Tuesday, May 16, 2006

INTERVIEW – Seema Sueko

Seema Sueka visited me recently at my home in North Park. As it turned out it was my first “casual” interview conducted on the living room rug. It must have something to do with how comfortable she makes you feel. And within minutes of chatting she made the startling announcement that my dog Yatzachi had just French-kissed her (She’s had all her shots so not to worry). That seemed to break the fast-melting ice even more. Seema is not in the least bothered by aggressively French-kissing dogs, nor the daunting task of pushing her current agenda, the bulk of her energy and time invested in the promotion and development of the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company.

Cuauhtémoc Q. Kish (CQK): How did you arrive on San Diego soil?

Seema Sueko (SS): I was born in Pakistan (father’s side is Pakistani; mother’s side is Japanese) and 10 months later the family moved to Hawaii. I actually grew up in Hawaii and moved from there to attend college in Tacoma, Washington. After graduation from the University of Peugeot Sound I attended grad school at the University of Chicago. From there I lived in Seattle (Chorus Line) for a short time; then New York City, and finally to San Diego.

CQK: How much time did you spent in New York and how was that experience?

SS: I spent a half year there (2002) before my husband got a job opportunity in San Diego. There are lots of wonderful opportunities in New York for an actor. If you work hard, you’ll find both work and an agent within a short time.

[Mo’olelo’s 2006 Season: The Adoption Project: TRIAD, Since Africa and My Home.]

CQK: You founded Mo’olelo after you relocated to San Diego?

SS: Actually, the Company was founded in 2000 in Hawaii with Kim (Palma) as a non-profit corporation. We had been involved in various projects that pulled us away from Mo’olelo but after I arrived in San Diego both of us started putting more attentions into the Company.

CQK: You’ve been extremely busy making Mo’olelo a vibrant, new contributor to the Theatre Community in San Diego. How is it different from other companies?

SS: I wanted the focus to be multi-cultural. In addition, I wanted to work with actors, writers, designers, and directors who may not be in a position to get main-stream opportunities.

[Mission Statement (abridged): Mo’olelo exists to uncover and research stories within different communities and bring them to life on stage, using all the artistic and technical elements of the performing arts. It exists to produce original stories by contemporary writers. It exists to educate youth in technical theatre and design. Mo’olelo is the Hawaiian word for story, legend, tale or narrative.]

CQK: What’s the most important aspect of recruiting for Mo’olelo?

SS: Individuals working within our organization should have a strong work ethic. They need to know that a lot of the work we do is not glamorous. A good match with Mo’olelo is an individual who can figure out how to get stuff done; look for the resources and seek the proper advice. They need to bring a vision and be courageous.

CQK: How do you find the right people?

SS: Many of them come with good reputations; others, you don’t know until you actually work with them.

CQK: One of your successful productions with Mo’olelo was Remains. Are you currently developing other writing projects?

SS: I’m involved in a project that has been commissioned by Mixed Blood in Minneapolis as a co-writer. Velina Hasu Houston (challenged with writing the first scene) and four other playwrights will write as a tag-team, each writing a scene and then passing it onto the next writer. It will be reviewed by the Dramatist’s Association and a dramaturge. It’s carries a bi-racial theme and it is hoped that we will have a workshop in 2007.

CQK: Remains has been produced outside of San Diego; how did that happen?

SS: Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota chose to produce this play after reviewing a couple hundred scripts written by female writers about the Palestine/Israeli conflict.

CQK: How do you balance your priorities between your acting career and your responsibility to Mo’olelo?

SS: It’s a symbiotic relationship at best. I must say that—at this point—I would put Mo’olelo ahead of my individual acting pursuits. I’ve turned down a few acting jobs, but if I was offered a role in which I would grow from I would certainly consider it. It has to be the right role at the right time.

CQK: You worked in a show called Within the Silence about the internment of the Japanese during WWII. Can you tell us something about the experience?

SS: The show was produced through Living Voices out of Chicago. They develop one-person shows from a historical, informational and educational perspective.

CQK: I went to a recent reading (The Squirrel Wife) sponsored by Mo’olelo and written by Kimber Lee. What’s the status of that project and how did you meet her?

SS: Kimber Lee and I met as actors at the Indiana Rep. She’s based in Seattle (Dramaturge for Empty Space Theatre) and we just kept in touch, exchanging some of our material, and that lead to Mo’olelo’s commissioning her for The Adoption Project: TRIAD. We both think theatre is less about us and more about creating opportunities.

CQK: What is your next project for Mo’olelo?

SS: Mia McCullough’s Since Africa is scheduled for the fall. It is the story of Alter, a boy from Sudan, and two volunteers who try to acclimate him to life in urban America (Chicago). It’s about the complexities of refugee resettlement. At times you’re suffering the loss of home and family and ritual (loss of culture); you’re still grieving.

CQK: Can you tell us something about the educational component that is working in conjunction with Since Africa?

SS: The educational component includes working with students in a community building and trust building project. It’s an interaction that will expose them to how theatre is made from beginning to end. The project is partnered with the International Rescue Mission and the after school program in place at Crawford High School that includes refugees from Somalia, Vietnam, Mexico and Sudan, among others.

CQK: Tell us a little more about The Adoption Project.

SS: It was inspired from interviews with members of the adoption community. It includes music, humor, and different styles. We got great feedback from the recent reading, but it’s still a work-in-progress.

ABOUT SEEMA:

[Theatre Roles: Intelligent Life of Jenny Chow (Yale Rep & The Old Globe Theatre), A Chorus Line ((The 5th Avenue Theatre), West Side Story (Village Theatre, Seattle), Remains, A Piece of My Heart, The Phoenician Women (Synapse Prod/NYC), One Thousand Cranes (Indiana Rep), China Doll (NW Asian American Theatre), The Crime of the Century (Circle Theatre), Pentecost (Theatre Building/Chicago), Waiting Room (Stage Left/Chicago), Five Women Wearing the Same Dress (Circle Theatre/Chicago) & more.]

CQK: Describe yourself in three words?

SS: Collaborative, driven and focused.

CQK: What do you bring to San Diego that no one else does?

SS: Union work for local actors; paying health insurance to those same actors. I have a commitment to pay all actors and create theatre that is not limited to a passive theatrical experience.

CQK: You get full houses for all of your productions; what’s the secret?

SS: I work hard at community theatre building that might benefit generations to come.

CQK: Was your childhood ambition to be an actor?

SS: My first experience as an actor was at the age of 12, but I had other ambitions (Seema has a grad degree in International Relations) to work in Middle East politics.

CQK: How does Seema unwind away from the theatre?

SS: I walk my dog, Sara; she’s an Australian Cattle dog mix.

CQK: At the end of the day what does the word accomplishment mean to you?

SS: It just reminds me that I have a lot to do; that my plate is full.

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical word?

SS: I have two words for you: relationship and ensemble.

CQK: Any recent theatrical experiences?

SS: I enjoy just about anything that Rick Seers (Director) does. He has a great eye and focuses on relationships. He honors what the playwright has written and I’m looking forward to seeing his latest effort, Trying, at the Cassius Carter.

San Diego is truly blessed to have Seema Sueko and Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company in our own backyard. If we treat them neighborly, they may stay forever. Already Seema has proved to be more than just a neighbor; she’s to be considered family.

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