Supporting creative work by women
Soomi Kim‘s mesmerizing, multidisciplinary piece about martyrs, Dictee: bells fall a peal to sky, opens tonight at Women Center Stage in New York City. Inspired by late Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s novel, Dictee, the piece utilizes movement, video and original music to interweave the stories of Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, as well as Cha herself.
Kim, a New York-based, Korean born artist, spoke to Works by Women about her collaboration with director Suzi Takahashi, her upcoming residency at HERE and her admiration of Kathryn Bigelow.
WBW = Works by Women // SK = Soomi Kim
WBW: Your piece Dictee: bells fall a peal to sky is part of Women Center Stage. What is it like being part of such a wonderful, celebratory festival.
SK: This such a thrilling and celebratory event in many ways. It’s great that Women Center Stage is during Women’s History Month which reminds us of womens’ tenacity, courage and creativity throughout the century. Dictee: bells fall a peal to sky is a performance celebration and homage to the women in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, to my mother, and to Cha herself. I can’t wait to introduce Cha’s words to a new audience, especially given that much of the themes in her work are about the silencing of the voice. I am especially proud that this project is anchored by incredible female collaborators (director Suzi Takahashi, composer Jen Shyu, AD/SM Leta Tremblay, lighting designer Lucrecia Briceno and performers Kiyoko Kashiwagi and Diana Oh). Lastly, I look forward to seeing what the other incredible artists in this festival are up to!
WBW: Dictee focuses on martyred women. What about them interests you?
SK: The martyred characters in Cha’s book are literal martyrs in history, particularly Joan of Arc and Yu Guan Soon, a Korean revolutionary who died fighting for her country (she is considered the Korean Joan or Arc), as well as the ordinary women martyrs who sacrifice and suffer for their family or their beliefs. Much of the underlying force that seems (to me) to be underneath Cha’s words and themes of displacement, isolation and suffering (and the transcendence of suffering) comes from her mother. The image on the cover of the book is a photo of her mother, and there are letters, stories, poems, photos that highlight her mother daughter relationship. The book is structured around the 9 Greek muses and although there are no literal passages referencing the Greek mythology of Demeter and Persephone, the essence of this myth is trickled in and around many facets of the book. I feel it is a biographical allegory for Cha’s own experience with her mother after having been separated from her at a young age. Cha also writes about time stopping and death with such poetic guts that the reader experiences a visceral emotional reaction to her text, which appears, at first glance, to be abstract and confusing. But to go back to the question, I am interested and drawn to the purpose driven life cut short; I am also interested in what it may mean to be a martyr. I think many mothers who sacrifice their own needs and selflessly give too much and suffer for their families are some form of what being a martyr means.
WBW: You previously worked with director Suzi Takihashi on Lee/gendary. What makes your relationship special?
SK: Suzi and I have worked as collaborators on several works in progress of my pieces as well as full productions (both Lee/gendary and Dictee: bells fall a peal to sky were featured in the 1st and 3rd National Asian American Theater festivals). For 6 years I worked as a company member for her co-artistically led (with Bertie Ferdman) all female experimental movement theater group Ex.p girl. Our collaborative history spans about 7 years. Each time we develop a piece, from workshop phase to production, and the re-working of production, we are always discovering ways to deepen our process. Not only do we know each other’s work and talents and habits by now inside and out, we also have developed a shared aesthetic for creating unique theatrical experiences within a hybrid or multidisciplinary structure.
WBW: What can audiences expect to see and experience with Dictee?
SK: Scary mask. Some dance/movement. A desk. Beautiful music. Maybe a flower. You’ll just have to come to find out!
WBW: What’s next for you?
SK: I have recently been accepted into the HERE Arts Residency Program (HARP) as a lead artist for a new project that I will develop through the one to three year residency period. I can’t reveal too much yet, but it’s also about a female martyr! A modern day martyr. Suzi will once again be collaborating as director. I think HARP is so unique and perfectly caters to the hybrid theater artist.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in theater?
SK: There is always an imbalance because of the perceptions people have about works by women. We are still seen as not being as strong (as stories written by men), there is a perception that the stories are “soft”, that the work is not as marketable etc. But they are all myths. There are PLENTY of strong female driven work, plays, performances etc plus the majority of people who see plays are women!
However, I live in a bubble. I haven’t really experienced being overlooked as a female artist, because I work full time and create my own projects and work with other artists/companies who also work in a similar hybrid world of performance. Most of my projects are driven by female artists and designers. Maybe because I live more on the fringe in the low profile indie theater world. I’m sure that if my projects take me to larger and more commercial venues I will find a shift in the gender/ power politics. But I know for many, it is really a fight and battle to have your work seen and heard (I feel particularly for playwrights) I read a great article by playwright Marsha Norman that I recommend called “Not There Yet- what will it take to achieve equality for women?” She breaks it down as far as why the world of theater is so male dominated.
I like this quote:
“Any artist whose painting hangs in a theatre lobby has more artistic control than the playwright whose play is on the stage. We have to stop letting staff and patrons fiddle with plays; literary managers need to stop second-guessing their audiences and their artistic directors. They need to adopt a gender-blind process for discovering and discussing new work. And they need to do this now.” –Marsha Norman, playwright
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
SK: The more examples of breakthrough performances, projects, films that surface and are acknowledged, the more the tide will turn for female artists. Kathryn Bigelow, the director of The Hurt Locker just popped into my mind. Her war driven film beat out the super blockbuster Avatar in 2010 and won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. She also won for Best Director, which was a first for a female director. This catapulted her in the ranks of one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential in the world list. There are plenty of Kathryn Bigelows in the world whose time will come!
Dictee: bells fall a peal to the sky runs March 20 through 25, 2012 at Women Center Stage at The Living Theatre in New York City. For more information and tickets, visit Women Center Stage’s web site.