Theater In Dialogue
The Light and the Dark of Susan Soon He Stanton
I first met the intriguing Susan Soon He Stanton in the development phase of her career—initially, through her time as an inaugural Van Lier Fellow at The Lark in 2011, and then the following year though Rising Circle’s PlayRise play development program. During this time, I was fortunate to hear several of her works through readings, as well as to be in the room as she wrapped her supremely intelligent mind around her play The Underneath, which followed a young man’s journey back to his home in Honolulu in search of his missing brother. I remember being so intoxicated by how Susan showed a darker side of her native Hawai’i, but also a family full of secrets and humor and regret just like so many others; there is a slyness to Susan’s work where just when you think you understand the world you are in, an unexpected layer reveals itself.
Through the years, I’ve followed Susan’s work, and she has become a close friend and colleague; we often joke that we are each other’s nemeses, but really we are anything but. My tail wags just thinking about the rocket ship last couple years Susan has had—from her residencies with Sundance, to her being named on The Kilroys List three times, to her Lark Venturous Playwrights Fellowship, to her staff writing at HBO on Succession, to this fall where she has two productions opening in New York. Of course if you ask Susan about any of these amazing accolades, she says very little in her own, endearing way.
The first of her fall productions, Solstice Party!, which begins performances November 2nd, is a commission from with the design driven company Live Source Theatre Group. The play is described as a “Jonestown parable for the Trump era, in which a group of friends celebrate the Summer Solstice at a farm in the deep upstate New York woods,” and what begins as a celebration weekend turns far darker as we explore themes of “group-think and betrayal that instigate our deepest primal fear.” That said, Solstice is also very funny, while it explores several couples and their broken relationships as they attempt to make it through a weekend together. According to Susan, “This is a play about failure, that I’ve felt from people I love; this kind of anxiety and frustration and disappointment.” Often in Susan’s work, characters will almost effortlessly reveal one of those failures.
From the play, the host of the farm, Dominique, talks to Pipi, one of his guests (the date of a friend) for the weekend:
Sometimes you wake up and think, who is this person? It’s hard to know someone so well and feel that they are an absolute stranger. Jo Ann told me that there were two whole years where she did not like me very much. And I felt those years, acutely. But eventually she said she came around to me again. Haha.
It must be so nice though, to get that part of your life over with. Dating is so exhausting. Like. Tinder? There’s nothing less empty than repeating the “how I came to NY” story four times a week. And “this is why I am a meaningful flower” story to try to make someone think you are special. . .
Andrew isn’t really speaking to me right now.
Set amidst woods and a nearby lake, each character clings to this idea of a weekend escaping their worries. And yet they are surrounded by a foreboding sense that they are not safe. I ask Susan about this, and she explains, “I felt like there was a collective liberal keening after the election, and I wanted to investigate this anxiety. Youngish people who live in NYC are in a bubble, but how are they processing this grief?” And while this play doesn’t center on the current political climate specifically, the characters are attempting to create, as Susan describes, “this self-created utopia upstate; they talk big, they hide out, they play music and pretend they still aren’t tied to the larger world. An escapist folk dream.”
The play was also commissioned by Live Source, an origin which has left its traces on the script. “Live Source is a theater company run by designers, so their first prompt was thinking about the outdoors, bringing the outdoors in,” says Susan. “We talked about Jonestown, and cults, we talked about the woods and how to create a world that would be exciting on stage. So I wasn't going to write a living room play.”
And while Solstice is indeed a play where one doesn’t want to reveal too much of how the weekend transpires, Susan wants her theater to feel dangerous—in many of her plays there is a sense that the worlds could suddenly become unhinged at any point. “I think there’s a sense of nameless dread pervading all my writing,” she tells me.
In Today Is My Birthday, beginning performances November 28th with Page 73 Productions, the characters deal with their fears in an entirely different way: they reach out only through technology, never with direct human contact.
A playwright note from the script:
This is a play that entirely takes place on the telephone, live radio, voice message, and intercom. No characters are in the same physical location as Emily.
