Susan Soon He Stanton, Palmer Hefferan, and Jennifer Ikeda on “Today Is My Birthday”
Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
December 7th, 2017
In Susan Soon He Stanton’s new play Today Is My Birthday, Jennifer Ikeda plays Emily, a woman who has returned home to Hawai’i to figure out her life. In an unusual twist of form, the play’s over 50 scenes all happen over the phone, on the radio, or through other forms of indirect communication, and features a complex sound design by Palmer Hefferan. Palmer and Jennifer have been a part of the play’s development process since a workshop at the Sundance Theatre Lab, and the current production at the New Ohio Theatre, produced by Page 73, marks the play’s New York premiere. Before a rehearsal, we spoke with Susan, Jennifer, and Palmer about the development process, themes of the play, autobiography in work, and more.
Susan, how did you start writing the play? How did it come to you and how did you decide on the form?
Susan: A couple of different things were pinging around in my brain. The first thing is that this theatre company in Hawai’i, where actors call into a radio station with their fake problems, is true. It was advertising for my own play and an actor dropped out and the director was like, “You have to do this.” Then I went on the radio and flirted and pretended to ask out this other person who was also a fake person. When I got off the phone, after just hearing this person on the radio saying I was beautiful and special and all these lovely things, I felt so empty. I thought a crazier version of me would chase down that feeling and try to find that person and see if anything was real. I was like, “That’s insane, but I’ll write a play about it.” That was the actual scenario, just that need when you listen to the radio and you hear these stories and this help line. It’s very Jerry Springer and all of it’s fake, but we still create it and feel something when we listen to it. I’ve always loved radio plays. I really enjoy the form. Theatre is my medium, so I love actual bodies and space. I think being from Hawai’i, I’m always displaced, so just thinking about that relationship with New York City and some place as remote as Hawai’i was definitely where it all began.
Palmer, were you involved next?
Palmer: I’m not sure of the exact timeline, but it’s definitely the earliest I’ve ever been involved in a project as a sound designer, which has been so exciting, because I love collaboration and to be at the workshop stage and be able to implement my art as well and to contribute to Susan’s was really amazing. Two and a half years ago is when I got the email about the workshop at Sundance and if I was available for three weeks to go to the Sundance Institute and help develop what the sound world of the play would be, which felt so integral to its existence. I’ve been with it since then, and we’ve done several workshops and it has evolved, but we’ve also had steadfast sonic structure in that.
Jennifer, when you got the script and the project, what was the first thing that drew you to it?
Jennifer: I love Susan’s writing. I like that the humor in unintentional—it’s just inherent in a lot of the situational events. I had done a play of Susan’s before this, which I just really loved. It was really theatrical and really fun. This play is similarly theatrical, but in a very specifically challenging way. Then of course, you get an invitation to Sundance and you’re like, “Whoo, yes! I’m cool! I’m the cool kid!” It was really great. Also, Susan and I are both Hapa, and there are very few people out there who I feel so connected to just on a personal level based on our experiences growing up and our perspective on the world coming from mixed families. I really connect with that in Susan’s writing and I think that it’s something that exists there without being the point of the piece, which I appreciate.
In terms of the development process, what do you think has been the thing that either changed the most about the play or you felt like took the most work to get where you wanted it?
Susan: I wrote the play thinking of it as very two-dimensional, and so filling in the world with wonderful actors and sound really helped. When we presented it, it was very straightforward. It was microphones and Palmer’s different kinds of sounds, but it was very much in a line, and then Jenny was a little bit set apart and vulnerable, but it was still just a straightforward presentation. There’s definitely a way of doing the play like that, but when we had our design meetings, we wanted Palmer to be seen, so now she has her special booth on stage. Our set designer Dane Laffrey wanted to create a space that would be good for Palmer’s sound, but also how do you tell this story in this world where no one is ever connected, and how do you play with that? I think it has been a really exciting and interesting experiment and challenge of figuring out this play and all these different worlds. There are 53 scenes and Jenny is in all of them. That’s a tremendous challenge and a real testament to her ability to do all the rapid-fire shifts. It’s a really difficult task, but she does it so beautifully.
Palmer: It is a huge shift. At Sundance we had very standard microphones, so it was just the idea of people’s voices being elevated above their acoustic voice.
Jennifer: A radio play.
