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BWW Interview: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart of MONUMENT, OR FOUR SISTERS (A SLOTH PLAY) at Magic Theatre Can Pretty Much Do It All

The multidisciplinary performing artist stars in the world premiere by Sam Chanse running May 11th to 29th

BWW Interview: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart of MONUMENT, OR FOUR SISTERS (A SLOTH PLAY) at Magic Theatre Can Pretty Much Do It All
Actor-director-choreographer-dancer-musician Erin Mei-Ling Stuart

San Francisco's Magic Theatre, long known as a champion of new work, is once again giving Bay Area audiences the chance to experience an exciting new play with its world premiere of Sam Chanse's Monument, Or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play). Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, the play follows four sisters: Amy studies coral reefs, Constance writes for children's television, Mac mysteriously left a job she loves, and Lina is MIA. Oh, and there are also four talking sloths and some hilarious cartoon bombs. Seriously. Chanse's "comedy with claws" ultimately asks how we build resilience after unimaginable loss. Although the play is incredibly relevant for our current times, it has actually been in gestation for some years now. Monument, Or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play) was developed under the leadership of previous Magic Artistic Director Loretta Greco and Sonia Fernandez, who first connected with Chanse at PlayGround while Chanse was living in the Bay Area.

Chanse's career is currently on quite a roll, as she is just coming off two back-to-back premieres in New York. Magic's current Artistic Director Sean José says of her work, "I have always been shocked, seduced, opened up, and expanded by Sam's voice. Sam has an ability to address cultural issues writ large- feminism, API lineage, equity-in ways that are deeply human and uniquely personal."

The all-API cast includes Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Amy. Stuart is a multidisciplinary performing artist well known to audiences across the Bay Area in her various capacities as actor-director-choreographer-dancer-musician. I caught up with her by phone recently, midway through the rehearsal process. We talked about her role in this play and what she enjoys about Chanse's writing, how she came to tackle so many different disciplines, the importance of representation in the arts, and some interesting projects she's got cooking in the coming months. The following conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You've worked at theaters all over the Bay Area. Is this your first time working at Magic?

This is actually my second show at Magic. The first show, I think it was about ten years ago, was Taylor Mac's The Lily's Revenge, which was an epic piece, with I think 40 performers. It was five hours long, there were six different directors, so it was a very different kind of show. This is my first time being at the Magic in more of like a "play."

Although it still sounds like a fairly unusual play. How would you describe Monument, Or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play)?

It's about these sisters who are each dealing with some kind of crisis, and the scales of the crises go from very personal to global and existential. It is a comedy, but it's also sort of contemplative. The scenes with the sisters are punctuated with scenes of anthropomorphized cartoon sloths, who are male. They're living in this heightened cartoon world, but the themes that weave through the stories of the sisters weave through the sloths' adventure as well - around cycles of decay, and renewal or resilience.

Tell me about Amy, the character you play.

She's the second of these four sisters, but I don't think it's giving anything away to say the first sister is largely absent, so she sort of becomes the de facto eldest sister. She is very together on the surface, she has a family, she has a nice home, she has this job as a marine biologist and she studies coral reefs. All of her emotion is very sublimated, underneath the surface and she's more focused on ideas, whereas the other characters tend to focus more on interpersonal things. Amy is working through metaphor of what's going on with coral, rather than talking about things that might be going on in her own life.

Playwright Sam Chanse's career seems to be on quite a roll these days. What do you most enjoy about her writing?

The way that it slowly reveals itself. She's a very smart writer and it's rewarding to find new connections that you may not have seen on first glance. Hopefully with our production we help to elucidate those things for the audience, these ideas that might not seem connected, these sort of invisible threads. It's kind of subtle, but there's an accumulation. Sorry if that sounds a little vague, but ... [laughs]

Your director, Giovanna Sardelli, has been attached to this play for quite some time. What has it been like working with her?

Giovanna has been working with Sam on this project going on some years now, I think, to actually get it to production. As a director, she's a very warm person who does a lot to create a room in which people are allowed to be people. She made it very clear that if anything's going on with you as a person, our humanity is more important. Like this is a play, it's called "play," you know? And she also is very responsive to knowing that actors all work in different ways and very open to supporting each actor in whatever their process may be.

You truly are a multidisciplinary performing artist with an unusually wide-ranging skillset. Was that always your goal, or did it just sort of happen organically?

