Comfort: An Interview with Phoebe Hu ('13)

Submitted by Naomi Melvin on 12/21/2016

Choosing a piece of theatre to see is both exciting and difficult. Prior to attending theatre school, my rubric for choosing a play was, admittedly, meagrely crafted. Yes, I saw incredible shows but they accounted for a fraction of the work created within the city. There is a lot to try and a lot to digest. I know this now. I have lists of shows that poke at me from every platform. I open Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, my email and my text messages and there is another show that I HAVE to see. Then, there is word of mouth which is undeniably powerful and persuasive. So, how do I make my choices? Well, that would probably entail a blog post of its own and this is not meant to be about me. Here is the conclusive statement: sometimes, there is a show and its genesis, synopsis and significance intercept my selection process. Essentially, the show chooses me and I am suddenly at the theatre thinking, “how did I get here? Art got me here.”

Comfort pulled me in for so many reasons, from the cast and creative to the story and its historical value. The night that I saw the show, the audience was silent except for its breath.

Two Randolph alumni, Phoebe Hu and Timothy Ng, were in the cast. I asked Phoebe if she would be interested in speaking to the subject matter and her experiences with Comfort. She, so graciously, said yes. Phoebe is an exemplar of an actress who shows investment in the work and personal process.

NM: Can you describe the premise of and themes within Comfort?

PH: In WWII, when the Imperial Japanese army invaded Asia, over 300,000 women from China, Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines were captured and kept as wartime sex slaves. These women, all teenagers at the time, suffered from unthinkable pain and horror; most died in the comfort houses. 

After the war, Japan refused to acknowledge this systematically planned war crime and tried to position the Comfort Women as "war prostitutes" for decades. The survivors not only suffered from lifelong trauma, but were faced with public shaming by being called "war whores". Fearful of judgement and abandonment by their families, many Comfort Women decided to keep what happened to them a secret and face the pain alone for the rest of their lives.

It wasn't until the 90s that some of the survivors started to come out, share their stories with the world and ask the Japanese government to settle the past justly. However, it’s been a long fight and the grandmas are leaving us one by one every year. This fact answers the "why now" question that we ask in theatre: we want to raise awareness and help them achieve the peace before it's too late. 

So that was a long, long premise because it's important background.  

With the play itself, some people asked what makes it different than a history lecture or a documentary. I think this is where Diana [Tso] and William [Yong]’s vision really made a difference along with the support of the amazing designers, composer and musicians. The play doesn't jump right into the war; rather, it gives you a glimpse of what life looked like and who these people were first before war hits them. You see and hear this beautiful world/culture right before it's shattered. 

The design elements, combined with the use of live music and movement, create something only live theatre can do:  it makes you feel like you are right there and, sometimes, it's almost too dangerously or uncomfortably close. But, that's when you are really forced to face whatever it is that you are feeling. An audience member told me after our preview that she had known about the war and most of the information before seeing the show, but "experiencing it” is still shocking.

NM: How did you get involved with the project?

PH: I read the audition notice on e-drive and decided in a second that I had to be a part of it. 

When I was 13 years old, back in Taiwan, I got a book from my father's journalist friend about the Nanjing massacre and Comfort Women in WWII. It has since been a piece of history that I care strongly about. Shortly after I came to Canada, I saw Diana's first play Red Snow (also about  WWII) and I told myself that one day I'll work with Red Snow Collective. And it happened.

It is also worth mentioning that the audition call specifically asked that actors be comfortable in singing and movement. Besides reading sides, we needed to prepare a song and go through an individual dance call. I later learned that some people were not used to this type of audition and were intimidated by it. Having graduated from the Randolph Academy, I was so comfortable in the room and almost excited about it because that's “just what we do”. I remember thinking, "this is meant to be”!

NM: How much Comfort history were you aware of before starting rehearsals? What did you find most surprising in your personal research?

PH: Like I said, I was pretty obsessed with this part of history since I was 13. Naturally, I was reading and researching mostly from the women’s perspective. Since last year’s workshop and reading of the show, and throughout our rehearsals this year, I’ve branched out with the research. I’ve started to hear the voice of the soldiers more and more and I find their stories equally heart breaking. Yes, there might have been several “born sociopathic figures”, but the majority were regular teenage boys turned into monsters by war. I’m very grateful that the play has captured a glimpse of those boys.  Yes, the focus is definitely on the women but it is important to show that, really, there’s no winning side in a war. Except for the tiny bunch that hold the power, everyone else is a war victim.  

NM: Can you speak about your character? What has the process been like in developing your character?

PH: I play two different characters in the play. In Act I, I am heroine Li Dang Feng’s mother in a time before the war. In Act II, I am a Chinese Comfort Woman named Zhang Mei Ling. They are both challenging, but for very different reasons. 

I call the mother the ultimate “in between” person. She’s caught in between her husband and her daughter, in between the old and the new , and in between the values of home versus country. One can ask, “wasn’t every person in the city at that time facing the same problem?” and “what makes her different then?”. These questions helped me to develop character. If you only look at the mother’s text, her position varies and at times seems contradicting. So, I had a discussion with Diana and William and we all agreed that the most interesting choice for the mother was to amplify her awareness of that “in between place”. Not only is she trapped between binaries and having to navigate compromises, but she understands both sides. This actually creates good conflict for the stage and makes the mother’s role in the family more crucial.

It was hard for me because, as a 21st Century feminist, I have a strong and clear stance on all the topics within the play. So, this conscious character choice went against my initial instinct. However, the deeper we researched and examined relationships, the clearer this choice became.

