Saturday, February 4, 2012

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

Seema Sueko (at right) with Linda Libby (at left) in Mo`olelo's inaugural production of "Remains" in 2004. Photo by Ken Jacques.


How would you describe the journey Mo`olelo has taken from then to today?

On one hand, our business model has always been “slowly, slowly catch your monkey.” It’s a Colonial British phrase and the idea behind that is…well…slowly, slowly and you’ll catch your monkey! [laughs] I think the traditional way to launch a theatre company is to announce there’s a new theatre company and then launch a full season – three plays, four plays, you know. At Mo`olelo, we only did one play a year for the first three years and then two plays a year since 2007, and only now are we going to three plays a year. And the idea behind that was very deliberate. One was we wanted to pay Equity wages to everybody, so even if you’re non-union, you still get the Equity wage. That meant we needed time to fundraise. And then we needed time after each production to learn from it. We also needed time to build an audience. And all of that takes a lot of time. So, our business model has been, “don’t do it until you’re capable of doing it.” We’ve never had a deficit, we’ve never been in debt, and our philosophy has always been to do what you can and learn from it.

On the other hand, I’ve been really surprised at what we’ve been able to achieve in the past seven years. Last year was a really good year for us. But, there are a lot of people (our Board, our volunteers) who have been working very hard to get us to where we are at. To kind of think about that and be thrilled about the national recognition we’ve received, it feels great. When I started Mo`olelo years ago I never imagined we would have achieved those things…ever. [laughs]

How do you find new plays to produce? Where do these plays come from?

A variety of places. We have an open submission process and it is all explained on our website. While anybody can submit plays to us, there are some specific criteria that we look for. First, the play must offer us the opportunity to engage communities that don’t traditionally attend the theatre. Second, the play must offer the opportunity for significant roles for actors of color. Third is can the play work with high school audiences. And the fourth is …do we like it.

I’m also in contact with a lot of other artistic directors around the country and occasionally we share scripts with one another. Mixed Blood in Minneapolis and Interact in Philadelphia are two theatres that have been around for 25 plus years, but their missions are similar to ours in terms of being very socially conscious in the nature of plays that they pick. So we do a lot of that kind of sharing.

And, the play we’re doing next, “How I Got That Story,” was brought to my attention by a local actor, John Tessmer. So we get plays from a variety of sources.

Mo`olelo's first ever full season of three plays launches this year. Show art courtesy of Mo`olelo.

How many play submissions do you get on average? And do you read them all?

That’s a really good question. I would say each month we get maybe 3-5 just on blind submissions. And I’ll read at least the first ten pages as well as the synopsis of all of them. Unfortunately, if it doesn’t fit our first two criteria, then I probably won’t read the rest of the play. ….unless it is really catching, and then I will and I will pass it on to somebody else. If it does fit those first two criteria then I’ll continue on and read the rest of the play and see whether it’s a good match for us or not.

And for your fourth criteria….how would you describe your ideal play?

That’s hard. It might be easier to say why some plays don’t make it.

Because we pay every actor a union wage, we can’t do plays that have very large casts. And because our plays are focused on what I call “outsider” stories, a sense of authenticity in the voice of that story is really important. I like plays that have multiple perspectives in them because we might be reaching out to communities that are directly reflected in the play, but then it is interesting when communities that are in opposition to that community are also reflected in the play. Ultimately, our goal is to bring diversity together and bridge across various divides.

Seema Sueko (at left) accepts the Actors' Equity Association Ivy Bethune Award in 2011, which "celebrates individuals and organizations in the performing arts that have taken an active stand to make a difference toward a more representational, multicultural community by helping build a foundation for diversity within the industry." Photo by Ed Krieger.

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