Jeesun Choi: Finding Common Ground as a Transnational Artist

Jeesun Choi is a transnational Korean playwright/physical theater artist, now based in Brooklyn. She was the finalist for the Lark’s 2018 Van Lier Fellowship. Her play “Dahlia” received a staged reading at Dell’Arte International in April 2017. Her new play, “The Seekers,” will be developed at Fresh Ground Pepper‘s annual artist retreat. Her theater collective, Creative Traffic Flow (CTF), is the 2018-19 Artist In Residence at the University Settlement, creating “Duets of Difference” to be performed in Speyer Hall in November 2018. CTF also have been chosen as a resident at the Governors Island, sponsored by Works on Water and Underwater New York, to create “River Voices,” which was commissioned by Clean Water Council and Foundation for Roanoke Valley. Jeesun was chosen as the 2013 Works-In-Progress Artist for Red Eye Theater in Minnesota to create “Cecilies,” which was presented at New Works 4 Weeks Festival and the Minnesota Fringe Festival. She was selected to attend 2017 Pangea World Theatre and Art2Action’s Emerging Artist for National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation. She has assisted research for Marlon James’ 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” and playwright Young Jean Lee’s film and theatre projects. She also is directing Spaceheater theater company’s “Saint Ex” for 2018 Minnesota Fringe Festival. B.A. English, Macalester College; M.F.A. Ensemble-Based Physical Theatre, Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre.

How did you get into writing for theater?

I was born in Korea and I’m completely ethnically Korean. Then I moved to Thailand when I was around nine. I was always a good reader and very advanced for my age. Then as soon as I moved to Thailand, my parents put me in international school where I had to learn English really fast. They were reading “Charlotte’s Web” and I couldn’t say, “Hello my name is…”

I spent the next three years of my life cramming English. I still loved to reading and writing, but now in a language I picked up later in life. We were supposed to go back (to Korea) but that didn’t happen, so I finished middle school and high school in Thailand. When I got to college I studied English literature, but changed to creative writing and started to do more of that.

If I had stayed in Korea, I probably would have majored in Korean literature and written in Korean. Because of like that fork in my road, I’m in a completely different language.

I was also doing a lot of theater in college, and that’s when I got into ensemble-based physical theater, which comes from the Jacques Lecoq school of thought in Paris. The principle is that, everything moves and the body is the primary form of communication. I started to find that way of making theater really fulfilling.

Where did you go for college?

I was in Minnesota.

Having lived in three very different countries, how does that influence your theater work, which focuses on exploring the human condition?

I think I am articulating myself now more as a transnational person. It’s similar but different from being an immigrant. I think it’s very en vogue right now to write from your cultural background. It’s tricky for me because my cultural background isn’t something that’s instantly recognizable, like a second-generation Korean-American immigrant. I’m drawing from my experiences growing up in South Korea during the IMF, as an expat in Thailand and my time living in the Midwest, West Coast and East Coast.

The play that I wrote for [the Van Lier fellowship] was about a first-generation Korean-American painter that moves to the Texas Panhandle to begin her new life as a teacher. I like to take people who are already not at home, even further away from home.

What do you say when people ask how you identify as a person?

More and more I say I’m Korean. I’m Korean, but I grew up in Thailand, and I work in New York.

Do you miss Korea or Thailand?

For Thailand, not really. Some expats grow up in Thailand and really love that experience. I didn’t. It’s a very specific expat community that can get very elite because of all the wealth. My family wasn’t rich but I still had to live in that circle. I was uneasy with wealth and that’s something that I had to work on. Money isn’t everything, but when you see such dire levels of poverty and affluence in one city like Bangkok, it makes you wonder what people actually value.

As for Korea, I’ve never lived there as an adult so I don’t have much tangible connections to the place. Now that I’m getting older, I think I’m beginning to feel that blood tie. I find myself getting oddly patriotic at times. Like during the Olympics. And the World Cup. I’m a fair-weather patriot.

But really, the culture of New York and the U.S. speaks to me.   

We’re a melting pot.

People move here for work, love, school, or for a thousand other reasons. I find that very invigorating because it’s not just about the immigrant experience, or people born and raised here, but really people from all walks of life.

What’s your favorite thing about writing?

I like how I can make choices each step of the way, and when the choices accumulate, there’s meaning. But, about five years ago, I got very disillusioned by writing. That’s when I threw myself into physical theater. I thought the human body communicated the depth and breadth of human experience so much better and so much more efficiently. So I trained in physical theater for three years, and now I can see where words and bodies meet. That’s why I returned to writing.

What caused the disillusionment?

I didn’t know if I was a good writer frankly. Back then, I couldn’t express what I wanted to express. What I wrote always felt like it was three steps removed from what I actually wanted to say. And I didn’t know how to close that gap.

As someone who is also ESL, I often wonder how writing would be different in my first language. I don’t know if you had similar feelings about that.

It’s funny because I don’t have the fluency in Korean to write what I want to express now.

Me neither, in Chinese.

I think being at Dell’Arte [International School of Physical Theatre] and doing that intense physical training for three years really got me thinking about ways to communicate as truly as possible. It wasn’t until the very end of the training that I got back into writing and felt like, okay, I can do it now.

It’s so interesting that studying physical expression gave you confidence in writing. Do you also perform your own written work?

When I sit down and write something, I don’t imagine myself in it. If I devise something in a group, as a performer-writer, it’s always in conjunction with what others create. That process gives me the liberty to perform, whereas if I were performing my own work I think I’d be a lot more in my head.

