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Talking to Soomi Kim: A Cultural Democracy in the Performing Arts Interview

The Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, led by Kyoung H. Park, has designed an artist survey to invite artists to share their experiences working in the field in order to open up public discussions regarding diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. Over the course of the next few months, we will highlight interviews with artists who are in conversation with the Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, and we invite members of our community to help us gather more information by completing our survey here. Our team will synthesize our findings and share these interviews and our findings online.

Soomi Kim

Soomi Kim

1.  How do you identify yourself? How does your identity influence or inform your work?

I identify myself as an actor/performing artist, sometimes I say actor/movement artist since I incorporate movement into my pieces. To simplify things, I will also say Theatre Artist, because most of the work I am doing now is in the theater. Really depends on the situation. When I feel it necessary to include ethnic identity, I refer to myself as mostly Asian American or sometimes Korean American.

In my earlier explorations in experimental works, I was desperately trying to find my identity as an artist by trying all sorts of crazy concoctions + autobiographical narratives in an attempt to find my own voice (I once made a piece where I sang, played a transcribed Johnny Hodges sax solo on my alto saxophone on trampoline in a bra and delivered a monologue on perceptions of beauty). I then moved to biographical subjects. In my 3 self-produced, artist led projects, the pieces are inspired by Asian American artists whose work and real underlying stories are under-recognized. These performances are based on the lives/works of Bruce Lee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Kathy Change. All 3 subject matters all happen to have died young and have become regarded as either legends or modern day martyrs. In regards to how my identity informs my work, I think as a young person who grew up in a small town with virtually no other Asians, I was constantly looking for role models to identify with, whether it was in the mainstream media of television, film, magazines and commercials or just in my own community. I found it frustrating that I found little to no inspiration around me that was resembled my own reflection. In each one of these characters and stories in my performances, I find a relationship and connection to perhaps fulfill a void that has existed most of my life.

2. Do you face challenges in the field based on the way you identify yourself?

My career as a performer begins in acting. I have my fair share of stories of being marginalized, stereotyped etc.  Often times in ethnic specific calls I would find myself in an female Asian clump lump. That meant I was auditioning with all the other female Asian American actresses for the same role and it used kind of peeve me to see very inexperienced, untrained actresses vying for the same roles- they were able to get in the door based on the fact that they was a call for a “type” even though there seemed to be a lack of discernable criteria and standard for experience and sometimes talent. It could sometimes feel very demeaning. I remember being labeled as a “sexy Margaret Cho.” I remember agents calling me Soon-yi instead of Soomi. Once an agent mistook me for someone who had been there the day before and kept insisting that there was “another one of me” and many disheartening moments and interactions that were not based on the merit of my acting abilities, but the lack of vision for Asian roles.

Now that I am mostly creating projects that are self-generated and cater specifically to my artistic inclinations, I am invigorated and excited about possibilities and thrive on collaboration but I think I will always feel like I don’t fit in to any specific mold as a hybrid artist.  My new challenges are finding the right places to go for funding. Which grants fit my needs? Which theatres will support this type of work? How do I gain exposure outside of my Asian American supported community and niche? It’s a blessing and a curse to be an artist of color; there can be so much support but it can feel insular; you have to acquire a new set of skills and find your community and network of support for multidisciplinary artists. I’m still learning and discovering which “models” fit best for me.

3. Where do you (or can you) locate representations of your culture [community] within contemporary performance?

I am currently an artist in residence at HERE Arts Center, where I find a stimulating and vital community of diverse artists making their own work. I love this residency because it is long and it really cultivates a feeling of a home base for what I am doing right now. I have been a participant of 2 of the National Asian American Theater Festivals and feel that these conferences bring the major Asian American theatres together to convene and feel more unified in conversations, the state, current direction and future visions of Asian American theater. I have also cultivated a relationship with the impressive artist/community of the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia. However I am interested in expanding my community involvement to some non-ethnic specific entities and realize that it is easier to feel a camaraderie and level of acceptance in these ethnic specific institutions. However, because of my interests lie in a more devised, movement/hybrid form of theatre making, I am drawn to European aesthetics. I have also had the fortune of being a part of Culture Project’s Women Center Stage Festival. In 2012 they presented Dictee: bells fall a peal to sky and this year the festival is focusing more on process and strengthening women in the performance/activism community, so I decided to spearhead an evening of conversation and performance excerpts with spoken word artist Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai and musician Bora Yoon. They are both artists breaking ground in creatively intersecting performance and experimental forms and aren’t afraid of taking risks whilst staying true to their craft. We will be pushing ourselves to explore new work and intermingling conversation with our respective directors as well as with the audience.

4. Are there moments in which your cultural identity [community] is misrepresented or underrepresented, and how do you address this?

Funny you should ask as the stories I am drawn to are biographies of either underrepresented or misrepresented (Asian American) lives and the forms of theatre making I feel are also in that category. As a performer with the penchant for dance, movement and music (with an experimental twist), I find that I lie somewhere in between spaces, just as my subject matters did.

