ted fellows

Fellows Friday with Esther Chae

Esther Chae’s one-woman show, So the Arrow Flies, is about North Korean espionage, post-9/11 themes of conflicting ideologies, government sanctioned torture, and how changing political tides affect one’s family. After learning how the piece resonated with international audiences, Esther is eager to take her work to a whole new level. Like the protagonist in Glass Mask (Yu-ri Ga-myun), the epic comic book that inspired her as a child, Esther is meeting new changes in her life with energy and strength.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Esther asks:

How will YouTube, TED, and perhaps a future Facebook video channel change, degrade or enhance live performance?

Click here to respond!

What’s the latest and greatest in the world of Esther Chae?

Well, the big news is, I just got engaged! In August I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with my now fiancé, Paul von Zielbauer. We had reached the summit, and at the break of dawn, Paul called me over, shouting “Pa-jun! Pa-jun!” That means, “Green scallion pancakes!” in Korean. [Laughs] So I ran over all excited, thinking he wanted to take a photo, and he proposed. He didn’t exactly get down on one knee, but I did sit on his left knee, so it was in fact a proposal that involved a knee. [Laughs] We’re now getting ready for our move from here in LA to Santa Monica.

These big changes are wonderful, but difficult, too. Building a new home with someone in a new place has its challenges. I used to live in Brooklyn, New York, and I would come back to LA often to check in with my dad and my mom — my mom is a long-term care patient in a hospital. I always share this part of my life with the TED community: the way I learned about TED was due to my mom’s series of brain trauma initiated by TB meningitis.

One day I was given the link to Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk, “A Stroke of Insight.” Dr. Taylor, a renowned brain scientist, had a massive stroke and she eventually regained full functioning. Her incredible talk inspired me to aggressively follow the studies in regard to the brain and its recovery. So the way I encountered TED was through her TED talk.

I think sometimes people I meet at TED are surprised to hear this, because at TED I’m the actor! From Hollywood! Touring! And doing all those things. But I came to TED through personal tragedy and scientific curiosity, even though my representation at TED is as an artist.

How has the TED Fellowship impacted you?

My solo performance piece, So the Arrow Flies, that I performed part of on the TEDU stage, has really catapulted me into a respected generative artist and thought leader role. I knew the play was really good and had a lot to say, but I wrote that play in a somewhat solitary time of my life. I finished it while I was doing really nothing else but being a caretaker for my family. Mrs. Park, a very loved character in the play, I wrote as an ode to my mom and my parents, and as a larger context, to the immigrant generation.

My professional life is often confusing to people. Anna Deavere Smith is my mentor – I trained under her. She’s a polymath, so that, to me, is pretty normal. But typically people are surprised to learn that I act, write, direct, teach, participate and speak at panels or thought leadership communities, and more. But the TED conference is full of polymaths, so people there tend to get it.

In the Hollywood acting world, people have no idea about the other facets of my life and personalities. I still remember when I was at the TED Conference, I had an audition for CSI: New York. It’s a really hard office to get into.

I remember thinking to myself, “The CSI people are not going to get this, that I’m in Long Beach and I won’t come up to this audition.” I really tried to explain, “I’m on a Fellowship, they paid for me, uh, Al Gore is here … I can’t go.” I just remember thinking at that moment, that my artistic life is bigger. And that TED was so huge for me.

What direction will you be taking your art in, in the future?

Right now, I’m working with Hugo Van Vuuren, who I met at one of the TED Fellow events. Through Hugo’s introduction to Harvard’s Artscience Labs, I’m trying to find funding to help me realize adapting the piece into a film.

It can’t be a traditional film. It will be a multi-media experimental film. I’m not sure if I want to play all the characters as I do in the stage production. It would be amazing if I could work with other actors in it. But either way, it would be multimedia in the sense that it would be live performance, and animation, and it would be distributed as a film over the Internet.

We would also use a host of other technologies to include live audience members from around the world via the Internet. Will we do a Twitter feed-conference during the performance? Will that actually take away from the experience of a live performance in real time? I just really want to experiment and understand better what new technology means for live performances.

Why do you think it is so important to experiment with this particular piece?

With the characters that I’ve created in my show, not only do I want as many people as possible to see the show since live theater can be limiting, I also feel a responsibility to share these characters. They are unique because they are of Asian descent and are complicated and complex, and frail heroines of current times. So it’s really important for me to get the show out there to an international audience.

It was really striking to me, when I did my show abroad … in Edinburgh the audience was predominantly EU- English speaking folks, and afterwards so many people came up with these reactions. They just felt that they were in on an American history they hadn’t been aware of. They weren’t used to seeing these kinds of immigrant viewpoints. And the performance portrays not what they think of as a typical American’s reaction to 9/11. So their impressions were very interesting.

