Sage Viscovi interviews Cloud of Fools Theater Company’s Susan Hyon about her new production Soo Jin Pretty Nail (and more!)
Susan Hyon Hyon categorizes her interests into two halves of her brain: her interests in inimitable theater performances and the practice of yoga with her right brain, while her production, project management, and organizational skills pertain to her left brain.
Both sides of Hyon’s brain have had profound involvement in her building relationships, marketing, and program development for almost a decade. She has acted with The Playwrights Realm, Atlantic Theater, Theatre Three Collaborative, and Target Margin Theater in New York, served as Project Manager for FCB, and is the Co-Founder and Artistic Producing Director for the traveling Cloud of Fools Theater Company.
Susan Hyon as Sonya in Target Margin Theater’s Uncle Vanya
Hyon’s latest theatrical endeavor is entitled Soo Jin Pretty Nail (and more!), directed by David Skeist. The performance stars Susie: a “not that smart, not that talented, not super attractive, and no longer young/cute Korean-American adoptee who identified as an actor for about five years when no one else really would.” Presenting herself as a harmless woman of color, Susie finds herself struggling to come off as the girl-next-door. Then, her long-lost Korean sister, Hyun Soo Jin, appears out of the blue bearing poignant advice on how to transform Susie from bland to glam.
Prior to the show’s premiere on June 15 at Baltimore Theatre Project, I had the chance to interview Susan Hyon about acting, writing, directing, and problems that arise from her identity.
How did Cloud of Fools Theater Company start?
There was a group of us graduate acting students – mostly in my year (2006), but a few others above and below – who were pretty devoted to sticking around Columbia University and continuing with master classes run by Niky, our leader and director… guru, if you will. So we formed in order to stay loyal to one another. We committed to being in “good shape” for the opportunities that might arise by being easily accessible and in top form for when Niky had a project for all of us. We didn’t have a list of plays we wanted to perform, per se; we just knew that Niky’s teachings were a serious hidden gem within what Columbia’s MFA Acting program had to offer. We wanted to somehow find our way out in the real world by maintaining our acting instruments: with each other, and with him.
Prior to Cloud of Fools, you worked with maestro Niky Wolcz in his theatre company, Theatre Kuden, which has allowed you to travel the world. How was that experience for you?
It was exhilarating to be able to travel as a group and attempt to share our art with other artists from all over the world. There were challenges to that, and I remember at the time feeling torn – like I should be trying to get more lucrative work in NYC right after graduation. But again, Niky is someone I would work with unequivocally, and I have distinct memories of going very deep into our physical training in some settings. Puerto Rico is one that comes to mind. Sometimes it helps to go somewhere – to travel away from home – for discoveries to unfold, to investigate yourself more deeply and with a different perspective. That’s the best thing about traveling and trying to sustain and share a certain level of work with total strangers.
Maestro Niky Wolcz with Theatre Kuden
One of your company’s previous shows, The Whistling Mortician, has toured twice regionally. Have you noticed different reactions to shows depending on where you perform?
To be honest, audiences across the board seemed to really enjoy themselves – the feedback was consistently positive and enthusiastic and “wanting more” of the company. When we performed The Whistling Mortician in NYC, we had a large, supportive network of people from school and of course all of our theater friends and families in and around NYC. So, while they all had seen us work as individuals, they never saw a piece that was expressed by the group with a lot of ensemble work built from scratch. It seems like the less people know about where we are from and what our backgrounds are, the more surprised they are at the sheer inventiveness and minimalism which mark our pieces.
Jon Froehlich as The Whistling Mortician
How does the theater scene in Baltimore compare to New York City for you?
I don’t have much empirical evidence to support this feeling I have, but my sense is that theater artists in Baltimore are able to be authentic without weighing the cost of how marketable their message or mission is. It seems like there is more space to breathe – to discover what turns you on and then to make it happen seems practically, just easier or simpler.
In NYC we always seem to be scrambling to find a cheap space to rehearse in, and with no (physical) home base, it is quite difficult to feel like a company. Everyone’s leading their own lives – I now live in New Jersey, pounding the pavement and trying to stay alive. Creating work is a happy time, but still a luxury for a lot of us. I was lucky enough to make friends with some of the theater artists at Single Carrot in Baltimore when I was here in 2013, and I had major envy of their capabilities as a group, their maturity in getting their shit together, creating a home, building supporters and a board.
