By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“The World of Extreme Happiness,” a play written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, tells the story of a Chinese girl, left to die in a slop bucket because she’s born female. She survives, makes her way to the big city, and finds both intrigue and pain in her struggle to better herself.
For one crucial member of the Seattle Public Theater (SPT)’s production, the story wasn’t new. “I actually directed a workshop reading [of the play] a few years ago in San Francisco with Frances,” relates SPT’s Desdemona Chiang. “She was in the final stages of developing the piece. I’ve also had a few chats with Shana Bestock (SPT’s previous artistic director) about working together over the last couple of years, but the right play and timing never worked out.
“So, when [SPT’s] Annie Lareau and Kelly Kitchens got in touch with me about directing this particular piece, it felt like an opportunity too fortuitous to pass up.”
Cast as the lead character, the resilient and death-defying Sunny, Seattle-area actor Mika Swanson allows how she was acting, and occasionally acting out, from an early age.
“I was raised on Disney movies,” she explained. “I would always be running around the house, and singing at the top of my lungs, re-enacting scenes. I also sang and danced in my elementary school’s talent shows. And it was seeing my first Broadway national tour show [of “Les Miserables”], that solidified my want and my choice to spend my life doing theatre.”
Swanson, daughter of a Japanese mother and a Caucasian father, grew up mainly in the Everett area, and studied drama at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts. She credits Cornish professor Marya Sea Kaminski with some crucial coaching.
Kaminski, remembers Swanson, instilled in her, and my fellow classmates, the idea of ‘Dare to Suck.’ “She taught me that it’s okay to make mistakes in your acting exploration. That messing up or making a crazy choice isn’t a bad thing, because it can lead to a great choice. And, as a self-conscious and people-pleasing 18-year-old, it really opened my eyes to how much I was limiting myself in my work, by showing only what I thought my teachers or directors wanted to see.”
Director Chiang, born in Taiwan and raised around Los Angeles, got her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Washington (UW), starting in 2006. “I remember thinking — wow, that’s a damn beautiful [Seattle] skyline,” she explained. “Then I eventually turned a corner onto University Avenue, saw a hole-in-a-wall restaurant called Best of Bento, and thought — yep, I can live here for three years.”
Her own mentors were UW’s Jon Jory and Valerie Curtis-Newton. Jory, explained Chiang, “Taught me that directing theatre is about craft and work, not art. He used to tell me, ‘Desdemona, you’re good, but you’re no artist.’ Valerie taught me that fear was the center of all your problems. ‘Where’s the fear?’ she would ask. ‘Locate the fear, and you’ll locate your solution.’”
On first exposure to the play, Swanson was struck by Sunny’s journey. She starts as a meek girl who wants to move her way up into the world without rocking the boat, and evolves to a revolutionary figure, willing to risk her safety and wellbeing to draw attention to the wrongs that her fellow factory workers face every day.
“I saw it [at first],” said the actor, “as an Eastern story that was going to be told to a Western audience. But as I continued to go deeper into the script and the story, I realized that this play tells a universal story, it just happens to be set in an Eastern country, told by Eastern characters.
“This story has something in it everyone can relate to, no matter their background, and it’s my hope that I can do my part to relay that connection to the audience.”
Chiang expressed similar thoughts. “When I first worked on this piece, I was struck by how Western the script felt, despite being set in China. The fight against a system of oppression, the individual’s struggle for visibility, our misguided notions of meritocracy, and desire for personal advancement — these are also American ideas. And that there is a lot of shared values between modern China and America.
“So the more I work on this play, the more I’m convinced that as our world becomes more increasingly technological, our perceived cultural differences eventually become subsumed by a larger shared notion of modernity.”
“The World of Extreme Happiness” opens Oct. 12 and runs through Nov. 5 at Seattle Public Theater. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.