicken pox somewhere in the first act, so I have never seen act two). That might be where I caught the bug (theater, not pox). Though it was reading plays: Pirandello, Sophocles, Genet, Ionesco… that made me want to be a playwright.  I didn’t really get into theater until after college.

At its core, what is the key to a successful play?
Keeping in mind that a play is for the audience and not about anyone’s ego. It has to have a reason for being. It has to have something to say. And it has to be essentially theatrical.  It has to call out to be a play (not a movie or a novel). There are things that are only possible as a shared live experience. A good play never forgets those people you will share the room with.  Generous.  A good play has to be generous.

Of all the productions you’ve worked on, which one stands out as your favorite?
I would say the last 48-Hour Festival #38. We have been doing those for 10 years and they are always a favorite, but 48 #38 was our last weekend with outgoing director Sol Olmstead. We had an amazing house band made up of Casey Connor, Lucas Hicks and Devin Champlin who turned the whole thing into one giant musical. And we had an uncommon line-up of talent. People can do some incredible things in 24 hours. There is something about all that energy from 40-plus talented souls collecting in one hour of sleep-deprived driven theater. Good times.

For you, what is the draw of doing theater in Bellingham?
Bellingham has always been very kind to me. I do what I like and what I find interesting and try to do it as well as I can, and a community forms around that work. The Bellingham I live in is comprised of hundreds of incredible people, smart people, funny people, generous souls. It helps that I rarely leave down town.

What was the last great book you read?
The Remainder by Tom McCarthy.  Beautiful, disturbing, and haunting… if you like existential angst.

It’s Saturday night and you aren’t working on a play, what are you doing?
Again, my wife has some suggestions that I can’t see fit to type. In the rare event I am not at iDiOM Theater on a Saturday night, I am probably at another play in town.

What is your long-term vision for Idiom?
iDiOM has already beaten the odds of survival. Most theater start-ups don’t make it past year three; we are in our 11th. I would like to see iDiOM become a professional independent theater able to pay actors, while still keeping its edge and innovation.  It is a challenging equation, and we are working on it.

What is your favorite hobby?
My favorite thing to do in the world is travel. I still try to make time to get out of town and out of country whenever possible. Is traveling a hobby? I don’t know.

If you could have a drink with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Because we know nothing about Homer, I’ll say homer. I like to solve mysteries, and it would be like time travel. I would require some sort of interpreter and some Ouzo.

Any last thoughts?
Since this is a magazine about the Bellingham music scene I will say this.
I think the music scene does theater better than theater in this town. At its core we are doing the same thing—making live shared experiences with an audience.  The music scene is more prolific, more innovative, more risk taking. It has more subsidy, more support, a better business model, and a better sense of community.
I know the music scene has its own set of problems, but we in the theater community could learn a thing or two about putting on a good show. Some of the best theater I’ve seen in this town has been in bars. If we want people to care about us as a relevant art form we have to recapture the irreverence, unpredictability, rebellion, and community that theater has had at its best.
Also we should sell booze, so we can pay actors. That is all.