Palmer: A radio play without lots of processing. I did a little EQ-ing on them then, but we didn’t have extreme technology, and all the sound effects that encompass the scenes and the ambient sound design. Then imaging the production, like what is the visual world of the sonic world, was something that was confounding and exciting to be a part of early on and see how it was developed. I think it all spurred back from Sundance because I was my own technician, which normally I wouldn’t be. We were all collaborating and living together and having meals together. It just made sense to be integrated in that way. I think the production felt like, “How do we get the essence of that, which we really enjoyed with the collaboration, into the production?” It ended up with me in a sound booth within the audience, but visible.
Susan: It’s very unusual for a sound designer not only to begin a process so early, but then stay with the show through the entire run. Palmer is a very in-demand sound designer who had to give up other opportunities to be here with us for the whole time. She didn’t just design the show and then leave it with a technician. She’s in there as a performer every single night making the sound. That’s also very, very unusual.
Jennifer: Yeah, and to interact with one of the designers while you’re in the process of performance, that never happens to me. The other thing that is really wonderful about the challenge of the piece, and the way that it has transitioned from being a purely oral experience into a staged theatrical one, is that it offers this exploration of public versus private in a way that is very challenging as an actor, because all of the scenes happen with two people in different spaces, and you behave differently when you’re alone. You behave differently when the only way that the other person is reaching you is through your voice. It’s really easy to pretend that you’re happy when you’re sad or to pretend that you’re calm and still when you’re actually jumping up and down the room. Experimenting with those things also has been a very interesting challenge in how to really make the story as fleshed out and complicated as it is.
Jennifer, can you talk a little bit more about your process in terms of performance? This play is unusual in terms of form.
Jennifer: It’s been a challenge just because of the sheer number of scenes. There are definitely still points right now in the process where a scene will end and I stand up and I’m like, “I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
Palmer: In some scenes there are a lot of jumps. There’s not necessarily an emotional link.
Jennifer: It’s not naturalistic in that way. It’s more of a jump cut experience as a performer, so there’s a greater need to do a little bit more psychological programming, so that the jump cuts from one scene to the next can be very quick and efficient because the sound also dictates the pace of the show in a lot of way. I don’t think constantly. I think it’s a really nice give and take between the actors and the sound, but what has been nice is that I’ve been given a lot of freedom, blocking wise, to really explore physically what the world of being alone is like and how you behave in spaces. The challenge right now is to find that place of internal focus that you have when you’re talking on the phone with somebody and you’re alone, and to not be distracted by the fact that the actor that I’m playing the scene with is sitting right in my line of vision. I can’t react to the physical things that actor is doing because that’s not honestly what would happen. It’s challenging because that awareness that you need as a theatre performer of this space and the energy, the molecules in the air, has to be very selective. It’s a really an interesting, fun, experiment.
Do you find that film and TV has impacted how people watch the play?
Susan: I think there is something there of how we bring in new audiences. I feel like there is something very modern in the sensibility of this play and in the cast and the way that it’s told. I did a workshop of this play with ACT and Mozilla and it was like, “Well, there are all these young people in their 20’s and all the tech world. They spend a lot of money on concerts and various things, but not necessarily theatre, and is there a way to bridge to them?” They thought this play was an interesting fit because there was something very modern about it and tech and fun in terms of the old form of radio or older form of theatre where it’s a new way of looking at it. Definitely the hope is to figure out ways to be accessible and modern and fresh, but in a way that’s still emotionally truthful.
Palmer: It has definitely affected sound design, in general. I think a lot of new plays infuse sound in a really interesting way that makes it exciting to be a sound designer. Because of how surrounded we are with film and television now, the way that sound design is done is so different. With underscoring, you can do completely anachronistic music and it’s amazing when you have something that’s turn of the century, but you’re hearing PJ Harvey guitar at the same time and you’re like, “Yes, this is amazing!” You just give over to that. That definitely has effect. I know my audience accepts underscore tonal things, anachronistic choices. It has been really empowering for theatrical sound design. It doesn’t just have to be transitions or environmental ambiences, even though if I was at a cocktail party and someone is like, “What is a sound designer?” That is what I would tell them for the short-cut answer.
Jennifer: Especially with TV, the explosion of content with different styles, the different writers and producers and performers of different backgrounds, I think audiences are realizing that they can connect to nontraditional pieces in a way that maybe they weren’t before. People are watching content on TV and watching films that they haven’t been exposed to and I think that that will naturally extend to what they’re interested in in the theatre. I hope so.
