BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with KING LEAR's Sun Mee Chomet
The Guthrie Theater is staging KING LEAR for the first time in more than 20 years. Shakespeare's masterpiece begins with a respected Lear, after years of ruling Britain in peace, decides to relinquish his crown and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. But when their love and loyalty falter, so does Lear's sanity -- and one might say so do that of his daughters. Much has been said of Lear and its two portrayers, Stephen Yoakam and Nathaniel Fuller, who alternate the role in this production. But what of the daughters? One of them, played by veteran Guthrie and Twin Cities actor Sun Mee Chomet, takes power and also loses her grip on reality and power. Chomet, an accomplished actor and writer with numerous Guthrie and other local credits to her name, took time to respond to 6 Questions and a Plug.
You play Regan, Lear's second oldest daughter, and perhaps the most violent among them. What is it like for you playing the part of Regan, especially during the scene where she blinds Gloucester on stage? Often people say playing the villain is the most fun. Is that fun, disturbing or a little of both?
It is awesome! The blinding scene is gruesome and when is that not fun to explore as an actor?!
On a more serious note, I wanted to find a unique take on Regan that would be completely my own. Joe and I looked to uncover a three-dimensional journey towards her ruthlessness as a leader. For example, Lear uses words like "tender-hearted" and "kind and comfortable" to describe her in Act I. (She is the middle child, the peacemaker, after all!) Before the blinding scene, I truly love and trust Gloucester as an uncle; after all, he is the only remaining father-figure (my father is going mad and Kent has been banished). Therefore, to face the responsibility, as a newly appointed queen, to punish Gloucester for his outright betrayal...it's heart-breaking. It is the point of no return for Regan. She sees no choice but to rule with an iron fist and to remove trust from her vocabulary. And yes, it is still fun.
King Lear's need for flattery and adoration rings a little true in today's political climate. Did any current situation play into how you and Director Joseph Haj approached this production? Do you find Lear to be very contemporary in its messages?
It rings just a little true today, haha.
Joe said on the first day of rehearsal, and I'll paraphrase a bit, "There have been tons of productions of King Lear over the years. The one that we are embarking on creating will be uniquely our own, based on the minds that are in this room. It will be ours, of this moment, with this group of people, period." I loved that. It opened a channel to bring our current experience as Americans, witnessing the national and international pursuit of political power, into the discussion. Yes, it is frighteningly contemporary. Lear comments on the challenges of being a leader, the allure of power, the blinding effect that power has on those that wield it, and the human clarity that only comes with losing one's power and identity completely.
You have played a lot of Shakespeare characters on the Guthrie stage over your years there - what has been the most challenging role, the most exciting role and your personal favorite?
Regan, by far, is the juiciest. Perhaps it's because I've finally graduated from playing ingénues to Shakespeare's wonderful full-bodied and complex women. Regan has been the most challenging, mostly because of preconceived notions that the two older sisters are purely evil. Finding Regan's humanity and a plausible journey for her were wonderful to bite into as an actor. I also loved playing Julia in Two Gents. And Lady MacDuff in Macbeth. My two children and I were killed in a bathtub eight times a week...it was awesome.
While you're a busy actor with many credits to your name, you also have spent time as a playwright. Are you working on any projects now?
Yes, indeed. I'm working on a new project called The Sex Show. It is theater-dance piece exploring sexuality and sexual stereotypes in the Asian American community. Mu Performing Arts will produce it in 2017-2018 season. It's funny, I was chatting about the show recently in the elevator at the Guthrie, and two older Caucasian women were listening in on my conversation. Suddenly, they blurted out, "It's called The Sex Show? Well, we will definitely come to see that!" It's an opportunity to explore a taboo subject in a candid way and, hopefully, to contribute to the health of the community.
Your undergrad degree was not in theatre at all but you got your MFA in acting at Tisch. What was the moment that made you decide to pursue a career in theatre?
My undergrad degree was in Sociology and Anthropology. But, it was only because I thought I should major in something else because I knew I wanted to be an actor for the rest of my life. I decided in 7th grade. My first school play. I was cast in Cinderella in my downtown Detroit public middle school. The moment: the feeling of making an entire room of people burst into laughter. Oh, and also because I got to draw warts on my face (I asked to be one of the stepsisters. I thought playing Cinderella would be too boring).
Where are you from originally and what brought you to Minneapolis? Alternately, what has kept you in the area vs going back to NYC? What is the local scene like for an actor today?
I'm originally from Detroit, Michigan. I moved to the Twin Cities for graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Although I didn't finish the program (I ended up transferring to NYU to complete my MFA in Acting), I fell in love with the Twin Cities' theater scene. It is utterly vibrant. I have been back to New York for a few projects over the years, but the Twin Cities has everything I crave as an artist: a diverse theater scene, a modern dance community, a supportive environment for playwrights, and a place to do Argentinian tango on Sunday evenings with a full live band. It is a remarkable place where an artist can live a full life, breathe fresh air, collaborate with phenomenal artists, and be sustained solely by one's commitment to one's craft.
What is your next project and where can readers find you on stage or behind the pen next?
Next up is the regional premiere of Qui Nguyen's Vietgone at Mixed Blood Theatre. I've done many workshops of Qui's work over the years at The Playwrights' Center, so it is awesome to be able to work on his hot new play (fresh off an Off-Broadway run at MTC) and share it with the Twin Cities this spring.
Show info: KING LEAR plays through April 2, 2017, on the Guthrie's Wuertle Stage. Tickets may be purchased online at www.guthrietheater.org or call the Guthrie Box Office: 612.377.2224 or 877.44.STAGE.
Box Office hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on non-performance days)