An Analog Play About Digital Life
Lately, playwright Susan Soon He Stanton has had the unique problem of people apologizing to her for unfortunate events in her life that have not actually happened.
These misplaced apologies occur because people are assuming that art is imitating life in Stanton’s new play, #IAmBadAtThis, which follows 29-year-old Emily, who recently moved back home to Hawaii after trying to make it in New York City. She’s met with career missteps and botched romances, while also dealing with shifting relationships with her parents and friends.
#IAmBadAtThis made its world debut Thursday at Kumu Kahua Theatre, where it runs through June 26, directed by Kumu Kahua artistic director Harry Wong.
“It’s intentionally slightly meta, but people now believe that I am this girl and every single thing has happened to me,” says Stanton, who’s based in New York City but flew in last week for the tail end of rehearsals. “They assume that everything in this play is me, which is a little disturbing, but it’s also kind of funny, because this woman is going through a lot of things and she is a disaster. I am like, I hope I am not that much of a disaster.”
The play — which was born out of conversations between Stanton and Wong about the millennial generation — is a think piece on today’s young adults, examining what it means to be of a certain age in the modern age. It’s deftly funny (and note that I only saw the rehearsal), but the crux of the play is a subtly poignant reflection on millennials and where they stand in this moment as they tackle the big questions of any generation — what it takes to find yourself, how do you achieve contentment and what does any of that even mean to you.
In many ways, it’s easy to see why people assume that Emily is a script stand-in for the author. There are certain undeniable similarities between Stanton and Emily (portrayed by Kirstyn Trombetta) — Stanton, like her protagonist, is a hapa woman who grew up in Hawaii and went away to school in New York City, and she even pulls certain events from her own life into the play. But if she relates to the chaotic Emily beyond that, it’s not apparent by her growing success as a playwright.
Her interest in playwriting, she recalls, stemmed initially from a love for storytelling in general — a love she traces back to nights growing up when her father, poet Joseph Stanton, would spend hours reading to her.
Her first brushes with theater came early. At just 14, Stanton became assistant director of Honolulu Theatre For Youth. (She can’t remember what made her want to do this, but she suspects it was something as haphazard as her parents telling her to go there on a Saturday.) “But I don’t think I did anything,” she says with a laugh. “I feel like maybe I took notes, but I probably couldn’t even fetch coffee because I didn’t know how to make it.”
By 16, she had written her first play as a part of Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s Theatrefest.
After graduating from Punahou, Stanton went on to study at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. While there, she penned a period biopic screenplay for which she was awarded a six-figure grant to turn it into a feature film. But it turned out, she recalls, to be “the best worst thing that could happen to me.”
“They basically handed me a check and said, ‘hey, go make your movie,’ and I did, like, every single thing you could do wrong,” Stanton recalls.
A few mistakes along the way, and the project got stuck in development limbo. Stanton worked on developing the film for four years — for a while, things were progressing, and she’d even had a star attached — but then the recession hit and it didn’t make sense to pursue it anymore.
When it was all over, she was in her mid-20s and already feeling jaded.
“I realized that I had spent four years working on a single project … it was so much of my life on one single thing,” she recalls. “I felt really lost.”
She sought the stage again. From there, Stanton pursued a Masters of Fine Arts in playwriting at Yale School of Drama, graduating in 2010, and since then, her career has taken off. She’s held numerous writing fellowships and her work has been produced at playhouses throughout the country.
She also still works in film — with credits including the award-winning Dress, which she wrote alongside Henry Ian Cusick (Lost, The 100), who directed and stars. (The two met when Cusick had seen her play Navigator at HTY; he liked it so much that he pitched his idea to her.)
No matter where her career has taken her, though, Stanton regularly visits Hawaii — which she still calls “home” despite all her years away.
“For me, coming home is really important,” she says. “And doing theater in Hawaii is important.”
That’s evident in her plays. Many of the characters that populate her plays are multi-ethnic; many speak Hawaiian or pidgin. And the idea of coming home — wherever home may be — is a concept that Stanton often explores in her work.
“I think about myself as a displaced person a lot,” she says. “Living on the Mainland, you are the person from Hawaii and then here it’s like, ‘oh you are the New York person, you are so Mainland now.’ I think there is a sense that if you leave home for long enough, you don’t ever quite make sense anywhere. For a lot of my plays — and they are set in different time periods and locations — I think that feeling of displacement seeps into a lot of them.”
“I think that’s one of the deeper stories in (#IAmBadAtThis),” Wong adds, “is when does Emily know she’s home, when she’s at a place she can relax?”
When Stanton does return to Hawaii, it’s returning to Kumu Kahua Theatre, too, that is particularly important for her. It was one place, she says, that really helped her hone her craft. Her first play ever produced, Whatever Happened to John Boy Kihano?, was produced at the theater.
And her collaborations with Wong date back to even before she was writing plays; Wong directed her as an actor in Angels in the Sand when she was still in high school. Wong remembers the teenage Stanton as “shy and awkward.” But by the time she was visiting during her summers home from college, she was, he recalls, “confident, elegant and articulate.”
Part of that growth, Wong muses, was Stanton beginning to “understand that she has important things to say.” And with #IAmBadAtThis, Wong says, Stanton’s work approaches the level of capturing the contemporary zeitgeist.
Indeed, audience members, particularly those roughly within that millennial set, will likely find #IAmBadAtThis filled with scenarios that are cringingly familiar — most notably, perhaps, how all of the communication is done entirely through cell phones. In fact, while there are several actors and about 20 characters, Emily never occupies the same physical space as anyone else. She’s usually in her messy apartment, alone, while she is talking with the other characters over the phone or via text.
It’s a comment on the dichotomy of social connectivity — “the idea of having so many friends on Facebook, but no one to have dinner with on a Saturday night,” Stanton explains.
“The only way she can communicate with people is through the phone, and then the fact that the people she is communicating with are right there, I think it creates this tension — this instrument keeps them at bay despite the fact that they are right there,” Wong says. “It’s about how this technology … separates people; it creates alienation.”
It’s been a particularly busy spring for Stanton. Right before she arrived in Hawaii for #IAmBadAtThis rehearsals, she was wrapping up another play, surrealist horror romance The Things Are Against Us, in Seattle. And by the time you’re reading this, Stanton is probably already gone — she was scheduled to take off after opening night at Kumu Kahua to go to California to develop her next project.
But while Emily grapples with the process of finding her home, Stanton has clearly already found hers — that’s evident in the way she waxes poetic about theater. The raw nature of the medium. The interaction between the audience and the actors. The ephemeral nature of it all.
“I feel like right now, playwriting is something that I can’t stop doing,” she says. “There is something really exciting about sharing work with a live audience. The fact that it happens live, the actors are vulnerable, the temperature in the room can affect the show — there are so many variables that can go terribly wrong.
“And when they all go right, it’s just the best thing.”
#IAmBadAtThis runs Thursdays-Sundays through June 26, at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit kumukahua.org.