Susan, you were describing this as a radio play before in terms of form, which funnily enough, hadn’t occurred to me, but the film and TV connection did.
Susan: In terms of scene length, it is more like a film or a TV show. Similarly, I was like, “These things can be anywhere. I don’t have to have the entire play set in a fully realized living room.” There is a sense that this space is, in a certain way, very comfortable and home-like and Hawai’i, but it is transformational in that it’s both weird and minimal.
As you all have been working on the play, have you found that different themes pop out to you as being the most interesting or the most resonant at a particular moment in time?
Palmer: I love the idea of a woman being empowered by being by herself, and it’s not something that we naturally do. The idea of being raised a good girl, but we are still allowed to go and do what we want because of second wave feminism. We can go and get a college degree and we don’t have to be a nurse or teacher. There are also still all these societal systemic things that make us think we actually have to be demure and polite in order to achieve things. One of my favorite things in the play is the quote from Stanley Kubrick, which is funny because it’s a quote from a man, but it’s a woman that says it in the play, and it’s the mom—she is divorced—and the main character, Emily, says, “Aren’t you annoyed that dad will go on and probably get remarried?” She says, “No,” because of this quote, which made her have this realization that women are more successful if they stay single because they don’t have to become the idea of the caretaker, which society tells you that you need to be. It’s amazing to see this woman who has achieved so much in her life but feels so isolated because of some of the things she hasn’t achieved, like romance and having a child, and that people tell her, “You don’t understand my life because you don’t have those things.” She’s actually really smart and she can be her own entrepreneur. It’s this realization of like, “Yes, it’s fine. We can do it.” Being alone is okay too.
Jennifer: There are so many ways to communicate indirectly and it’s very easy, I think, to hide through indirect forms of communication, whether that’s by writing something down that you know somebody is going to read because you’re trying to mislead them into admitting something to you, which one of the characters does in the play, or whether it’s by leaving a voicemail that has a certain tone and confidence that you’re not necessarily feeling. There’s a passage at the end that the character has come to as an artist and as a writer that I think does really sum up some of the main meat of the play as a performer, which is that, especially for me as an actor, it’s a very lonely journey. It’s also one that is frightening because I have to fail in so many of the scenes in order for the play to work. You feel like a failure, and that effort to climb out of that through communicating when communicating can make it harder. Also, that the world today is more overwhelming, I think, to some people than it is to others. The explosion of all these things has made our lives more complicated in a lot of ways.
Susan, did you feel like the thing that was most interesting to you thematically at the beginning of writing the play was something you wanted to keep all the way through, or did you find that it evolved somewhat as they were different iterations of the play and also as the world changed in the interim between when you first wrote it and now?
Susan: When I first started writing the play, it started off very light. The first scenes I wrote were the radio scenes and stuff with just her and her friends and some of the romantic failures. All the lighter stuff. Even at Sundance, I didn’t have a couple of scenes that are now the climax of the play, and it didn’t really have the center and the core of the play wasn’t fully realized. I think that plays that have really heightened concepts or forms need to have an emotional cost. This is a very personal play for me in a lot of way, although it’s very weird because Emily, the character, is a journalist, and in a lot of ways is based on me, so people will things like, “I’m so sorry about your parent’s divorce.” It’s interesting how a lot of people will think the play is exactly about me. I think that having that emotional cost where it’s embarrassing to feel that way is good. In the writing, I try to be as open as I can with the very heightened form, which can sometimes push away emotion in the style of it.
Do you find it frustrating that people assume things are autobiographical?
Susan: Sometimes I feel like it’s frustrating because I’m just like, “We all have imaginations,” but things are from some place, so they’re not completely wrong. Yeah, it gets a little scary.
Palmer: We’re artists.
Susan: Yeah, we transform. We create things.
Jennifer: For me personally, I’m like, “Great.” Not that people would think it’s totally autobiographical, but I need more people who don’t look like white men to be writing seemingly autobiographical plays. That’s fine by me.
Susan: I was so weirded out by everyone thinking that Emily was me that the next play that I wrote, the main character is named Susan. I was telling David Henry Hwang, “It’s really weirding me out.” Then he’s like, “Just do the Yellow Face thing. I wanted to write a play, and I wanted to take creative liberties and make it not me. To give myself more creative liberty, I named the character David Henry Hwang.” So I was like, “Well, I’m just going to lean into that extreme discomfort.” We’re doing it at Humana and the production meetings and casting has just been really horrible because everyone is like, “What is Susan’s problem? What’s happening with Susan?”
