1,000,000 Elephants, 10,000 Stories: An Interview with Kaysone Syonesa

This month at Sahtu Press we're profiling Lao American theater artist Kaysone Syonesa, who is based in Minnesota and has been featured in several productions in the Twin Cities since her return from living abroad three years ago. This includes performance in the  acclaimed Pangea World Theater production of "Isla Tuliro" written by Pinay-Minnesotan Marlena Gonzalez, the SEAD Project's premiere "River of Memories," as well as the more experimental "The Middle Keeps Moving" by Loom Lab Productions during the 2018 Minnesota Fringe Festival. She's an inspiring community builder with an engaging vision that makes her one to keep an eye on!

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Sahtu Press: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Kaysone Syonesa: I am a Lao American theatre artist and playwright with a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Minnesota. I’m a first generation immigrant born in Khongsedone, Laos.

SP: How did you get involved in theater? Which parts do you enjoy the most?

KS: It’s through my life experiences as a Lao American that drew me to the theatre world. For me, theatre is an artistic platform that creates space for underserved voices and presence to be uplifted. I have a theatre background as a performer, director, set/costume designer, and playwright. In my motivation for empowering diverse voices, I’ve performed with various theatre artists/companies, and directed and devised original theatre work with artists and youth of color in the Twin Cities.

SP: Have you ever been back to Laos?

KS: I had the opportunity to visit Laos with my parents many years ago. From that experience, I was inspired to share the Lao American stories and culture. More, I saw the gap and need for theatre arts access for Southeast Asian youth in the Twin Cities.

SP: What drives you as an artist? Can you give an example of how you've been sharing your talents with the community?

KS: I wanted to bring to life the Lao American stories and culture, and create access to theatre for Laotian and Hmong youth. From this, I directed and devised my first full length play at The Lowry Lab Theater in St. Paul. I recruited Laotian and Hmong youth, and then mentored and trained them over 4 months to become performance artists, writers, and storytellers. We collaborated and wrote "Sticky Rice Drama," interweaving Lao folktales and the youth’s own stories and talents. This was the first time all the youth have been onstage and created an original collaborative theatre piece.

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SP: What's another project you're really proud of?

KS: I wanted to raise the artistic voices of women of color and created Moonlight Collective with three theatre artists who were Latina American and African American. Together we wrote, designed, directed, and produced a play called "Many Routes," about three different women’s stories integrating spoken word, dance, and storytelling.

SP: Where do you see your career goals these days?

KS: My career goals have shifted to be more focused on creating space and voices for Lao American theatre. My artistic vision is to increase my theatre knowledge, skills, and capacity to write and produce more Lao cultural plays locally and nationally. Recently, I’ve written a bilingual play (in Laotian and English) called "In the Land of 10,000 Stories" for both young and adult audiences. It follows a young Laotian girl who gets magically transported from her home in Minneapolis to Laos where she goes on an adventurous journey discovering and encountering the various Lao folktale characters, animals and culture.

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SP: What's your creative process like?

KS: Lately, to further expand my practices in Lao theatre, I’ve been researching the history of Lao theatre and art forms and found that there is very limited literature and scholarship to increase my knowledge in this area. Traditionally, Lao theatre includes  the ancient art of puppetry, an integral part of the country’s past art forms. In my professional artistic career, I’ve had the opportunity to train and perform in other Asian theatre arts and dance with different companies such as classical Indian dance with Ananya Dance Theatre, and Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatre and puppetry with Green T Productions. I’ve also learned various puppetry techniques working with Michael Sommers’ Open Eye Figure Theatre.

However, I found it difficult to access materials to learn how to create traditional and modern Lao theatre; it was also rare to have access to or find various published Lao plays. While having access to published documents is a barrier, there are also unique opportunities to develop and expand my skills by connecting with Lao master artists nationally and internationally.

SP: Who are some of the theater artists you admire in the Lao culture?

KS: There are so many elders who I hope get more recognition one day for the trails they've blazed. These include national master artists like Khankham Phaxayavong with Lao Bantheung Sinh performance troupe in California and the Kinnaly traditional dance and music troupe in Seattle. The international masters include Lattanakone Insisiengmay with Khao Niew Theatre Group and the performers who create the annual Vientiane Performing Arts Festival in Vientiane, Laos.

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SP: What would be your dream project in the next few years?

KS: My dream project would be to bring together my American theatre background with the Lao theatre art forms to artistically shape how Lao American stories are staged through these diverse repertoire. With refined artistic vision, motivation and inspiration to create and expand Lao American theatre, I want to expand my capacity to learn more about the traditional and modern Lao theatre art forms locally, nationally, and internationally. To me this has so much potential for an enormous culture shift as we try to reduce the ongoing disparities created by our personal and collective refugee experiences.

I hope to find opportunities to integrate the traditional and modern Lao theatre art forms with the context of Lao American stories and culture. With my background in dance and the Lecoq theatre technique, I’m very connected to physical theatre to express stories beyond words. For this, it’s important for me to learn the different traditional Lao physical art forms.

I want to also engage with performers who are committed to not only preserving, fostering, and educate about Lao arts, culture, and traditions, but who are willing to be fearless and innovate. In the years ahead, I hope to make more of an effort to appreciate traditional Lao music that’s an integral part of Lao theatre. This will inform and build on my physical and musical theatre work through traditional Lao art forms, and what I can pass on to my peers and students over the decades ahead.

SP: What are some of the traditions you'd like to see us preserve in our community?

KS: A traditional Lao art form I'd love to take on is called Morlam, a form of Lao theatre consisting of singers dressed up as characters to perform a sung story. One day i hope to  be mentored by master Molam performers like Khankham Phaxayavong with Lao Bantheung Sinh performance troupe in California to learn, practice and write lyrics and verses with an understanding of the sounds, the tones, the delivery and presentation.

As Mr. Phaxayavong once said, “each character within molam has a distinct yet equally important role, with its own costumes and style of performing and you have to become the character you are portraying. This is what the master teaches you”. I am certainly always looking for others as well, so if you see any you think I should know about, send them my way.

I'd certainly love to also study abroad with the theatre companies in Vientiane, Laos such as the Khao Niew Theatre Group directed by Lattanakone Insisiengmay.

They provide workshops to guide and train artists in the areas of performance, puppetry and acting. The company consists of artists from the National Circus of Vientiane and Kabong Lao Puppet Theatre. Their use of “home-grown mix of creative, poetic, and social messages through a contemporary and ingenious use of tools that locals are familiar with” are practices that would enhance my creativity to produce theatre work for the Minnesotan and Lao community around the world to connect and be familiar with.

SP: What's a big challenge for you in your work?

KS: There are very few published Lao plays in the US and online. To experience traditional Lao theatre and be mentored by theatre artists who are truly connected to the history, culture and stories of the Lao people is invaluable. Unfortunately, for me and many others, time, funding, and realistic, uninterrupted training opportunities have been so hard for all of us to secure. I think we have stronger advocates, including ourselves, who are starting to make the case successfully that there is reason to be optimistic.

SP: What advice would you give to emerging Lao American theater artists?

KS: Get involved if you get a chance. You could change your life, and your whole community!

Sahtu Press