Sunday, February 5, 2012

PART THREE OF THREE: An Interview With Seema Sueko, Co-Founder and Executive Artistic Director of Mo`olelo


Which production in Mo`olelo’s seven year history are you most proud of? And what production in your upcoming eighth year are you most excited about?

I love all my children equally [laughs]. We did a play in 2006 called “Since Africa” which was about a lost boy of Sudan and his resettlement in the US. It was our third year of production and the play sold out before we even opened. It did very well and then The Old Globe decided to produce it in 2009 and I directed it there. So, that was a play that went from our tiny stage all the way to The Old Globe, and I’m very proud of that. I think that is one of our significant achievements.

I’m also really proud of our production of “Yellow Face.” A lot of things just came together nicely with that production. We were able to bring out David Henry Hwang (the playwright) and he really liked the production and has now become a good friend of the company.

Show posters for "Since Africa" in 2006 and "Yellow Face" in 2010. Poster art courtesy of Mo`olelo.

As for our eighth year, our next play “How I Got That Story” is what I’m most focused on right now. It’s a two man play and we’ve got two great actors. Brian Bielawski plays a reporter who is sent to a fictional land called Amboland, which is a representation of Vietnam, to cover the war. And while he’s there he meets the character played by Greg Watanabe called “The Historical Event,” which is about 20 different roles (male/female, young/old, American/Ambanese) portrayed by one actor. The play was written in 1979 but the issues are so relevant today, especially to a country that is still fighting a war in Afghanistan, evaluating in hindsight what happened in Iraq, and struggling to reintegrate combat veterans back into civilian life. So right now, at this very moment, I’m most excited about that.

Actors Greg Watanabe (in black) and Brian Bielawski (in gray) at the first read through of "How I Got That Story" on January 26, 2012. Photo courtesy of Mo`olelo.

In this economy, many theatres are either filing for bankruptcy or barely staying afloat financially. Yet Mo`olelo is thriving, having just come off one of the most successful years in its seven year history. What is the secret to success?

Financially, the toughest years for theatres were 2008 and 2009. The American Theatre Magazine, TCG, does these “taking the fiscal pulse” surveys and if I recall correctly, the percentages of companies that were doing better than their projected budgets was higher at the end of fiscal year 2011 then it had been in, say, 2009. So things are actually getting better.

Now there certainly are stories of companies that are experiencing hardships and filing for bankruptcy and closing their doors. Personally, and I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. When I was doing theatre in Chicago, we used to say “a theatre company is born and a theatre company dies every day in Chicago…and it’s a beautiful thing.” What it means is that there is constant artistic energy coming into the city and then a lot of those artists find their footing and they get work at larger companies, so the companies no longer have their purpose of showcasing those artists and they dissolve. Organizations shouldn’t exist simply for the organization’s sake. If they aren’t serving a mission and they aren’t serving a community, then why have the organization? And certainly, if Mo`olelo ever gets to the point where we’re irrelevant, then by all means, we need to dissolve. And don’t mourn. It doesn’t erase what the organization and the company has achieved in the past. That will live on in the memories, the hearts, and the minds of audiences who experienced it.

Now back to your question….the secret to success. If there’s one thing I’m really good at it is surrounding myself with people who are far smarter than me. Surrounding myself with really, really good people. At Mo`olelo, we have been blessed with a terrific Board of Trustees, many very talented theatre artists, and community organization partners who know their communities much better than we do. The hard work, dedication, and commitment of all these entities have helped us succeed.

The Queen of Green: Seema at the Miramar Recycling Center. As one way of innovating the field, Mo`olelo started a "greening" initiative in 2007. The company has developed a "Green Theatre Choices Toolkit" which is currently being implemented by theatres around the world. Photo by K. C. Alfred.

Where do you hope to see Mo`olelo in 10-15 years from now?

What would that be…like 2022? There are four main things that we currently do: we produce plays, we do consensus organizing (essentially building relationships and building audiences), we run arts education programs, and we innovate the field (basically finding ways to improve the field).

You know, Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the NEA, made a statement last year that sent our industry in a tizzy when he said, “We have a supply and demand problem. There are too many theatres out there. Demand isn’t going to increase, so clearly supply needs to decrease.” I think our consensus organizing process actually increases demand for theatre: it has been a very successful way to engage audiences that don’t traditionally attend the theatre and thus increase demand for theatre. So we’re trying to codify it and we want to disseminate that to the field.

And this last thing of innovating the field is the thing that a lot of our audiences may not be aware of, but I think it’s the thing that gets us on the national radar because we’re not just about producing plays. We’re about producing plays that are reflective of our community and we’re committed to innovating the field.

So all that to say 10-15 years from now, I hope we are still innovating the field. I don’t know what those innovations will be, but that would be the goal: that we’re finding ways to do what it is theatre is best at, but doing it better.

For more information about Seema Sueko and Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, visit:

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