Well, I remember being in middle school and writing some essay about how I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be a ballet dancer or a musician. I did study ballet growing up, and the truth is I was not a great ballet dancer. I come from a family of musicians and so music was where I was headed initially and an injury ended up kind of shunting me over into dance, and doing dance I was starting to do a lot of work that had theater blended in and I loved it. So then I started doing a little more study and seeking out work that had more theatrical elements and then doing straight plays in theater. So it feels like it actually has been a fairly organic trajectory. Some of my favorite kinds of work to do are the ones where I can bring all of those things together. But I didn't set out to be like "I'm gonnna be a person who does everything." If I could just learn to draw, I feel like I'd be really set! [laughs]

You led your own dance company, EmSpace Dance, for something like 18 years. That's not an easy thing to pull off.

No, and it was definitely a very scrappy company, like me doing everything administrative, everything production, and having performers and other collaborators join me on a project-by-project basis. That was one of the things that felt most important to me for a long time, and I got a little bit burned out and have been very happy to be a different kind of collaborator on projects since then.

You were also in a feature-length film called Girl in Golden Gate Park that came out just last year.

Yeah, it was my first and only feature film. That was a really cool experience with some local filmmakers.

How did that project come about?

I actually got an audition because somebody I knew was friends with the filmmaker and thought I would be good for the role, so I just kind of happened to stumble into it. It was a very indie, very low-budget situation. We shot over the course of like a year, you know a few days here and there. Watching it now, it's like "Oh, this really is sort of a love letter to San Francisco." It's a bit about displacement, which feels always relevant here.

After Four Sisters, I believe you'll be co-directing Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 for the Shotgun Players in Berkeley?

Yes, I'm a company member with Shotgun Players and have been for a few years. I've actually ended up doing a lot of my work there, I think I've done six or seven plays. It's a modest-sized theater that really takes on plays that I think have larger ambitions and they do some really interesting work. Patrick [Dooley], the artistic director, asked me to co-direct Comet with him. I said "yes" partially because of the sort of reckoning going on in our country and with theater, and they're doing a lot of looking at how the structures are working within theater, and power-sharing and things like co-directing are some of the paths that are being explored.

I think it's gonna be really a great collaboration. Coming from dance, I am gonna choreograph as well, but I also feel like the kind of storytelling that gets done through visual elements and staging is a very strong suit for me. Patrick is more of like the actor-whisperer, so I think we have a good variety of skills that we're bringing, and I also just really love working in collaboration. One of the things with running the dance company was there's a certain loneliness, and I very much enjoy working in close collaboration.

I do want to shout out one other thing that I have coming up, which is a video project with a local playwright, Eugenie Chan, that is currently called The Truer History of the Chan Family. That's been through many iterations of readings, and was going to be a live stage, sort of vaudeville performance, and then there was going to be a digital, everybody-films-in-their-homes kind of version during COVID, but those all have been delayed, and now we're in this exciting place of looking at it as kind of a hybrid theater/film project. Ultimately that'll be something that you watch onscreen, but with a theater aesthetic. And it's also, like Four Sisters, a specifically Asian-American story.

Cool! I feel like even two years ago there would be like the Asian play for the year, and that was it. And now we suddenly seem to be getting all these Asian-American plays produced.

Yeah, and Sam Chanse has also written these characters specifically as mixed race, which for me as a mixed-race person is very exciting to see. Also, it is an Asian-American story, but the content isn't all specifically about our identity as Asian-American women. So, yeah, I feel like things hopefully, hopefully are getting to where there's not just the one play, and that the plays that different communities are creating have a multiplicity of voices and experiences and things that are getting expressed.

I'm glad you brought that up. Some of my own family members are mixed race, and I sometimes wonder - so who's going to write their stories?

Yeah, we do not see ourselves reflected so much. I remember like watching an anime, I think it was Big Hero 6 or something, and there was this character, and I was just like "That character is hapa." Like it is not named specifically in the show, but it brought tears to my eyes to see it. You know, it's just like "Here is a character that looks like me!"

And as an actor it's an interesting thing, too, because there's a lot of roles where it's like, "Oh, you're not Asian enough to play that," and "you're not white enough to play this." So it can feel a little like funny in that way, which also just does reflect like being mixed. In this culture sometimes it can feel like "Oh, I'm fluid and I can move through different kinds of spaces." But at the same time, finding your sense of belonging can be challenging.

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Monument, Or Four Sisters (A Sloth Play) will perform from May 11 - 29, 2022 at Magic Theatre's Fort Mason location (Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94123). For tickets and additional information, visit MagicTheatre.org.



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