You Taught Me the Importance of Collaboration: a conversation with Sumie Yotsukura

Sumie Yotsukura is currently pursuing her BA in Theatre at William and Mary. In 2018 she graduated from Our Lady of Good Counsel High School where I taught her over four years. She was one of only three students I taught in 8 years who took all five theatre courses offered! We worked together most recently on And Then There Were None and The Music Man at Good Counsel in which she played Vera and Marian the Librarian, respectively.

Kristina Friedgen: What are you working on now?

Sumie Yotsukura: I’m working on Ordinary Days.  It’s one of the senior directorials this year [at William & Mary].  It will go up in April. It’s a fun show. We did our first run-through yesterday and our music director/pianist was like, “We’ll see if I can get through this.” It’s a crazy piano part because there is no orchestration, just piano.

KF: Can you just give us a little snapshot of you as a theatre student in high school?

SY: I came into high school knowing very clearly that I wanted to do theatre and I didn’t want to do anything else.  Not to say that I didn’t have doubts throughout high school, but I came in knowing that I wanted to perform. I knew that I loved theatre, but that was sort of it.  It was being in class with you and having you as both my teacher, my director, my mentor that really helped me become a more fully-fledged actor/theatre-maker individual.  And certainly, your influence was a huge part of why I view myself so strongly as a theatre maker and not just an actor. Specifically why I loved theatre so much, the most out of all the ways that I can perform.

KF: What were some defining roles or experiences?

SY: Certainly one of the most pivotal moments for me was when you cast me in Into the Woods, because that was the first time that I had done anything of that caliber.  I had worked with you for a year or so at that point and done two productions with you.  But they were smaller roles, not quite as demanding and then it was the Witch in Into the Woods which required so, so much.  It certainly was not quite trial by fire, but it pushed me to see what I was capable of.  It helped me be immediately exposed to all of the different facets of what would be necessary to do such a complex role.  Even if I wasn’t necessarily a master of it by the time we performed, having to deal with all of the elements there, from just dealing with acting as someone I definitely wasn’t – an old woman, a witch, and a mother – all things that I’m not.  And dealing with my very technologically advanced cane, and prosthetics, and crazy costume changes, and make-up, and all of the really close collaboration that we did – there were a couple of casts in my time at Good Counsel that were incredibly important to me and significant in developing my sense of what collaboration in theatre should be and that was definitely one of them.  The way that everyone worked together with such a unity and intensity of purpose really just filled out my love for and dedication to theatre. It sort of launched me into the rest of my time at Good Counsel, giving me an idea of what I wanted to aspire to.

Sumie as The Witch in Into the Woods. Also featured: Cheyenne Parks & Patrick Ehrman

All of the classes that I took were also really important to filling out who I was.  If I hadn’t done all of the classes, I would have probably just focused on acting. But taking Advanced Studies before I got to Advanced Acting and Directing, and being introduced to design elements and how all of the aspects of theatre work together.  Directing a show as a sophomore showed me how all of the elements work and gave me so much respect for how people have to work together to make theatre. Not just on stage, but seeing how all of the steps go together. I’ve always wanted to be good that I do, but being in class with you and working on shows with you taught me the importance of seeking excellence in collaboration.  Noticing how and being very deliberate and careful, and understanding the care that goes into choosing all of the parts of an artistic endeavor, I started to notice all of the things that I had taken for granted. That certainly continues to inform my ideas of how to pursue theatre and better work not in isolation. How to make better art by taking advantage of the collaboration that theatre requires. 

KF: I know you’re studying acting at William & Mary, although your degree will be in theatre.  How does that idea of collaboration inform your work now?

SY: I’m very happy with the fact that my degree is in theatre and not acting.  Every semester I’ve taken an acting or performance class, but I’ve also taken a more technical theatre class as well as theory classes.  I love that in my program I don’t just get to do acting things, but I can do other design or technical things. Most of the time I’m doing something for acting, but I’ll try to take on a role in costumes for our student Shakespeare group, or I’ll do some sewing for something, or I’m working on building sets.  I have a job at the box office, so I work with Front of House and I’ve just started learning how to house manage. I’m learning all of these skills because I want to understand how they work. Ultimately, for the bulk of my career, if I’m not doing them, I understand what’s going to make working together with people the most productive and the most beneficial to all of us, so that our end result, our product, and the effect that we have is the best for the greatest amount of people.

KF: Has the work of somebody else, whether it’s a costume designer or choreography or whatever, has their work contributed to your interpretation of character and shifted your choices or decision making within a role?