When you were studying creative writing, did it feel like a solitary process, especially compared to collaborative theater?

Yes!

That must have made a huge difference in your creative output.

I actually started writing plays at Dell’Arte because I got very frustrated with collaborative/ensemble based theater. There were so many good things about it, but to move forward in the artistic process, there had to be some kind of a consensus. So when you see something so clearly that the rest of the group doesn’t, you have to leave your idea behind.

I realized there were stories I wanted to tell that I could never get a group to agree on. That’s when I got back into writing.

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From Left to Right: Jeesun Choi, Dawn Crandell, and Kristen Kelly

Tell me about your theater collective Creative Traffic Flow.

Creative Traffic Flow is comprised of me, Kristen Kelly, and Dawn Crandell. We met at a directing conference hosted by Pangea World Theater and Art2Action in Minneapolis. It was a conference to cultivate directors who are of color, First Nations people, and people of queer/LGBTQ identity—people who are not usually in leadership roles in theater.

We were all based in New York and decided to create these opportunities for ourselves. We got a residency at University Settlement where we are working with the Lower East Side community to devise a show called “Duets of Difference.” It connects two community members who are different in age, experience, cultural background, or sexuality, and see how their conversation can lead to a performance that draws from their differences and commonalities.

We’re collaborating with different community groups within University Settlement, like the youth group, the senior’s group, and the adult literacy group. In bringing people from these disparate areas of New York, we hope to give them time and space to actually get to know one another.

We had a symposium in the last week of April, and we’ll do a performance at the University Settlement Gala at the Bowery Ballroom at the end of May. Then, we’ll have a full production at University Settlement in late-October with community members as performers and members of Creative Traffic Flow serving as directors.

We are also commissioned by Clean Water Counsel in Virginia to write a play for their environmental conference about the Roanoke river. We are collecting local community stories, and adding educational and scientific facts about the water pollution, and constructing a play from that. We’re workshopping that through a residency at Governor’s Island, and we’ll be having a public reading of “River Voices” in July at the Island.

What usually gets in the way of someone being fully physically embodied in their life, or even in their work?

Thinking gets in the way. For sure.

To become more embodied, the most important thing is to just take note of where you are in any given moment. Where am I as a person? How am I in my body? For me, it really comes down to the breath, and where it goes in your body. And also when you breathe, what are you breathing in, and what are you breathing out?

What about people who are self-conscious about their body?  

The first thing is to not reject that thought. If you say something like, I hate my elbow, don’t immediately go into a self-criticism mode of, “Why would you ever think that? Why are you thinking negative thoughts? That’s bad for you.”

“You should be better than this.”

Yeah. I think the first step is to think those thoughts, and slowly reason with yourself. How reasonable am I in those thoughts? In that line of thinking, where am I wrong?

Nowadays, people see their body as an aesthetic tool. For me, it is a practical tool. You use your body, you don’t showcase your body. I think if you think of it in that way, it changes how you perceive your own self.  

That’s such an important thing for people to hear, myself included. Viewing the body as an aesthetic tool is so ingrained in our culture.

It’s so hard. I did notice that once I freed up some of those anxieties, it affected my writing.

People idealize a lean, toned body, right? Like a ballerina’s. But the dancer’s body is a tool to do what they want. Do you want to be doing jetes and pirouettes for six to eight hours a day? If you don’t, you don’t need that body. If your life’s work is something different, your body will reflect that, and that’s completely fine.

Dancers don’t rehearse to look good. Olympic athletes don’t train to look good. They do it so they can be good at what they do. Your body is a vehicle and at the same time, it is also your house, where you rest your soul. Every house functions differently and has a different purpose. People serve different things and live to do different things, and their bodies reflect that, and I think that’s so beautiful.

As a person and as an artist, what’s the hardest part of taking care of yourself?  

Giving myself time that is free from the anxiety and pressure to create. And at the same time, time to let things be, if I’m not having a creative surge. I have to remind myself that it is not a bad thing to let things be easy. Let things be easeful.

What do you like to enjoy during that time you give yourself?

Putz around the house, wash dishes. I’m very good at not doing anything. [Laughs]

Another thing I do is to reconnect with nature. I learned that when I lived in northern California. When I came back to New York, I went hiking every weekend. That really helped me. It’s getting busy with the writing and other collaborations now, but I’m still trying to make time to hike because it just puts everything into perspective.

What art is really feeding you right now?

I really like poets. I really like Elizabeth Bishop. I love Wisława Szymborska. I love the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. I’m starting to read plays cause I felt really guilty that I’m writing plays but not reading plays. [Laughs] Oh and I love, love, love [Federico García] Lorca. He understands and expresses human emotions like no other. He can do no wrong.  

Do you have a definition for success?

If my work can really touch and change a few people, that’s enough for me. Financially speaking, that’s not enough. [Laugh]

That conversation could be a whole other interview. [Laughs]

“Dahlia” is a play I wrote that’s almost entirely set in Texas, and I’ve never been to Texas. I did a public reading of it and at the end, one of my friends, who was born and raised in Texas, came up to me. He said, “Seeing your play really made me miss Texas.” That gave an affirmation that you can write about things people can connect with even if there doesn’t seem to be any common ground.  

What would you say to another artist struggling in ways you have experienced as well.   

I would say create what makes you happy.    

Which doesn’t sound like it’s always tied to the reception of the work. You mean something that you’re happy doing.

The content itself doesn’t have to be joyful. Often I find writing difficult scenes makes me very fulfilled, because it’s something that is worth telling for me.

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