Seema Sueko, 44, is deputy artistic director at Arena Stage. She was born in Pakistan and lives in Columbia Heights.
A deputy title is very Washington, like our welcome to you. You’ll get an undersecretary next.
It is a title that’s also used at the Royal Shakespeare [Company]and the National Theatre in London. As far as I know, it’s the first usage at an American nonprofit theater.
You developed a strategy called consensus organizing for theater. What does it look like in practice?
I first developed it in San Diego at Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company. CO, consensus organizing, is about mutual self-interest. For theater it’s about building stake in multiple pockets of communities and those communities building stake back in the theater by organizing around mutual self-interest. With “Smart People,” the play I just directed at Arena, I want this play to be as artistically excellent as possible. I needed to learn about neuroscience, how an EEG machine works. I needed a deeper dive into theories about implicit bias and the science and psychology of racism. We look at what are our assets, dramaturgically searching the greater Washington area. One example of an asset is the Brain and Behavior Initiative at University of Maryland. I asked them what do they really want, which is the heart of consensus organizing. They’re a multi-disciplinary initiative. They wanted to further embrace working across disciplines. They wanted to get their students off campus. They wanted to have their students have a creative experience.
Two hundred students and faculty members from a diversity of disciplines came to the show and did a pre-show workshop and a talk-back with the cast. Now we’re talking about what we’ll do next season together.
What’s CO look like for an upcoming show?
For “Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarías, we are beginning conversations with communities engaged in Latinx studies, neighborhood associations, plant science and landscaping, American studies, women in science and engineering, among others. They’re still early stages.
What was your first big moment of theater?
I was in the eighth grade in Hawaii. I saw my sister playing the lead in the musical “Little Mary Sunshine.” My sister was very shy, so introverted. To see her transform onstage and just bring so much joy to the audience really moved me.
She became somebody unlike herself in real life?
I think she just revealed all of the magnificent-ness, if that’s a word, about herself. All the things that I, as her sister, knew and saw but she kept hidden from others because she was shy. There it was, all for everyone to see.
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