SY: Yes, definitely.  Chorus Line is probably the most recent example.  Seeing what my costume designer decided was going to be my costume was not traditional Diana.  It was sort of funny because it was something I would wear. It’s wasn’t something Diana would wear.  It was an interesting way sort of seeing how it further melded my personality and Dian’s personality and finding my own version of her that way.  Especially as I pay more attention to costume design, a lot of times I won’t have a full idea of what the character is until I know what the costume is.  Because if what I’m playing on stage doesn’t match up with what I’m wearing, regardless of which is the “right” interpretation for our production – the most important thing is that it be a unified presentation of what the character is. 

William & Mary’s A Chorus Line

I just consulted with the costume designer for Ordinary Days.  She had sent me an idea of what she had wanted and we were looking through my closet (since the senior directorials don’t have a lot of money), and I thought “Oh, I don’t necessarily have a lot of that.”  But from my understanding of the character what I had in my wardrobe, I said, “So this doesn’t fit exactly what you were suggesting, but I think with my impressions of the character and what you want that maybe this dress would be good”.  I think it’s also encouraged me to be more confident in my interactions with designers so that no department is acting in isolation. 

While the designers generally hold more power than I do, but I am more likely to be likely to ask for things for my character.  In Sense and Sensibility, I asked for a necklace to fiddle with.  I thought it would fit Marian and it would be something that would help me very much.  I wasn’t the best in high school at asking for things. I thought, “the director and designers have given me this, so this is what I have to work with.”  But as I’ve grown, I’ve started to get more of that confidence and I think that’s come from understanding how the ideas come about and being able to explain my ideas.  

Sumie in Sense & Sensability at William & Mary

KF: I find that interesting because when I was in high school we rehearsed our shows in classroom and any props that we had in rehearsals came out of our backpacks.  I remember going to college and the directing studio had a lot of props in house that lived there all the time. When I was teaching and directing at Good Counsel, I always wanted any time we could actually work with props – even if it wasn’t’ going to be used in the production – I wanted that to inform actor behavior and give you guys and maybe sparking ideas for your characters.  But maybe in doing that I was stilting the creative process?

SY: Oh no.  I know a lot of that was honestly just me.  Especially in new situations where I want to make sure I’m working well with people, I don’t want to rock the boat.  Just now, I’m getting more of the confidence to express my needs or wants. I think very much in part because of my appreciation for and emphasis on understanding all of the parts of theatre, I’m growing in my ability to make those kinds of creative decisions.  

KF: If you could pick any project for us to work on together now, what would it be?

SY: Junior year we did the devising unit and it was probably my favorite unit that we ever did.  It was a completely different version of theatre. But it combined my dance background and what I was doing in theatre for the most part and I loved it.  That chair duet that Cheyenne and I did was one of the pieces of theatre that I’m the proudest of because we made it ourselves and it had a message and an intent.  I would love to do something like that with you.  

In my intro to theatre class in college, my major advisor came in and did a guest lecture on physical theatre.  She showed us a bunch of videos from the National Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre.  It was a devised production, but it was devised off of Jane Eyre.  They weren’t devising the story, they were devising the ways to tell the story.  It was a combination of narrative storytelling, but it was also the devised theatre that you made me fall in love with.  So I would love to work on something like that with you, which is more of the narrative theatre that is my thing but incorporating the devising and physical theatre methods that we worked on. Because I love what you do as a director, but especially what you do with movement and how you combine those things and are able to do that with you.

KF: If you had to pick a book or a narrative to devise off of, what would it be?

SY: Boy that’s hard.  I’m not sure I have an answer.  I love fairy tales, but I also love that era of literature [Victorian/Edwardian].  Probably something from the time period of Sense and Sensibility.  I haven’t read as extensively in that period as I would like, but doing something like that where so much of it is Comedy of Manners – sitting in a room having a conversation and all of the action is in the conversation.  Seeing how you could juxtapose that aspect of a lot of novels from that period with the physicalness of physical theatre would be really cool.

KF: Is there’s one lesson from our time together that you want to share?

SY: Developing a strong work ethic so that even if a particular production that you work on, or an endeavor, or a class, if it doesn’t turn out well in the end, as long as you put in your best effort it’s worth something.  That continues to shape my philosophy going forward. If you put in all the work you could, you will still have gotten something out of it that’s valuable that someone will have appreciated. As long as you put something in, you will get something out, which I learned from our time as your student and actor.

Sumie in And Then There Were None at Good Counsel. Also featured: Ian Coursey