NYC is wide, deep, broad, in your face, underground, and just all over the map. I don’t know too much about Baltimore’s scene aside from the few productions I saw at Single Carrot and Center Stage. Things felt less frenetic; more deliberate and calm, and like an event of hanging out with friends as opposed to totally judging them.
Cloud of Fools’ The Whistling Mortician
Which playwrights have inspired you as a writer?
I don’t really consider myself a writer. I tell stories out loud, to anyone who will listen (saying this half in jest). There are so many playwrights I admire of course, but not in the way of me thinking, Oh, I want to do what they’re doing with their voice or art.
As a reader, I am drawn to writers who I feel close to after sitting with their pieces. Closeness develops when a person is able to express the way he or she thinks and sees the world, even if it is indirectly. Good sentences can bring me to tears (I don’t cry while reading my own musings. I cringe.). Recently, I read a piece by Jonathan Franzen in a May issue of The New Yorker entitled “The End of the End of the World.” It was an intimate experience, getting to take a ride alongside him on a luxury cruise, witnessing how he assesses situations, strangers and acquaintances, himself and his revelations about family. It felt like I was experiencing his experience in real time. After finishing it, I thought maybe instead of trying to read a lot, I should just re-read work that is so utterly satisfying and stay with that person for a period.
TaNahesi Coates is another person who I appreciate so much – his ability to insert you into his place, his home (West Baltimore), the vibe of his life on the streets as a kid. The universal-specific is at work: I am not a black man from an edgy home base, but he is so good as a writer painting such specific, in-dismissible pictures – I relate to his struggles.
Center: Susan Hyon in Flea Theater’s Smoke and Mirrors (Photo by Joan Marcus)
What are some of the key concepts you wanted to convey while writing Soo Jin Pretty Nail (and more!)?
Not quite concepts, but some topics include:
- Race: Black on the inside, yellow on the outside / White on the inside,yellow on the outside.
- Justice: The (nearly impossible) search for truth in history.
- Sexuality: Boundaries – where do you end and I begin?
- Immigration: Language and confusion.
- Origin and Identity: where do I come from, who are those people thatwe call family, and what constitutes “a family”?
- Beauty: outside vs. inside.
Which of Soo Jin Pretty Nail’s main characters do you identify with the most: Susie, Hyun Soo Jin, or both?
I identify with Susie… but I truly respect Soo Jin and secretly wish I could be more like her. Or at least adopt her attitudes toward life.
What challenges have you faced in the process of putting on this show?
I have a million thoughts a minute, and when I sit down to write, the image that pops up is that scene from the film A Beautiful Mind where Jennifer Connelly finally dares to look into some back room or shed where her husband (John Nash) has been studying. She sees what looks like cobwebs connecting all kinds of sticky notes with math equations. It’s just a terrible mess of a manic mind. I can’t keep up with my thoughts and the connections between them, regardless of how disparate they are on the surface.
When I try to write — literally I try to start typing, and then all of the connections go “poof!” My main challenge is crafting and then committing to a script that is repeatable. When big news breaks, like the deaths of Prince or Muhammad Ali, I am compelled to rewrite the whole thing in order to add more context and more layers to all of the arguments I am working through in my head.
How should viewers feel after seeing this show?
I guess not so alone – connected with other humans just a little bit more, and maybe not super chatty. I’m an uptight yogi and as I go inward and try to share my interior life, I hope to inspire people to pause and go inside a bit, too. All that said, the truth is: I really don’t jive with the question – they should feel how they feel.
What’s next for Cloud of Fools Theatre Company? Do you have ideas for future productions?
There are many other ideas that the crew is cooking up. Last I heard, there was an ambition to develop a physical movement score to some of Paul Klee’s drawings and theories of art. We’ll see!
Soo Jin Pretty Nail (and more!) will open at the Baltimore Theatre Project on Wednesday, June 15th and performances will run through Sunday, June 19th. Information: Event page – Tickets
Author Sage Viscovi is a recent MICA graduate and regular contributor for BmoreArt.
Photos credits: Susan Hyon/Cloud of Fools Theater Company, Target Margin Theater Inc., and The Flea Theater