Mo`olelo in San Diego Reader

August 30, 2008

The cover story in the August 27 issue of the San Diego Reader, “Stay Awake for the Ten O’Clock Show” by Matthew Lickona, is about La Jolla Playhouse, their Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, and their residency program. You can read the entire article at http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2008/aug/27/cover/. Here’s the section about the residency program and Mo`olelo:

“Part of the mandate for myself was that I wanted to have a local theater company in residence. We’re going to have a new company every year. We were looking for a company without a permanent home, one that was doing really interesting work and was ready for taking the next step vis-à-vis what we could give them” — a well-equipped home with a prestige address for two shows and exposure to a curious, adventurous audience.

“The day I got here, I started looking through the papers and the publicity to see what I should be seeing. I went from downtown San Diego to La Jolla, from basements to churches, seeing every company I could find. I was trying to jam as many people’s work into my memory as I could. That way, when we were looking at applications, I would have a framework: ‘Oh, I’ve seen them.’ ”

One of those companies was Mo’olelo, founded by Seema Sueko; Ashley attended the opening night of Cowboy versus Samurai, an Asian-American retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac. Explains Sueko, “Underneath the issue of the nose, it’s transferred to race, and some other issues come out around how the characters limit themselves based on identity. The main character, who is Korean, chooses to write letters for his friend, who is Caucasian, because he thinks this Korean-American woman likes only white guys.”

The treatment of identity made the play of a piece with the rest of Mo’olelo’s productions, works like remains, which explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; A Piece of My Heart, which focuses on women who served in Vietnam; and Since Africa, which tells the story of a Lost Boy of Sudan and his efforts at resettlement in America. “There are two volunteers helping him, a Caucasian Chicago socialite and the deacon at a black Catholic church. They live in different Americas — which one does he get settled into, and how does his identity factor into that?”

Sueko first heard about Ashley’s resident-company plan through press interviews. She heard about it again at the reception given Ashley at the W Hotel when he arrived in town. When the program was officially announced in January, she was ready, and Ashley was impressed. “I think we had ten theaters apply for the first year, and they were really strong applications. All ten basically made the case for why they were ready for attention and how they would use our resources to create exciting theater. Mo’olelo made a great case, but honestly, if no new companies applied, I could do the next eight years with what I’ve already got.”

Like Kaufman, the choice of Mo’olelo seems an easy one, especially in light of Ashley’s vision of involving the community — it’s integral to every show Mo’olelo puts on. Consider Night Sky, the first show they’ll be putting on at the Playhouse. Says Sueko, “Kristen Brandt, the former artistic director at the Sledgehammer Theatre, mailed me the script in November of 2006.” (In this and other respects, the production fairly drips with locality — starting with the idea of doing it in the first place.) “She said, ‘This looks like something that might fit for Mo’olelo.’ It focuses on aphasia, a type of brain injury. It’s about an astronomy professor who is rendered aphasic after suffering a concussion. A big part of what we do is community outreach in conjunction with each play, and she was saying, ‘Maybe there is outreach work you can do at stroke centers and things like that.’ ”

Then, in February of ’07, “One of our audience members came up after a performance and said, ‘Have you ever considered a play that deals with brain injury? I used to be the executive director of the Brain Injury Foundation here in San Diego — there’s a large community. The stories around brain injury are heroic and epic and funny — really great stories.’ ” (Another local impetus.) Sueko gave him the script; he shared it with the Foundation. “They liked it; they thought it really captured what aphasia was about.” (Local involvement at the level of content.)

Finally, in May of ’07, the Mo’olelo board met to discuss its 2008 projects. From the company’s blog: “In a unique moment of art imitating life, or rather life guiding art, Joe Hiel, husband of board member Elaine Hiel, who had been patiently reading the paper…perked up. He pulled out the San Diego Union-Tribune, which featured a front-page article about soldiers returning from Iraq with brain injury. Joe, whose stroke in 1981 rendered him aphasic, pointed to the news article, referenced the play, and said, ‘This is me.’ The decision was made.”

Since then, says Sueko, “We’ve been reaching out to the brain-injured community. It isn’t just ‘Hey, buy a ticket to see a show about people like you!’ It’s to encourage the community to be a partner, to take ownership of the project. And it’s because we need the community to even do it. I’m going to play the character with aphasia, but I knew nothing about it, so I needed dramaturgical support from the brain-injured community.” Sueko attended speech-therapy classes for the aphasic — her character’s inability to express herself is a key theme. She spent time with the aphasic and those who care for the aphasic, learning about their troubles and how they deal with them, getting a sense for them as people. From the Mo’olelo blog: “Don Strom survived a brain aneurysm in 1992 that rendered him aphasic.” He and his wife Jane “navigated through the journey of brain injury recovery and aphasia…a journey which changed them both but which they did together. They are a model for how a couple can face a crisis and not only survive but grow…Thanks to Jane and Don, I’m starting to crystallize some ideas about Anna,” the play’s protagonist. (Local involvement in the play’s artistic development.)