The other interesting experience I had recently with So the Arrow Flies, was when I took the show to the small town of Imola, Italy. This was a predominantly non-English speaking audience, but they understood everything.

The next day I had a workshop tied in with the local English as a Second Language (ESL) institute. I had them perform monologues from my piece, changing the characters to Italians and Italian-Americans, instead of Koreans and Korean-Americans. And the essence of it all translated. It was incredible to see these Italian performers in these characters. Most of them were off book — with heavy Italian accents — but completely clear and quite believable.

Esther preparing for a performance.

The experience made me feel, “There’s really something here.” I would love to experiment with the show, not only on that multi-media side, but maybe even have open auditions. People could put up videos on YouTube of them playing the characters and doing monologues. Perhaps a little bit like Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video where it’s a montage of everybody playing characters from the play. For me the piece is very specific, but I don’t think it needs to only be that.

Basically it has to now live two dimensionally to reach a larger audience. I’d love to engage the broader TED community on this project.

What inspired you to become an actor?

Well, I grew up with the Korean version of manga, which is manhwa … and I was really so obsessive over it. The Korean manhwas that I grew up with are epic. Their quotes are Shakespearean, and their storytelling is really, really good. So it is not just comic books. And they’re not superhero-oriented. They’re awesome — I still go back and read them.

I was obsessed with this particular Japanese manga called Yu-ri Ga-myun (that’s the Korean title) which translates to “Glass Mask.” The protagonist is this lone, awkward girl who lives with her single mom, and has this amazing gift of acting … I know I became an actor because of her. Whatever she did, I did. I was already training myself, I think now, in hindsight, before I ever understood what was really going on.

I remember a storyline where she was cast as the young Helen Keller. She gets the role, and she’s very Method – I didn’t know it was Method at the time – so for two weeks or a month, she clogs up her ears, and she binds her eyes. And she lives as she thinks Helen Keller, as a young woman, would live.

I remember reading that when I was in elementary school. My mom was a homemaker so she usually was at home. But I remember one day when mom had left for the afternoon. I had waited for this moment!

I went and stuffed my ears, and got a scarf to tie over my eyes. I still remember that sensory exercise I put upon myself, because it was so bizarre to go around like that. I went to the fridge, and my big task was to take out a watermelon. I got out a big knife — I remember being very careful because I didn’t want to cut myself — and then boom! I cut the watermelon in half.

I ate it with my hands, feeling it drip down my lips and my chest, and I was like, “Ah, this is what a watermelon tastes like!” [Laughs] I didn’t know I was odd when I was young. [Laughs]

I wasn’t thinking I was being artistic, I was just really zoned and in the moment, because I was a child. I had lost track of time, and suddenly thought, “uh-oh…” and I quickly unraveled myself. And I remember there was a huge mess in the kitchen, and I had to clean everything up … my mom to this day … I never told my mom that story, so she doesn’t know. She’ll forget soon (she does not have short term memory) but nonetheless I should tell her next time I go see her.

So whatever that girl in Yu-ri Gamyun did, I lived it or I lived it in my imagination. The “Helen Keller afternoon” was the most memorable.

In the very blonde-haired, blue-eyed world of Hollywood, what has your experience as a minority been?

Because most of my formative years were in Korea, although I was born in Eugene, Oregon, I never had the experience of being a minority growing up. This is a very powerful thing and that’s helped me sustain myself in this really difficult industry.

I saw Korean actors play Shakespeare or sing in Cats or play a black person with a afro wig on, of course, in Korean. So to me it’s odd when people in the States say certain things …. I just think, “Why can’t you see me as Ophelia ? You are certainly not Danish and the play Hamlet is about the Prince of Denmark. I wonder if they’ve traveled …. ”

I remember an incident at Yale Drama School when one of my classmates said, ‘Well, if they want to just fill in their diversity quota, fine with me.’ It came down to me against her for the part of Desdemona in Othello. I think she was utterly offended that we were the two last choices. I believe she had come from, in her mind, a long Shakespeare training lineage that started in high school. And being blonde and green-eyed from Texas, she seemed to think she had some sort of right to the role.

I think if you grow up in the States, you have an understanding of that mindset. But for me at the time, I was like, “What the hell is she talking about? I’ve already been training myself as Helen Keller.”

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

I think to really be a changemaker, there needs to be a lot of brew time and gestation period given to oneself. That’s where I think my experience as an artist can offer something to social entrepreneurs: I’ve learned to take things in, absorb them, and let them digest and stew, and then distill the essence of what I am trying to tell and impact into a one or two hour performance.

I know social entrepreneurs, just like artists, are under so much pressure to secure funding, develop business plans, and produce. So I think the suggestion I offer social entrepreneurs is all the more valuable. It takes self-imposed rigor to give oneself brew time, but I think it’s very important.