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BWW Blog: Sharing Their Stories- An Interview with Seema Sueko

Seema Sueko is a true creator, leaving positive artistic change wherever she goes.

BWW Blog: Sharing Their Stories- An Interview with Seema Sueko

Hello Broadway lovers, creators, and theatre students around the world! Welcome back to the blog, and to my new segment: Sharing Their Stories. For the next few weeks, I'll be sharing the journeys and artistic discoveries of notable artists in my DC area, and around the world. Every person I've had the honor to speak with, carries unique experiences and perspectives about the constantly changing world of the arts. I hope their stories serve as inspiration, demystification of the road to artistic success, and as fuel to keep creating.

Throughout my life, theatre always served as an escape, a way to forget my current reality in favor of exploring a new world. It wasn't until quite recently I began looking deeper than the joyful escapism to embrace the socially conscious aspects of theatre and how it connects us all. And it wasn't until my interview with Seema Sueko, a theatre powerhouse and strategic consultant to Arena Stage (a theatre in Washington, DC) that I was able to put this discovery into words. Seema taught me that true performance doesn't solely serve to take us away from our current world. Instead, it also serves as a space of human connection and vulnerability, allowing us to collectively imagine a better tomorrow.

Throughout her career, Seema focused on how to use theatre to solve world problems, give a platform to diverse stories and actors, and connect with people from all backgrounds and professions. As a theatrical founder, director, researcher, and strategic thinker, Seema never just "staged a show." Instead, she ensured that every piece she produced aligned with the diverse interests of modern-day audiences. She constantly seeks to incorporate everyone into the artistic world, with a tailored theatrical experience unique to their self-interests. Her work helps tell a story where everyone has a seat at the table, diverse stories and audiences are welcomed, and everyone can hear their voice upon the stage.

Seema Sueko graduated with her degrees (BA in politics/govt. and MA in international relations) before starting off as a professional actor in the Chicago market. Her work led her through Seattle and New York before touching down in San Diego, where Seema quickly encountered two situations. The first was the lack of available work, with most union contracts distributed to out of towners. The second was a factor seen far too often in the arts: discrimination. "As a person in an Asian-American body (half Pakistani, half Japanese), I could very clearly see this was not body they were hiring." Seema knew she had to create work for herself and other actors like her. Here, we see the first instance of a common theme woven throughout Seema's theatrical career: focused problem solving. Seema promotes using your own agency to create opportunities and solve long standing problems in the arts. She never takes no for an answer, nor does she let any other agency take away her artistic power. So, faced with a lack of employment and an abundance of discrimination, Seema co-founded a theatre company- Mo`olelo.

Mo`olelo (Hawaiian for story) Performing Arts was founded as a socially conscious, community focused, equity theatre company. For the first few years, Seema worked to hire directors and cast members, fundraise for actor wages, and act in the plays herself. The switch to director came in Mo`olelo's third year, when Seema fell in love with a play (Since Africa) that no one else felt connected enough to direct. "So, I called up all my favorite directors and do you do this? I bought a couple of directing books, read them cover to cover, and I literally directed the show by the book." The show was an enormous hit, garnering awards and repeatedly sold out audiences, and a director was born.

Since Africa may have been Seema's first directorial experience, but it was in no way her last. She continued directing throughout her time at Mo`olelo and beyond, seeking to employ diverse actors, engage communities that typically didn't attend theatre, and act as a gateway theatre to tell the world's diverse stories. This also incorporates the next common theme throughout her career: self-interest. Before talking to Seema, I'd never heard this term used, least of all in reference to theatre. I know now that it's part of Seema's intensive preparation to direct plays, in a process called "consensus organizing." Consensus organizing, developed by Mike Eichler, ties the "self-interests" of different communities to achieve a common goal. This organization model, as opposed to conflict organizing (ex. protests), serves to create long term impacts and change through surfacing and organizing around mutual self-interest.

Seema worked with Mike Eichler himself to adapt his "consensus organization" model towards the theatre. The developed methodology had several steps to success. When Seema received a new play to direct, "I would start by doing a dramaturgical scan of whatever I was directing. Who are the people I want to see this play? Who are the experts I need to speak with to ensure the play is accurate?" She then would reach out to chosen experts a year in advance of the production, meeting with them to determine if her play and its values could connect with the expert's missions and goals. If they agreed, she would ask for their help in developing the play to serve their organization's mission. Not only did Seema use the concept of self-interest to make connections and involve diverse audiences, she was able to integrate multiple perspectives into the world of the arts and make her own play shine with its dramaturgical accuracy. In the words of Seema, "I prefer preparation as an arrow that goes both ways- what can I learn from you? What can I give to you? And vice versa."

Seema continued at Mo`olelo for another six years before considering her next move. The next step appeared with the development of a grant, Theater Communication Group's Leadership U[niversity]. This grant gave $75,000 and access to a year working one-on-one with a chosen mentor. Seema asked Molly Smith, artistic director at Arena Stage, to be her chosen mentor. The year spent in DC with Molly transformed Seema's life, teaching her about the raw human connection and openness with others theatre can provide. The rapid connection Molly and she built helped carry them through the rest of the mentorship year. "Through sharing our vulnerabilities and having each other's back, Molly and I built a basis of strong trust that exists to this day. It became the foundation of our relationship."

This brings us to another main thread woven throughout Seema's career: vulnerability. In everything she does, Seema emphasizes the need to connect on a deeper level through sharing your own vulnerabilities and insecurities. "In an authentic relationship, you have got to be vulnerable. Don't just brag about how great you are, instead go in wanting to learn something. Then you can talk about the craft in a robust way." Three years later, Seema was co-creating a Deputy Artistic Director position at Arena Stage with Molly. Then, a pandemic occurred. We know the one.

Left with an abundance of time for introspection and examination of her values, Seema realized that she "believes that theatre, the art form, is transformative. But it cannot transform alone. I have to be intentional and deliberate to activate my art form, to use theatre to serve a public good." And she knew it was time to find a new way to spread the good. Presently, she's assuming a more strategic role, consulting Arena Stage, and managing the multiple projects she created during her time as Deputy Artistic Director. With the extra time on her hands, she now focuses on directing new projects and connecting with DC's Think Tanks, exploring how theatre can activate their research and policy.

And here she is today. A successful creator like her could easily forget about those who have not yet "made it." Not Seema. She has one last problem to solve. "I want to surface and diversify the employer base for artists to be able to create. There's just not enough work for artists." She looks out for those coming up behind her, maintains open and loving relationships with those working with her, and seeks to change the future for all of us. Seema Sueko is a true creator, leaving positive artistic change wherever she goes. Even during times of uncertainty, she remains confident in the connecting ability of art. "Theatre never broke during this pandemic. We still need theatre." She reminds us that we're stronger together, through openly sharing our stories, and then lifting each other up so that the world can hear our voices. Then together, we can change the future of the arts.

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