Interview with Erika Chong Shuch

Deborah Cullinan: Erica let’s start with what first turned you onto performance?

Erica Chong Shuch: Well, this isn’t necessarily what first turned me onto performance but I think it’s what first turned me onto art-making.

Erica: My mom was born in Korea. When she first came into this country, she met a bunch of crazy American artist types. She became friends with this group, mostly gay men, in the early 80s and they became kind of her family in this country. She had one friend, Raymond, and he created these huge pig carcasses out of paper maché. He would hang these carcasses that were like thirty feet tall and you could literally sit inside of them. I remember sitting inside these pig carcasses with my mom and her friends. Very sanctuary-like spaces. It was understood that when you interacted with the pig carcasses you would be quiet. And I remember this feeling of a group of people coming together to contemplate something and I was really young so I didn’t really know what it was we were contemplating, but I remember feeling like it was important.

For so many grant applications there is a box—a dance box, a theater box—for so many conversations those boxes totally exist. Rather than saying I’m not doing dance and I’m not doing theater, I kind of feel like yes, I’m doing theater and dance and yes, I’m doing installation art and yes yes yes!

Erika Chong Shuch from Sunday Will Come: San Francisco. Photo by Pak Han Foto. 

Deborah: And communal.

Erica: And communal, and around that same time a lot of my mom’s friends were dying of AIDS and I remember—it wasn’t like a realization because when we are kids I don’t think we have realizations, it’s just a light shift, you know—I remember this feeling that sitting in pig carcasses has something to do with the fact that all of these people are dying. I remember that Raymond never talked about what his work was about. He never said this is an opportunity for all of us to gather to contemplate the horribleness of this disease, he never said that. But I think back to how he created these beautiful sanctuaries for a community of people to reflect on this really devastating thing that was happening. And how his work was allowing for this reflection that couldn’t really happen through words. It could only happen in that way, by sitting in this artful environment. In quiet and just being with these people. It was a pretty profound experience to feel what art can do to a group of people.

Deborah: You make work with people, over a long period of time and it tends to be communal. What is your process?

Erica: Process always changes and needs to change to match or mirror whatever the intention of the work is, and so I feel like I can’t really talk about a codified process. I get excited when I think about creativity in terms of process. That we’re not just building creative work, but that we’re building creative processes. Creating work is about creating an opportunity to research something that feels problematic or confusing or interesting, and creating work is about building community to research together.

Deborah: It’s very interesting having watched so many of your processes. What’s common in all those processes and what’s different?

Erica: The work has been falling into these two camps. I make my own work and then I have been directing plays, God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz and The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac at the Magic. So, I’m starting to move in that direction which is very different than generating my own work, which feels imperative.

Deborah: We should say you’re a choreographer, but you’re not really doing strictly “dance,” nor are you doing “theater” when you’re generating your own work, or you’re doing both, and somehow they are bigger and they become something else.

Erica: I feel like we have to just bust down some serious walls. For so many grant applications there is a box—a dance box, a theater box—for so many conversations those boxes totally exist. Rather than saying I’m not doing dance and I’m not doing theater, I kind of feel like yes, I’m doing theater and dance and yes, I’m doing installation art and yes yes yes! I’m just saying there you are, Deborah—a person sitting in a chair nodding her head touching her mouth with her finger—there is a dance in these tiny gestures. There is the dance of language and we have this idea that dance means something full-bodied. I don’t know how it’s serving the work to narrow those definitions.

Deborah: Talk about dance, movement, gesture and how those things play into story.

Erica: I watch the world through a choreographic lens; I’m interested in the use of space. I’m interested in the use of the body. I’m interested in truth and I’m interested in lies, and it feels more compelling for me to look at the body as a source of truth than it does for me to look at language as a source of truth and also as a source of fiction. And choreography—dance—can mean anything to me. I don’t know where that line begins and ends. It’s a way of watching. It’s a lens. It’s a way of cataloging information.

Deborah: What about the unique visual approach that you take?

Erica: I’m very compositionally motivated, specific to scenic or  video design—or whatever design components are integrated into the body and themes  of the work. I’m not a fan of video splashed on the wall and people moving abstractly within the images behind them. What is the relationship between the body and the technology? How does a dance affect a video? How does a set create a frame for work? I feel really lucky because I grew up here at the Intersection for the Arts where we get to build sets and live in the space and it’s not just a one-day tech.