(Clearly, it isn’t just “Hey, buy a ticket,” but Sueko is happy to grant that community outreach is a crucial part of her marketing plan. “We spend a majority of our time fundraising and writing donation letters; our ticket revenues cover only about 30 percent of the cost of each show, and we offer free tickets to community groups based on need. But we can go out into the community and establish relationships with key people who can help spread the word. When we did Since Africa, we sold out before it even opened, and one of the reasons was community outreach. We had the Sudanese Refugee Network, the International Rescue Committee, the National Conflict Resolution Center. And our leading actor was a Lost Boy of Sudan and had written a book. Whenever he went to a speaking engagement, he would mention the show.”)

Sueko is unabashed about Mo’olelo’s social-issue overtones. “With the returning Iraq War vets who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, I think it’s crucial for the San Diego community to become more aware about these things — how do we support brain-injury survivors of all kinds? I don’t see theater as being this exclusive thing that lives out on the side of things. I think theater is most effective when it is central to the civic dialogue. I spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and I was speaking with an Israeli playwright there — this was during my formative years in college. He said that theater should be the temples, the mosques, the synagogues, the churches of our lifetime, where people can really grapple with issues. Theater should be a place where people come and have dialogue and leave having heard something — a perspective that maybe they have not heard before. But they should also leave feeling reflected on stage. The hallmark of Mo’olelo is specifically that: making a show that has multiple perspectives and using it to create community dialogue. Bringing in communities who would not typically sit in the same room together, fostering bridges. There can be work done beyond the show.”

Night Sky, to some extent, seems to be about giving voice to those who might be literally voiceless. Past Mo’olelo shows, however, give a clearer picture of the kind of dialogue Sueko mentioned — dialogue between groups “who would not typically sit in the same room.” “We cannot live in a world which sees people as just labels,” says Sueko. “Well, we can, but it’s ultimately dangerous and unproductive. When I was writing remains, I workshopped it with both the local Jewish community and the local Palestinians, and I talked with some Christian Arab communities. When we did A Piece of My Heart, we partnered with the Veterans’ Museum and used their venue for the play. After doing remains, our database was all social activists. We wanted to have a dialogue about Vietnam and about the current conflict. After the play, we had conversations that really broke down bridges. We had social activists talking with the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. They didn’t see each other as opposites but as humans. They might seem like small things, but for the individuals, they are huge.”

That kind of social commitment helps explain why Mo’olelo performed just one show a year until 2007, when it scaled up to two. Sueko came to San Diego in 2003 as an Equity actor, only to find that few directors in San Diego would hire her unless she gave up her Equity card. “If you give it up, you’re cheaper, and you don’t get health insurance and that sort of thing. I talked with other Equity actors who were experiencing the same thing, and I thought, ‘I can sit around and bitch and moan about it, or I can create a small theater company that says: we will pay union wages to local actors. It’s a line item on the budget, a big one, but one we’ll never cut.’ ” And that kind of commitment helps make San Diego a more attractive destination for would-be actors — bringing Ashley’s vision of San Diego as a major theater city one step closer to fruition.

In Sueko’s eyes, it’s practically synergy. “The Playhouse is demonstrating that you can be a major, national force on the theater scene, a theater that artists from all over the world are dying to work at, and at the same time, you can nourish the community in which you live. I think the theater residency demonstrates that.” And she agrees with Ashley that the artistic spirit is fomenting in town. “In the past five, six, seven years, there have been a number of small companies like Mo’olelo that have been able to launch and survive. That speaks volumes.”

The pieces are in place; now it’s just a matter of making it all happen and keeping things exciting and varied. “It’s an ongoing task for every theater in America,” says Ashley. “How do you keep on broadening?” One way is to engage the community — or communities: playwrights, audiences, actors, other companies. Another way is to expand the notion of what theater is. The Playhouse expansion included a restaurant, and Ashley is happy that it will offer space for a cabaret. “It’s going to be exciting, programming the cabaret, having music as part of the experience. The real question I have is this: people keep telling me that everyone in San Diego goes home by ten. That late-night San Diego is not so much a thing. Are we going to be able to keep an audience awake for a ten o’clock show? That will be interesting.”

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