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Her Career Had Stalled, Now She Barely Rests
By DIEP TRAN
Thursday, November 09, 2017  •  
Thu Nov 9, 2017  •  
Playwriting  •   0 comments Share This
"I want heightened theatrical devices, things where you're like, 'I'm really watching a play and it's like very extreme.'"

Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton has two shows running this month

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Susan Soon He Stanton doesn't sleep much these days. Her world-premiere play SOLSTICE PARTY! is running at A.R.T./New York Theatres, while Today Is My Birthday is prepping for a late November opening at New Ohio Theater. Plus she's a staff writer for HBO's upcoming series Succession, which is currently filming in Manhattan. "I'll have these days where I'll have rehearsal, and then I'll be on set, and then I'll go to the other rehearsal," she says during a recent Saturday brunch -- right before running off to a rehearsal. "Then I'll go to a show, and then I'll go back to set. If it's a late day, they'll shoot until eight in the morning and then I'll sleep for like four hours, and then I'll do it again. It's really intense!"

But it's a welcome intensity. For the first time, Stanton is living off her writing income alone, a rare feat. "I used to feel like an underdog," she admits, adding that there was "a really long, 10-year gap" when no one was producing her plays. But that drought has ended with these two back-to-back productions of shows that vary wildly in tone.

SOLSTICE PARTY!, produced by Live Source Theatre Group and running through November 19, takes place in upstate New York, where some old pals have gathered for a weekend of feasting and reminiscing. But a newcomer discovers there's something more sinister afoot. "It keeps getting compared to Get Out," Stanton says, though she wrote the play before she saw Jordan Peele's politically charged horror movie. "I understand why people say that. It follows the form of the Gothic novel. It has the feel of Rebecca or something."

The cast of
The cast of 'SOLSTICE PARTY!'; photo by Mark Davis

Revealing more would spoil the surprise, but Stanton says that ultimately the play is an exploration of friendships, and the anxiety of feeling like an interloper in a close-knit group. "I think it's about escapism and history," she explains. "Trying to create these communities with our friends and not being able to let go of the past to the point where you're almost creating a cult."

Produced by Page 73 and running November 28 to December 23, Today Is My Birthday is much more lighthearted. A young woman has moved back to her native Hawaii after a failed stint as a New York City journalist and lands a gig acting on the radio. All the dialogue consists of phone calls, voice mails, and live radio spots -- a commentary on modern relationships. "If you live in another country or far away, you're not always right next to the people you care about the most," she says. "You're in different forms of communication. So it was embracing that."

Since Stanton's writing for the screen must be more realistic, she is determined to keep her stage work stylized. "I'm really interested in theatre that has to be theatre," she explains. "I want heightened theatrical devices, things where you're like, 'I'm really watching a play and magical realism and it's like very extreme.' I always try to have this kind of thing where it's hopefully exciting and innovative, and not like television or a living-room drama."

That theatrical impulse comes naturally to Stanton. Growing up in Aiea, Hawaii, there weren't many opportunities to participate in the arts, but there was the library. Stanton remembers sitting there for hours watching old opera videos. Her other pastimes included drawing portraits, writing dialogue-heavy short stories, and putting on one-person dance pieces. "I was extremely, extremely sensitive -- I would spontaneously cry at least once a day," she says. Stanton wrote her first play at age 16. "It was inspired by Dante's Inferno but set in a parking lot," she says, mildly embarrassed. "I thought I was ahead of my time." Of course that script did get her into the prestigious NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Stanton's career may have taken her far away from Hawaii, but she still derives inspiration from home. Today Is My Birthday -- which made the illustrious annual Kilroys List of notable plays by women -- was partially inspired by her own experiences doing theatre in Aiea as well as her career anxiety. Which is why Stanton's not taking this busy moment for granted. "I feel even more driven to do so much more," she says. "I think there was a feeling I had when I was younger of: I just need a chance; I just need to get in the room; I just need someone to see me. And now it's, oh my god, someone has given me a chance and I need to not blow it! In a way it's more satisfying and it's also more scary."

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Follow Diep Tran at @DiepThought. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Susan Soon He Stanton's head shot.

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