Deborah: What is your role as a writer?

Erica: I’m not confident in it. But I’m drawn to the content and I like the details of the content. And so I pretend to be a writer because I get attached to the very specific images that are related to text.

Deborah: That’s interesting. Do you feel confident in your directing, in your choreography, in the way you get involved in the design?

Erica: Yeah, I do. When I first started making dances I was not really comfortable talking. I’m still not. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with words. They either feel like crap or can’t get at what feels most essential. Or sometimes I find that they help get to an idea that feels important to communicate. An example was a project called 51802, which looked at how incarceration affected people left on the outside. It felt like that topic was so specific and that we needed words to help ground the imagery. I think the use of text just depends on the needs of the work. The same thing with whether we’re going to lean toward movement or music. We consider each piece as having the capacity and responsibility to communicate something specific to a specific group of people.

Deborah: Talk about music. Has it become increasingly present for you?

Erica: Songs and music are able to get in there in a way that is so unique. We can listen to a song and it can trigger something so core—it cuts through all of these other layers in an immediate way. I think you have to work really hard to understand movement. As an audience you need to lean into a physical world in a specific way. With text you have to lean in and follow it using specific parts of your brain. With music and visual imagery, but with music especially, you can sit back in your chair and it comes to you—falls into your lap—falls into your experiences in ways that other things don’t. I also love that the way we feel music is such a private experience. Music speaks to secrets in a very electric and immediate way.

Deborah: In working with traditional theater, do you ever feel constrained?

Erica: God’s Ear is the first time I was handed a script and was told, go at it. The reason why I wanted to do that script was that it had little stage directions, its super imaginative, it’s not a reality-based work. It needed a very clear kinesthetic vocabulary. It needed a really compelling musical infrastructure. It needed an imagistic world. I started to think about finding plays that require these elements to fulfill it.

Deborah: You play a role of generator and choreographer and director sometimes when you are also performing. How does that work?

Erica: It’s a mistake and one shouldn’t do it.

Deborah: Be specific, what suffers from it? You did the piece with Sean San Jose where there was sort of no one and everyone directing and you both created material and it was beautifully difficult.

Erica: It was so hard. It was so hard and most pieces that I created that I’ve been inside of are just so hard. I think I know how to facilitate collaborative processes but that’s different from being a good collaborator. When you’re inside the work you’re dependent on other people in ways that when you’re outside of it, you’re not. I’m pretty specific about how I want to see things happen when I’m on the outside. And when I’m on the inside it’s really tough to feel what works and what doesn’t work. I doubt myself all the time and the voices in my head are so much louder than is comfortable. The plus side—totally personally—I’ve been able to do some really fun things; to play in the playground with some really wonderful people. And I’ve been able to get a lot of stuff off my own chest. We create work because we need to deal with stuff and I needed to deal with stuff. Through the process of performing I’ve gotten to deal with some stuff. On a totally personal level, it’s been really cathartic and important for me and my own body and my own life.

Deborah: You’re often working with a group of people over a period of time and everyone is contributing to the creation of material. Some of which gets included, some of which does not get included. That seems like a different sort of challenge.

Erica: What I’m looking for is relationships with people that are totally generous, people who know how to accept direction and they don’t take it personally if I don’t choose every bit of material that they generate. It’s hard. I wouldn’t be able to do what a lot of performers that perform for me do—they give a lot of themselves, not just generating clever ideas—it’s giving their own hearts and experiences and stories and trusting those stories over to me. I love it and I feel really lucky to have those kinds of relationships that grow over time and that trust continues and deepens.

Deborah: You work with people with varied skills and experience. What are you trying to get? Why are you choosing the people you are to work with you?

Erica: Like I said earlier, it’s about building community to look at stuff with and to research with. Before I think if they are a good performer, I think about if it’s a person I want to spend a lot of time with and think with. Or that at least goes alongside whether they are an amazing performer. Creating work, you spend a lot of really intimate time disclosing a lot of information about oneself. You’re like, wow, that human being is seeing the world in an interesting way and thinking about things in an interesting way and I want to spend time with that brain and that heart and making the work is just a way to do that. Working with the actors and musicians and designers, it feels like it goes back to this basic thing of trying to democratize the various tools of performance-based work. So, getting an actor to dance, getting a dancer to act, getting a singer to dance—why not create this very expressive base that we can all jump into. I don’t necessarily believe that the person with the most training can communicate most honestly in that form. If we are just looking at movement-driven vocabulary and we try to create something as honest as possible, I rarely agree that the dancer will perform more honestly than a non-dancer.

