Melding Artistry and Activism:
By Donnie Matsuda
It’s a good thing Seema Sueko rarely does things by the book. Her unique and unconventional approach to building her own theatre company has paid off nicely: the now 7-year old Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company is well respected and nationally recognized for its socially engaging work, its commitment to new theatrical innovations, and its community outreach to diverse and disenfranchised populations. Now, coming off a red banner year in 2011 (garnering The American Theatre Wing’s National Theatre Company Award and Equity’s Ivy Bethune Award), Mo`olelo is ready to launch its most ambitious year yet, offering a full season of three ethnically diverse and socially relevant plays.
And still at the helm of it all is the compassionate, broad-minded, and fiscally prudent Sueko, who is proud of her past achievements, but at the same time cautiously optimistic about the future of her ever-growing company. Recently, I sat down with her at The 10th Avenue Theatre where Mo`olelo performs to learn more about what inspires her, what plays capture her interest, and what she thinks is the secret to her success.
PART ONE: BACKGROUND
I’m curious…what is your ethnic background and where did you grow up?
I’m half Pakistani and half Japanese. I was born in Karachi Pakistan and then raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. My family left Pakistan when I was 10 months old and moved back to Hawaii, which is where my mother is from. More specifically, I’m fourth generation on the Japanese side and second generation on the Pakistani side.
Any particular artists or teachers who inspired you while you were growing up?
My older sister was the one who started getting involved in theatre as a child and I had the good fortune of being the younger sister and watching her and being inspired by her. I think when I was 12 I started declaring “I want to be an actor when I grow up,” but, honestly, I didn’t believe it was possible to work in theatre at that time. I would say it, but I don’t think I really believed it until much later.
When did you start doing theatre?
I started acting professionally in Chicago. My undergraduate degree is in politics and government from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, but it’s a small liberal arts college so I could do music and theatre in addition to politics. Then, I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and studied International Relations with a focus on Middle East politics. It was a one year masters program and there was no time for music and theatre. That’s when I realized how much the music and theatre were balancing my life. The University of Chicago is very theory oriented and, as a result, I felt so disconnected from people. Instead of living in the clouds of academia and in the land of international relations theory, I felt there was a greater opportunity to affect change through performance. So, I finished the masters degree and then just started acting in Chicago. So that would have been around 1995 when I started working as a professional actor in Chicago.
And what kind of theatre did you do?
Well, I feel like I can spot a Chicago play from a mile away. It’s an aesthetic I love…it is usually ensemble focused and relationship focused with acting that is very raw. My first play was “A Piece of My Heart” at Circle Theatre which is about women who served in the Vietnam War. It was very visceral, very raw, and very real. I worked with so many great actors and directors in Chicago who are so talented but you may never hear about them because they have no reason to leave Chicago. The theatre community there is so amazing and you can really make a living as an actor. It’s a great place.
And after Chicago, where did you go?
My husband is a sportscaster and he got a job in Spokane, Washington. Previously, he had moved out to Chicago to be with me so it was payback time. We moved to Spokane and spent a year and a half there. That was definitely a challenging year because the closest Equity theatre was a four hour drive away. I would literally get up at 4 in the morning, get ready, get into the car, drive over the mountains for 4 hours, arrive in Seattle, do my two minute audition, and then drive back over the mountains and back to Spokane. I learned a lot about how important theatre is to me, but it was a hard year and a half there.
Seema (in foreground in blue) with family, board, and cast members of Mo`olelo at the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle awards in 2011, where she was awarded the Des McAnuff New Visions Award which honors creativity and risk-taking in artistic leadership. Photo by Ion Moe.
How did you get from Spokane to San Diego?
The best thing that happened in Spokane is my husband’s TV station closed. [laughs] So we moved to Seattle and stayed there for another year and that’s when I decided to do the bi-coastal thing. Six months I’d be in Seattle; six months I’d be in New York.
While I was in New York, the same day I got booked in my very first theatre gig, my husband got a job in San Diego. We actually called each other up and said “you’re never going to believe this … I got a job!” [laughs] We both said it at the same time. So I did that gig, which was “The Phoenician Women” at Synapse Productions down at the Ohio Theatre in SoHo, and during that time my husband packed everything up from Seattle and moved down to San Diego.
When the show closed, I came to visit San Diego for the holidays and I thought I’d do the same bi-coastal thing (half a year in San Diego and half a year in New York) but a couple things happened that I didn’t expect. One was I actually liked it here. Didn’t expect it. That’s probably because when I was in Chicago, when I was in Spokane, and when I was in Seattle, nobody talked about San Diego. So I was surprised that I liked it. The second thing was we adopted a dog and her name is Sarah. Once she was in our lives, I knew I couldn’t leave her for six months out of every year. So then it became very clear that I was going to stay here and not go back to New York for half a year.
I started auditioning around town and realized very quickly that there wasn’t enough work for union actors locally and also there wasn’t enough work for actors of color. Prior to all of this, my best friend from elementary and high school Kim Palma and I had formed the shell of Mo`olelo in Hawaii. We formed a nonprofit organization in Honolulu and called it Mo`olelo [which is the Hawaiian word for “story” or “tale”], but it just sat there as a shell of a nonprofit doing nothing. Then in 2003, I said to her, “what do you think about us moving that company to San Diego and trying to actually make it work?” And she said, “okay.” That’s how the company started. It was really to kind of fill those needs of Equity work for local actors, work for actors of color, significant roles for actors of color, and work that is political, socially conscious, and community focused.
Stay tuned for parts two and three of my interview with Seema. Part Two will be posted on Saturday, Feb 4 and Part Three will be posted on Sunday, Feb 5.