You all touched on this earlier, but how do you feel the form of this play highlights the different themes?
Palmer: I can speak to the sound aspect of it. One of the big things that we had to think about is really sticking hard and fast to what we’re calling the sound dramaturgy of the play. Jenny is on stage the whole time, so we could take a conceptual approach where she’s miced, but never processed like a cellphone, so we hear her voice clearly like we’re in the room with her, a little elevated, and then everyone else has a distance-y sound and they sound like they’re coming from a cellphone. They sound like they’re coming from different things. Then, just because of the different structures of scenes, I’m like, “That doesn’t quite work,” because there are moments where we’re on her voicemail, so we’re in a world in between worlds. For me, the audience lives on the radio frequencies in between phone calls, in between the radio and the cellphone, in between the intercom. When something is happening in the room with Jenny, it’s not on mic. Her cellphone rings and it’s an isolated speaker on stage. When someone hangs up on her and she speaks, it’s just her voice in that acoustic room. I think I’m happy with where we landed with that perspective of where the audience lives in this radio frequency world because when she’s hung up on, and you hear her voice in the acoustic space, that feels really lonely. Also, it’s a weird world to live in because we don’t live in the world on radio frequencies, but we do because we’re communicating. The play is how we live so much right now. Because of elevating everything sonically, we have these giant speakers, which seem strange, but we actually have to have a very focused sonic dispersion of the world in order to separate Jenny from the audience, even though the space is small. I think the sound design world that we landed in attributes to the main character moving through and she’s on her solo voyager journey.
Jennifer: I would alter some of the words that you used with “focus” and what I was saying earlier about just really making sure to build the psychological beats very clearly between scenes because of the style of it. The cinematic nature, and then also this very particular type of focus that it takes to perform the piece. It’s heightened and unique in so many ways that it allows you to try to do a strange heightened form of performance. You can be more experimental. You can fail a little bit more freely because when your character is failing, you’re still alone and nobody can see you, so you’re failing alone. It’s one that is going to be really fun to keep exploring through the run.
Palmer: Even though Emily the character—Jenny the actor—is on a singular journey, I’m always in the room with her.
Jennifer: I’m going to have a new connection with you tonight.
Palmer: With that, I’m doing some live foley, and so I’m creating the sounds that Emily the character—Jenny the actor—would be making in real life. It’s an interesting, intense connection to have with someone while still being separated, because I’m not right there by her.
Jennifer: I never look at her. I never look at anybody except for two moments in the moment in the play that last for less than 30 seconds.
Susan, when you were writing it, how did you feel the form went with the content?
Susan: I’m really interested in plays that have to be theatre, so I think my hope was that this would be something that would be dynamic and exciting and very, very theatrical. For me, it was also part of the big question of the play, because this was a play that I couldn’t imagine on stage. That’s why it’s been so great to work with Palmer and work with our director Kip Fagan, because it was something where I was like, “Help. I don’t know how this is a play, but I think that it is.” It’s been really exciting. Also, just to have this long process of trying different things and figuring it out. Before rehearsal, we had a spacing workshop where we tried all these different things—physical phones, no phones, some people on mics—because everything was very open and there was a big question of like, there’s lots of good choices, but what is the best one or the best choice to get at what we’re trying to explore in this production?
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
Palmer: A new way of experiencing sound and connecting that with the visual world. So often we say, “Did you see this play?” Not that sound has to be top of the credit list, but just everything feels more integrated. I think it’s exciting because that’s normally behind the scenes, so to come to the forefront, but also feel well integrated and support what’s going on and for people to experience that.
Jennifer: There’s a listening aspect to this show that’s very important. We’ve talked in rehearsals about how there are moments when some things aren’t as easily visible from certain seats and we want to make sure that the audience, even if they only see my back, that just by listening closely, they get many different layers of information. I think that if people just start listening a little bit more sharply at the end, that’s great. Paying attention.
Susan: I think theatre and stories can be a way of teaching people to notice or see things in a new way or notice things that are there. Just to remind people the world is more strange and beautiful and interesting that they might have thought about. There’s a lot of things in this play that are very mundane, but just told in a new, slightly odd, off-kilter way, and I think in a good way to help people be aware of that.