Born in London, raised both in London and in Nigeria, Nik & eacute; Imoru ("NEE-kay IMM-oh-roo" -- "people always expect a Japanese man," she says) has taught and directed at the university level for 16 years, both here and in the U.K. She can act a little, too: In 2000, she was invited to perform a specially translated one-woman version of Euripides' Medea -- in Delphi. (Think soloing at Carnegie Hall, think pitching at Yankee Stadium. The Greeks, in essence, had invited her to perform their ancient drama for them.)
Imoru, in a short space of time before being officially named the new artistic director of Spokane Interplayers Ensemble, put together a varied slate of productions for 2004-05. The season will present a romantic comedy (Same Time, Next Year in September), a thriller (October's Dracula), a mythic confrontation of two brothers (Sam Shepard's True West, in January 2005), a tragedy (Shakespeare's Othello, in March) and A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking, in April, along with one other play (to be announced).
With her classical background, Imoru is naturally looking forward to Othello, but the production she most wants to talk about is the Christmas show, Inspecting Carol, to be staged Nov. 18-Dec. 18. Seems that a small theater is struggling to put on its annual production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol: The National Endowment for the Arts is on the verge of cutting off the theater's funding, but has agreed to send one of its agents over to take a look. The fun begins even before a struggling actor gets confused with the government bureaucrat. It's Waiting for Guffman meets Noises Off meets Gogol's The Inspector General.
After a season of turmoil in Spokane theater, Imoru's brainstorm is to involve the entire community in a Christmas play that is, after all, about an entire community puttin' on a show. "I'll be reaching out to various institutions, asking them to put forward people, students, whoever, to help the designers with costumes, lighting, whatever," she says. "And I will try to cast this show solely from the Spokane region.
"It's going to be cooperative with the community -- that means we want the whole community to help us put on this massive winter-fest of a play. I want a sense of festivity, and of allowing students, for example, to work behind the scenes in a professional context."
She emphasizes the production's healing aim: "Getting actors within the community to work with each other -- at a particular time of year when people are used to getting together. If you like, this will be a winter festival, a celebration of theater by the theater community here in Spokane."
Then there's the potential for excited little kids who could attend the play and say, "Hey, I worked on that costume." "Yeah," says Imoru. "See? They're meant to be here."
Imoru's enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. But as an Anglo-African woman of the world -- "Yes, I am," she chimes in -- how can she possibly be happy in lily-white, provincial Spokane?
Imoru turns serious. "That question can only come from the perspective of someone who is part of a lily-white community that's in a corner of the world," she says. "Because I've worked all over the world -- whether it's in a tribal region where they have almost nothing ... Do you see what I mean? This is not the only place I've worked where the conditions are strange. I don't have a sense of geographical boundaries."
Imoru actually turned down academic posts at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and at the Ivy League's Columbia University before arriving at the University of Idaho as an associate professor of theater arts. "People in England wanted to know why I wanted to go to America -- why was I at the University of Idaho? Because, unlike Wesleyan, they said, 'You want to do a graduate program here? Come and do it.'
"I came from a working-class background. My family were educated in Nigeria, so there's the lawyers and the doctors, but when my parents moved back to England, we lived in London, and I was lucky enough to have teachers who could have been at Cambridge, could have been at Oxford. They didn't believe that excellence, brilliance, worldliness, sophistication needed to be centered in the 'right' places. And that has been my legacy."
It's a legacy she wants to continue right here in Spokane. Having been taught well herself, she wants to teach others well. She'll have some teaching to do at a theater that has recently experienced both money problems and people problems.
"I don't know how things were before," says Imoru. "But I would say, 'Let's have a sense of collusion, and of camaraderie, and of clear lines of communication.' I'm not really interested in being the big boss at the end of the big table. I've always been interested in being on the floor, in contact with people.
"But in England, you don't talk about your work -- you just do it, and then everyone else talks about it. What I've done over the last five years is learn how to talk about it."
What about the skeptics, those audience members who are yet again taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to Interplayers? What does she have to say to them?
"I'll see you in the auditorium," she laughs, but she means it, too. "I'm not going to be out there beating the drum and saying, 'You must come in here.'"
Audiences can get self-conscious when confronted by the raw emotion of live performance. "Well," says Imoru, whatever they've heard to the contrary, we do prefer to keep our dramas on the stage as opposed to outside the stage." She laughs.
That's what's going to be different now: The drama will stay on the stage."
But won't there be some drama in competing with Michael Weaver's new Actors Repertory Theater of the Inland Northwest?
"Am I concerned about that? No. But remember, I come from a tradition where there are theaters on every corner in every community. I think our seasons are different. I don't see any overlap. And besides, I want to go see some theater myself -- I want to be buying their season ticket. His season, my season -- that's Intermediate Theater," she says, meaning that it'll be an education in itself. "You don't have to pay tuition. Just come to the theater."
She'll see you, as she says, in the auditorium. Imoru has made a commitment to Interplayers, albeit an open-ended one: "I've signed a contract for the year," she says. "I don't know what happens after that. It was advertised as an interim position. But I am not an interim artistic director. I'm not interim."
She changes gears from meditative to excited: "I think this town is lucky to have Michael Weaver and me!" She laughs that exuberant laugh, and you feel that she was meant to do that kind of laughing here, right here in the strange conditions of Spokane.