Mei Ling’s character, on the other hand, doesn’t take much logic or analysis to understand. Everything she says or does is clear and straight forward. But her emotional weight is almost unbearable. So, the question became, “how do I find that truthful place without experiencing what she has experienced?” I have to admit that this might be one of the most challenging characters I’ve worked on, so far, in terms of emotional consistency. I have a feeling that with her, I will always feel like I can go further and deeper. Currently, I’m relying on and benefiting from lots of discipline and specificity. 

NM: This is the world premiere of Comfort. What has it been like working on a never- before-seen piece? 

PH: This is my second time working on a world premiere piece and I’m loving it! It’s both exciting and nerve-racking. I find the actors are so much more involved in the creative process because we are lifting these characters from the script for the first time. We really affect the shaping of the characters. And because there are no prior assumptions about how the characters should be, you get to free your imagination and make choices. It is always about what makes more sense for the world of the play and the characters instead of “I saw it done this way before and I like it”. Also, the actors can bring their movement, language and instrument skills to the characters (which happened a lot in this show) and when it works, it's very exciting. However, there’s also some pressure. Because we are still in the editing process, every choice is crucial for the development of the play. Sometimes, lines are cut or changed because the line itself needs editing. Other times, changes occur because the actor can’t make it work. Also, I see a “world premiere” as a piece’s “first date” with the world. So, yeah, we all want to help make the piece look good so it can be appreciated in order to get a second and third date and the get happily married one day! I guess what I’m saying is that our mission is to give the piece a successful first launch especially since it carries such important messages and can make an impact. I really, really hope that it can go as far as possible. 

NM: The subject matter is ongoing, as Comfort Women are still fighting for their voices. What would you like the audience to gain from seeing Comfort?What can the audience do?

PH: The first step of emotional healing is awareness and I believe that this applies to historical trauma as well. My first hope is that the audience comes to see the show, especially those who don’t know much about the event. For those who have heard of the event, I’m hoping that the history becomes more than facts, numbers and textbook descriptions. By experiencing these stories live, they become a shared memory between the characters and the audience rather than “something that happened far far away and a long time ago”. Then, hopefully the audience can see and appreciate the courage and resilience of the Comfort Women not only because they survived, but because they continue to fight for their stories to be heard.

I also hope that the audience sees how this is relevant now! Jung-shil, an art history professor at Corcoran College of Art and Design and the VP of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women, say that the Comfort Women issue is one of the earlier examples of mass performed human trafficking organized by a military and government. Unfortunately, 80 years later, Comfort Women have yet to get the official apology, proper reparations, or the recovery of altered and erased history from the Japanese government. The same crime is still being performed all over the world. Over the past 20 years, aside from the individual lawsuits and protests happening between the grandmas and the Japanese government, organizations and activists have started to stand behind them. For those of us who can’t physically go to the UN or Korea to support the grandmas, we can follow it closely, care and share, and jump in when there’s an opportunity. It’s a tricky position, feeling like we can’t make a difference. But I believe social justice takes patience and repetition. In 2014, Grandma Gil delivered over 1.3 million signatures from all over the world urging the Secretariat of the UN Human Rights Council to act on behalf of the hundreds of surviving Comfort Women throughout the Asia-Pacific. That, to me, is the best example; one signature may mean nothing, but 1.3 million makes a case. ALPHA Education Canada has been doing a lot of amazing work and is definitely worth following. Last but not least, there will be some paper butterflies available to the audience that comes to see Comfort. For anyone wishing to leave a message to the grandmas who are still fighting the fight, Comfort will deliver all butterflies to them, after the production, to let them know that there are many people in Canada learning their stories, supporting them and that they are not alone. 

NM: What has been the easiest part of rehearsal and what has been the biggest challenge? 

The biggest challenge is the emotional intensity of the show. It takes a lot of energy and focus to be emotionally available and truthful. Normally, when you do a show, you may have one or two scenes that have extra high emotion, requiring more work to warm up to that emotional level. In Comfort, that high-level emotion feels needed in almost every scene. It is hard to sustain that throughout a whole performance but even harder in rehearsal. I have to learn to pace myself and balance my energy. I take a mental/physical break when I can but maintain a certain amount of focus and energy throughout the day so it doesn’t take forever to warm back up. I have figured out what to eat, what to drink, when to take risk and when to be safe, when to just go for it and when to say, “can we clarify this first?” With a show like, this awareness has become really essential. 

The easiest part is being with the team. It’s a big family full of love, especially the cast who felt like an instant family. I sometimes forget how grateful I am until I imagine doing this play with them. There is a huge amount of trust and support.

NM: Has the playwright, Diana Tso, been heavily involved in the rehearsal process? How has the work evolved from the original script? 

PH: Yes. When Diana doesn’t have to run around with her producer hat, she is almost always in rehearsal with us. Not only does she communicate closely with William but also with the whole cast. Her text has a very distinctive tone and rhythm. Diana is careful with details that involve cultural and historical elements, especially details that came from real testimonies. She cares about honouring the culture and the memories. But, being a performer herself, she is usually very open to experimentation. William has known Diana and her work for a long time. With her trust, William made sure that he played with the choreography without straying too far from the script. The musicians also improvised a lot with soundscape. I think it worked out nicely, because Diana’s text has a lot of poetic elements that flourish with choreographic and musical support on stage.

NM: What is your favourite line in the play?

PH: I’m going to skip this one because I think all my favourites are spoilers….

NM: What must you have with you at every rehearsal? (physical object or not?)

PH: A piece of floor to claim mine with a wall behind it. If it’s a corner between two walls, even better. I think something about my body connecting to the floor makes me feel calm and excited. Every rehearsal place usually has a nice floor. I like the point of view from there; it’s where I enjoy watching rehearsal most. I’ve learned from many mentors and fellow artists that if you find something that works well for you, hold on to it. Even if you have no clue why, sometimes our bodies are wiser than our brains.