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BWW Interview: Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton Commemorating Her BIRTHDAY & Episodic Works

Susan Soon He Stanton's TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY  - will be live broadcasted February 5 - 14, 2021, with video-on-demand available February 15 - 21, 2021.

BWW Interview: Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton Commemorating Her BIRTHDAY & Episodic Works

Minnesota's Theater Mu's first mainstage production since the pandemic lockdown - playwright Susan Soon He Stanton's TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY - will be live broadcasted February 5 through February 14, 2021, with video-on-demand available February 15 through February 21, 2021. In support of Theatre Mu, East West Players is including BIRTHDAY in its 55th anniversary season as a part of an East West Passport membership. BIRTHDAY stars Katie Bradley as Emily, the BIRTHDAY girl, with China Brickey, Eric Sharp, Jomar Tagatac, and featuring East West Players' veteran actors Emily Kuroda and Greg Watanabe.

Susan managed to carve out a little time from her scripting Succession and Modern Love to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Susan!

What would give me your three-line pitch for TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY?

I'm not great at pitches, but here's the blurb:

Emily is a would-be writer whose bubble life in NYC has popped. Finding life back home chaotic and unfulfilling, she becomes strangely activated after creating a sassy alter-ego for a radio bit. Told through a playful mixture of live radio, voicemail, and phone calls, TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY is a quirky comedy about life with a thousand friends on Facebook and no one to have dinner with on Saturday night.

Who's the inspiration for your main character Emily?

People have often assumed that Emily is very biographical, which is both true and untrue. To me, she represents what it is like to be conflicted about her homecoming and her place in Hawai'i. She struggles with her identity in a number of ways, professionally, culturally, and also specifically as a woman. She's searching for ways to place herself in landscapes that have become deeply defamiliarized.

How did you first connect with Theatre Mu and BIRTHDAY's director, Theater Mu artistic director Lily Tung Crystal?
I have been a huge fan girl of Theatre Mu for years. Especially their commitment and care to produce bold new plays by Asian playwrights, like Leah Nanako Winkler's TWO MILE HOLLOW and HOT ASIAN DOCTOR HUSBAND. Lily and I had been introduced by Rick Shiomi. Then Lily did a reading of TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY at their Mu-tini Hour at the start of COVID, and it's been really electrifying (and terrifying) to revisit this play about isolation and community during COVID.

BWW Interview: Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton Commemorating Her BIRTHDAY & Episodic WorksHave you worked with any of BIRTHDAY's cast or creatives before?

The marvelous Emily Kuroda has been in nearly every manifestation of this play ever, including participating in the three- week workshop at Sundance Theatre Lab. I am so thankful she has given her incredible talent and time bringing this play to life. And Emily and Greg Watanabe also are in the Artists Rep audioplay version of TIMB. I haven't worked with Lily before, but I am so amazing with her team. Leanna Keyes has done inventive and magical streaming designs that bring this virtual production to life more than I could have ever imagined. C Andrew Mayer, our sound designer, has built a whole world and flew himself to Hawai'i for some R&D. I really couldn't ask for more from this extraordinary team of artists. I feel extremely lucky to be able to be a part of such a vibrant theatre experience during these times.

Where will BIRTHDAY's live performances take place? Zoomed from different cities?

I might have Lily weight in on this, but it's not zoom. It's this very technical live feed with a several camera set-up and green screens. So it's not a "zoom production" in any way you'd expect. But there is a core of Minneapolis-based actors, Emily and Greg are based in California, as well as a few others from the design team; and I am watching from New York.

East West Players is supporting/promoting Theatre Mu's BIRTHDAY. I raved about their production of your TAKARAZUKA!!! back in November 2014. Tell us some memorable moments of the show.

BWW Interview: Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton Commemorating Her BIRTHDAY & Episodic WorksAww, thank you so much. I loved working on TAKARAZUKA!!! I was amazed at the scale of the production and how hard the EWP team worked to bring the show to life. The costumes, choreography, dancing. To even attempt to recreate the massive spectacle of Takarazuka, you need a lot of design.

Where are you spending these past pandemic months: New York, London or 'Aiea, Hawaii?

At the top of the pandemic, I was in the U.K. Mostly I've been in New York, but I was able to go home to see my family in Hawai'i, which meant the world to me.

How have you been keeping productive and sane during these crazy quarantined times? Writing new Succession episodes from home?

Productive and sane are very different! It's a privilege to be able to work and I think during this last year, I've done a lot of writing. I've been a part of a couple of Zoom writing rooms, written a number of episodes of television. Now, I have been on set twice, first for the shooting of my Season 2 Modern Love episode, and now for Season 3 of Succession. Everyone is extremely careful but shooting during COVID is a very different experience. It feels hopeful to be able to do work, even around these challenges.

As a working writer in all mediums of entertainment (stage, television and screen), which medium would you prefer to create in (if compensation were not a factor)?

I'm a big fan of all three. Playwriting is always my favorite, because it is so intimate and theatre is an endeavor of passion. Working in TV and film is extremely collaborative, and I am awed by the reach. Surely just even in the premiere of an episode of TV show I have written with have more views than the audiences for all of my plays. There is a different process and I really enjoy toggling between the three. But my heart is always first and foremost in theatre and playwriting.

In which setting do you find yourself more productive: immersed with others in a writer's room? Or alone with just your thoughts in your home? Or do you just have different mind-sets for group vs solo environments?

BWW Interview: Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton Commemorating Her BIRTHDAY & Episodic WorksI think it's just different mind-sets. Group environments are snappy and quick moving. Alone you have to do the deepest and hardest thinking. I think both are productive in different ways. But writing is at its heart a solitary experience. The fun of doing theatre/TV/film, etc. is that when you go to production, suddenly you are surrounded by collaborators that can bring the words to life.

Do you find you have more opportunity to tweak your theatre words than your TV scripts? When do your plays get set in stone? After the first preview? After opening night?

There's previews, where you can make some tweaks, and during the rehearsal process. Once you shoot, there's the edit, so you can really play with all of the variations. I would say there's various points in both processes when you, you can, and then can't make big changes.

What was your reaction to winning a Peabody Award for Succession last year?

There is a lot of absolutely phenomenal television coming out right now. It has been a huge privilege to be a part of the Succession team, and the response to Season 2 in particular, and the awards and nominations has been mind boggling. So, I think it's a huge honor that I do not take lightly, but it's also very important to keep your head down and continue to try to write and storytell the best as you can, and not worry about anything else.

What's in the post-pandemic future for Susan Soon He Stanton?

Good question. I hope it involves more travel, more time outdoors, and being in rehearsal rooms again.

Thank you again, Susan! I look forward to celebrating your BIRTHDAY!

To view the live broadcasts of TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY February 5 through February 14, 2021 (as well as its video-on-demand February 15 through February 21); log onto www.theatermu.org


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