In the play, Emily returns home to O’ahu from NYC and gets a gig as a call-in actor on a radio show—which leads her to think she can create a new life in which she won’t have to actually engage with her problems in person. The play is described as “a comedy about loneliness in the age of connection.” In fact, the idea for the play came when Susan herself was asked to perform as an actor on a radio show and had to flirt with an imaginary guy on the air, and she thought, “Oh, the crazier version of me would try to figure out who that guy was to see if the connection was real.”
She has developed the play over the past two years with director Kip Fagan and sound designer Palmer Hefferan, and the isolation of her character on stage has been central to their work: “It’s been a huge question about the physical world of the space, how to do this play in three-dimensions. What the set should look like, how can actors interact with each other in a satisfying way when they are never in the same room together.”
While the play is not literally biographical, like the lead character Susan considers herself a displaced person. “I’m from Hawai’i, but live mostly in New York, and earlier this year was in London, and you leave a part of yourself in every place, so you’re never fully whole. While I’m in New York, I’m missing Hawai’i; when I’m in Hawai’i, I definitely feel out of sorts,” she tells me. “And I think that’s a very modern, common feeling; like what is this village? We don’t have that anymore. Especially in New York, we’re all from someplace else, so we’re all displaced by choice. But our needs as a community haven’t changed,” she explains. “We have all this technology, we have all these ways of reaching each other, but we’re not necessarily being nourished the way we used to be. So the way that you could be fulfilled by twenty people, now you might have two-thousand people that you’re semi in communication with through online, but it’s not that same depth.”
In the play, Emily reaches out to attempt connection, often hilariously, but also keeps people at bay, namely her parents. Like so many of us, Emily has trouble finding the time to return their calls or the patience to humor what they have to say. But Susan allows space for those beautiful moments when connection happens despite ourselves.
From the play, Emily’s dad tells her what he’s listening to in the background:
Can you hear it?
[The opening dissonance of Charles Ives’s “Central Park in the Dark.”]
This is “Central Park in the Dark.” Ives evokes a sense of being in the center of the city at night. It’s made out of fragments of a ragtime song mixed with a Church hymn and then a marching band number. He put them all together and made something new out of it. And then, you know that song from the frog in Looney Tunes? “Hello my baby, hello my honey?”
That’s in there too.
Doesn’t it sound terrible?
Some people think so.
It can be beautiful and emotional,
but also cacophonous.
He called it The Grind.
And it keeps on going,
and more complex
until it becomes
[They listen to Charles Ives. Music fades up.]
In the script, just following this section, Susan has inserted a black and white image of a man walking alone; the image is lonely and reminds me of those nights you’d give anything just to be back home, whatever that word means to you. I ask Susan about the use of placing images in her plays, something she does often. “I feel like that moment in the play is very heightened. Very lost in the woods,” she explains. “So it’s an image that evokes the feeling, as you can’t hear the music when you’re reading the script. So in lieu of the music, you have this image. This black and white grainy image of a man in the snow in Central Park. And I feel like there’s lots of moments where you feel that alone in New York.”
When we find ourselves in the same city, Susan and I will often meet over drinks and discuss our careers, what’s working, what isn’t, what we want, and what we’re scared of. And while these two NYC productions make her nervous and excited, it isn’t lost on her that she is moving into the life of a full-time working playwright, television writer, and screenwriter. Yet she still recalls what it’s been like to work her way up and keep moving forward despite the ups and downs of the business: “Well, you know, I used to feel like ‘Oh, if I could just get into the right grad school, oh, if I could just get an agent, if I could just get a production’. You never feel secure, but at the same time if you did feel like you’d arrived, then you wouldn’t keep working hard. So on some level it’s sort of a curse because you can never really feel satisfied, but that always means you’re going to grow and develop.”
In thinking about Susan’s work, and the threads that run through it, I instantly think of a peculiar sense of humor that is at times laugh-out-loud funny, but also has this undercurrent of sincere human disquiet that we can all relate to. There is light and dark. And it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from a Susan Soon He Stanton play, which I am always asking her to tell me again. It is from her play Furball and it feels fitting to her work and how it seems to function.
From the play:
I’m more than my job. Within me, there’s a potential for greatness. I wanted to be an inventor. I thought up some ideas, like a flashlight that when you turn it on, it absorbs darkness. Like, an inverse flashlight…I’ve patented it but I don’t know how to manufacture it.