Interview: Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton
Diversity in the Entertainment Industry
The lovely and talented playwright Susan Soon He Stanton talks to BanterGirl about her life in the theater, being a “play-maker," and why plays are important.
In a culture that consumes most of their entertainment via computer and television screens, why are plays still relevant?
It’s scary. I don’t think we should assume theater is automatically relevant, and part of the problem is that play-makers and most of all, play producers do not always strive to put up work that is relevant and essential for a modern audience. There’s nothing worse than a bad play—where you are stuck inside the house, and you feel trapped. But good theater can be electrifying. A good play can shatter you; it can change your life. I think in popular culture, Hamilton is a clear example of how much a play can do.
What is an important lesson that you've learned while pursuing this career in playwriting?
Find your collaborators. Find the people you trust and want to make work with. Because writing the play is only the first step in the process, and it’s essential to find directors, dramaturges, actors, designers, and producers who share in the vision of bringing the story to life.
As a young writer, I was discouraged by well-meaning mentors who often told me how to write, what to write about, and what I should and shouldn’t be striving for. An undergrad professor told me I was not ready for grad school, and so I thought I couldn't get in and put off applying for years because I was intimidated and insecure. Then I got into my first choice school, the first time I applied. I loved grad school, I was ready, and it was the right choice for me. I wondered, why had I spent so many years listening to his voice and not my own?
I also received this piece of advice from Martin Epstein. His advice stuck with me because I received it at a time when I was questioning whether or not I should continue playwriting.
“If you haven't already begun, read. Cannibalize the classics and track down great plays of the present moment—discover what 'great' means, but never imitate until you've absorbed the influence in ways to stimulate your own take on things. And see as many plays as you can afford until you can't stand it. It's best to see amazing plays and terrible plays.”
What would be your number one token of advice to someone who is interested in pursuing a career as a playwright?
I mean, my super jaded answer to your question is, I would tell them to pursue TV instead. But writing plays is a foolish, beautiful thing. Playwriting is a long game. No one wants to talk about the nitty gritty of daily living. It’s pretty damn hard to make a living as a playwright. So what will allow you to write and keep going? Is it a full-time job and you write in the morning, on weekends? Is it a freelance matrix with a lot of flexibility but no security? I know a writer who goes from one writing retreat to another and lives very carefully, to avoid paying rent. The thing is, if you are too unhappy with your life, or don’t have what you need on the day-to-day, then you can’t sustain it. So my advice is, figure out what you need to do to live and keep writing, so you don’t get frustrated and stop.
In terms of writing, my advice is to tell stories that matter to you in the most powerful way you can. Keep writing, keep working, continue to develop your voice until you cannot be denied. Find people you want to make that work with you and show it.
I mean, that’s what I tell myself.
Who are some female playwrights that you admire, and why?
There are so many! Paula Vogel, not only for her boundless imagination and depth, but also her dedication as a master teacher. Lynn Nottage for the power of her words. Anne Washburn for her distinct, theatrical play-worlds. There are also new voices in the American Theater that cannot be denied—Christina Anderson, Dipika Guha, Meg Miroshnik, Leah Nanako Winkler, Charise Castro Smith, Caroline V. McGraw, Sam Chanse, Rehana Mirza, and Jackie Sibblies Drury to name a few. Read their plays.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a new play called we, the invisibles. I began it at the Civilians R&D Group (http://www.thecivilians.org/dev/programs/rdgroup.html) . It’s about life in a hotel and about the allegedly rape by DSK of the hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo. It’s been very interesting, very different to write a play based on interviews and research I’ve gathered first-hand. I recently had a really exciting workshop of this play at the Playwrights Center at PlayLabs. I love having artistic dates with different cities and introducing my work to different communities. Minneapolis has been great, it’s a town full of awesome playwrights, with serious dedication to the arts.
I’m also working on a newly devised play with Caitlin Sullivan. And this summer at Berkeley Rep, I began building a show about intimacy with Lileana Blaine-Cruz. It’s been a really interesting year for me. I’m starting all of these projects far out of my comfort zone.
What is your ultimate career goal within this field?
I could say, you know, that I wanted to win every award, get produced on Broadway, on the West End, and be published, and taught in every college around the world. That probably wouldn't be untrue. But I think the more lasting happiness comes from finding your audience and making meaningful work with your team.
Theater is so scary. Best-case scenario it’s amazing, and then you lose it—it’s very ephemeral. I think it is very easy to fail at making good theater. So my shorter version to this question would be: my goal is to tell stories that resonate. To tell stories that are lasting, and hopefully, write something that matters.