My main challenges as an actor turned self-producing artist (although I still consider myself an actor above everything) is an ongoing investigation of closing chasms between ethnicity and gender defined works as well as the divide between conventional and unconventional theatre forms. I find myself in a place where the focus on the constant necessity to articulate your place in the community and as an artist is something that I loathe doing but I know it is inescapable. My reaction to that is to just continue to push forward and make work that has meaning and the eventuality of a self carved path will become inevitable.

In terms of the conversation about the lack of opportunities for Asian artists/actors, stereotyping etc. for me, my reaction has been to create my own work as well as roles that I feel wouldn’t exist otherwise. That means learning to wear many hats: producer, creator, performer, and to find your community of collaborators including designers, directors, writers, and funders. As an actor/actress, you are basically judged by your appearance and background. I realized, for me, that that constant fight to conform to the demands of the industry left me feeling like I was not being true to myself as an artist. Although I have not been as immersed in the mainstream  acting world, it is still upsetting to me to see the mishandling of casting Asian American performers in theater (i.e. the recent RSC and LaJolla Playhouse debacles). There is a committee called AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Committee) that has been instrumental in calling attention to the lack of visibility and representation of Asians in theater as well as the misrepresentation in casting. The primary force behind this committee are Asian American actors, writers, directors who have very smartly researched and gathered stats on the census of performers of color in the major off-broadway and Broadway performers and the statistics are astoundingly pathetic in terms of the rep for Asian actors. http://www.aapacnyc.org

5. Have you been a working artist in another culture [community]? Has this experience exposed something about current practices that we can learn from?

I went through a phase about 6 years ago where I got into working a lot in live industrials. I became adept with choreographed martial arts fighting and this led to work in dozens of live corporate industrials for Empire Entertainment. I traveled around the states, performing for a group called “The Art of War” which catered to the themes of whatever corporate sponsored events that were taking place. The amount of money I saw that went into these events and shows was stunning. I often thought wow, if I could just have a small sliver of their budget to put on my own show I would be doing more ass kicking in my career than on that stage! The  disparity of the corporate world vs. art is mind boggling. I also had an awkward experience when I performed Dictee: bells fall a peal to sky in L.A. This piece is the most experimental thing I think I have done. A bunch of my relatives, including my father, came to see this show and they are very Korean and never go to the theater. I don’t think they understood what the hell was going on and I reflected on this afterwards and it bothered me. I want to be able to make work that anyone can relate to. These are 2 examples of bridges that I’m not sure how to gap.

6. Have you worked in other cities/regions and can you tell us about the reception of your work there in comparison to NYC?

I have performed all over the states but with my own work other than NYC only in Philadelphia and LA. It has been great, they are both cultured cities with a lot of exciting things going on so I really enjoyed the experiences and felt embraced. LA is a very warm place for theatre, they really appreciate and relish creativity; they will go out of their way to see something buzzed about, but don’t have the same abundance of exposure that NYC does. So one has to look harder to find work that speaks to them. Philadelphia is rich in experimental forms; there is a lot of innovative theater and dance so the audience is pretty sophisticated. I feel that in NYC anything can happen. It’s definitely a tougher crowd but also very supportive. I don’t so much fear a review in L.A. or Philly. But I both dream of and fear a NY Times review.

7. Describe an ideal situation in which your work is presented. Is there anything you’d like your audience to know about you before viewing your work?

My ideal situation can span from performing in high profile dream venues like BAM, St. Anns or The Public Theatre, to small alternative spaces like art galleries, old factory warehouses, or schools and Universities. I also think another amazing thing would be to perform in small towns where there is very little culture, like the town I grew up in, (Lebanon, Oregon) since I had zero exposure to live theater. It would also be a beautiful thing to be able to look out into an audience full of diversity; people that come together for a shared experience and bridging those aforementioned gaps. I have to be real and say that my real wish of an ideal situation is to perform in these circumstances under the ability to sustain myself primarily as an artist/performer so that I can focus full time on creating, touring, leading workshops, training and studying. I know that in Canada and Europe one can make a living from receiving grant funding, but here the funds seems to dwindle every year while there seems to be more and more artists whose works deserve to be supported. I’m beginning to see more and more how we value artists in this country needs to change. It’s a constant catch up game to write those grants, continue to update your work samples, pay your rent, try to gain recognition by aiming for those higher profile performances in order to try to make that leap from “emerging” to “established” artist WHILE keeping your vision alive to be able to produce work.

Soomi Kim is an actor/movement artist based in NYC. She is a currently a resident artist at HERE Arts Center developing her production Chang(e) inspired by the life of Kathy Change. Her other artist led productions are: Lee/gendary (based on the life of Bruce Lee- First Nat’l Asian Am Theatre Fest and HERE Arts Center; winner of the 2009 NYITA for Outstanding Production) and Dictee: bells fall a peal to sky (adaptation of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee- Women Center Stage 2012 and 3rd Nat’l Asian Am Theater Fest. 2011). All three productions are created in collaboration with director Suzi Takahashi. Kim has also appeared in numerous stage productions, live industrials, films and has worked extensively with composer/choreographer Grisha Coleman and Ex.p Girl (female experimental movement theatre company). Kim is also a 2013 Artist in Residence at the Hemispheric Institute (Politics in Performance) for Chang(e).  www.soomikim.com


About kyounghpark

Artistic Director, Pacific Beat Collective


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