Deborah:  Aren’t you also breaking it down for the audience because the more that it’s made real, the more that we as audience members can imagine ourselves in it. It takes away a wall, which is a really interesting phenomenon. You and I have had conversations, in particular about dance performances, that they can be almost too chiseled, like a painting in a museum is beautiful, but somehow not accessible.

Erica: Yeah, I’m interested in the crossover from these different forums. I’m not interested in gymnastics or impressive feet. I recently saw a group of dancers—they were doing something very simple—this gestural movement, but they all had pointed feet when they were lifted in the air. It wasn’t a choice that their feet were pointed, it was a habit. We have kinesthetic habits but we also have compositional habits. We don’t question the details closely, and a lot of times those details reflect a lineage that doesn’t feel necessary to the current work.

Deborah: Let’s focus on the piece you did at city hall. It was a big deal. It reached a lot of people that had no idea they would be reached and it involved a lot of people who never thought they would be involved in performance. What were you trying to do?

Erica: The piece was called, Love EverywhereDancers’ Group commissioned me to do something that would happen in the civic center area. We were walking around and we saw city hall and I remembered when San Francisco started issuing same sex marriage certificates. It was amazing— the feeling in city hall was just like total joy—it affected me the same way music might. It got in my bones and in my heart and it was just beautiful. I was really moved by that sense of joy and I wanted to create something at city hall that was presented on the anniversary of when San Francisco started issuing the same sex marriages—Valentine’s Day, February 14. Wanting to create something that was not an accurate picture of the world that we live in now in relation to the topic of marriage equality but was a picture of the world we want to live in. Just thinking about filling that space with as much joy as possible, which is really different than anything I have ever done because I like to make stuff dark and poetic, but this was trying to create something that was really celebratory and big. So we performed at city hall. We had an orchestra and we had eight core dancers and a group of community performers of about forty people. So we had about sixty performers all together and we also performed in public space in downtown San Francisco and we performed at Glide Memorial Church also. It was so fun!

Deborah: This was the first time you put together a community chorus. How was that? It seems similar to what we’ve been talking about around creating real experience and having real people move through the world you are creating. For Love Everywhere, not only were there sixty performers, but there were several hundred audience members. Is that part of it too? Figuring out a new way to envelope people? Bring people inside of things? If they come in theater through doors or not?

Erika: Yeah, I mean, it’s all changing. The world is changing. It’s a good thing. Theater is kind of boring. There are wonderful places—I love theater people, I love all of you, I love you. But, I love you and let’s do more. I love you and let’s make it happen in as many places, in as many ways as possible. My dad looks for aliens using science. He was on a radio show and this conspiracy theorist called in and said to my dad, “You are not acknowledging that there are other ways to contact aliens, they are living amongst us. All we have to do is go to 7-Eleven and they will be there. Why are you wasting resources sending things into outer space?” My Dad said something like, “We don’t know how they are going to talk back to us. We know that they are there and we’re all trying for the same thing, so why are we arguing about the ways that we are trying. Why don’t we just encourage each other to all try in the best way that we know how?” There are so many different angles to change the world. There are so many ways to present theater and I believe the more ways we all do it, the better.

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I know I am biased, but you MUST come see this new work. It's funny, honest, poignant, ironic, uncomfortable and so, so close to home. Sit in the front row. You won't regret it.

Wonderful interview -- brava, Erika! Your work is consistently mind-expanding and revelatory. Looking forward to more!

I love eavesdropping on the many-years-long conversation Erika and Deborah are having. Thanks for letting us in the room! Feeling privileged to be starting a collaboration with Erika, and to have these clues as we begin.

Oh my God. Erika, let's please work together someday. I want my plays to be as much about movement and music as about text, and am always looking for directors who feel the same way.

Meantime, thanks for the great, honest, generous words.

beautiful words for a woman who does not trust them. yes, i love you all and let's do more. anyone who has any chance to witness erica's work will see that what she says is what happens. it's authentic, boundary-less, and really really sexy.