Within two days, Susan Lieu sent me a prompt, detailed Google calendar invite for an interview, and then cried with me on a coffee shop couch while we talked. Deeply Type A tendencies and deep emotional availability may be an unusual combination, but Lieu is an unusual person.
When I first met Lieu, in the summer of 2018, she was working on her first full-length project as a writer, performer and producer, a one-woman show called 140 Lbs: How Beauty Killed My Mother. A sold-out world premiere at Theater off Jackson in February 2019 became a 10-city, self-produced national tour last fall. Now, from February 6-16, Lieu will headline ACT’s inaugural solo performance festival with Over 140 Lbs, an updated show to include her updated reality: at showtime, Lieu will be eight months pregnant.
In an elevator pitch, 140 Lbs is about Lieu’s mother, who died when Lieu was just 11 after a surgeon neglected to call 911 when things went wrong during plastic surgery. Like all good shows, it’s about much more than the tagline: mothers and daughters, beauty standards in the Vietnamese community, immigrants and their American-born children, medical malpractice, loss, love, justice, healing. She’s a warm and engaging performer, funny and heartbreaking, zipping from character to character with vocal and physical ease. Audience members flock to her after every show, to share their own stories, and she's happy to listen.
“I feel the love from all audiences,” Lieu says. “I plant certain seeds and lines for [Asian-American audiences], so there’ll be more laughter or groaning in places, and the comments are different afterward. The representation is more important to them and the intergenerational trauma speaks more directly to them, but it’s still about the complication of family dynamics and loss and love and grief, so that’s universal.”
Mentioning Lieu’s pregnancy isn't just to illustrate her preternatural stamina; becoming a mother herself requires a fundamental shift in a show created as a search for her own mother. With help from director Sara Porkalob, Lieu’s original story has bloomed from 65 minutes to around 100. The original 140 Lbs finds Lieu on her wedding day, desperate to know more about a mother who died too young, fighting against a family who refused to talk about her. “As I expand to this next piece, it’s not just about my search for my mom, we know mom now,” Lieu says. “Now it’s searching for who am I as a mom? And, intergenerationally, what am I willing to consciously pass down, what am I consciously not passing down, even it’s going against the grain of my culture, even it means pushing back on my elders?”
Energetic and organized, Lieu has always been an artist with a plan, dreaming big and iterating strategically since a layoff from a management consulting job several years ago finally pushed her to start performing. Standup comedy (she’s a big Andy Kaufman fan) led her to classes in solo performance at Freehold Theatre Lab and an influential collaboration with director Paul Budraitis. She performed shorter versions of her mother’s story at Seattle venues from 18th and Union to Bumbershoot, then stitched them together into 140 Lbs, under Porkalob’s direction.
“Writing with Sara is a joy,” Lieu says. “She keeps me honest, she can help stitch together the road map in a way that’s hard for me, because I’m so in it. And we do it with so much fun and so much food, so much trust.”
Not long after the world premiere of 140 Lbs, Lieu and her husband decided to start trying for a family. “I was hemming and hawing about when the tour should be, and then I got pregnant, so I was like OK it’s clearly October through December and I’ve got to haul ass,” she says. “That’s when everything else started to fall into place.”
Spreadsheets in place, Lieu hit the road, reaching out to every personal connection, community organization and interested journalist in every city she was visiting. “It’s been an incredible boot camp for me to grow rapidly as a performer and producer, knowing what to negotiate in advance, learning who puts artists first and who doesn’t,” Lieu says.
Marrying what she learned about self-producing with her existing business skillset is another iteration of Lieu’s work. Keep an eye out for what she calls the Artist’s MBA, a seven-point marketing plan she plans to release sometime in late 2020, to help other artists do what she did. With two Ivy League degrees, including an MBA from Yale, Lieu is taking aim at the idea that caring about money somehow makes you less of an artist—an attitude that producers and presenters have long capitalized on. “How do you make it so that you can pay your school loans, pay yourself, and not have to have another side job?” Lieu says. “Because when you have to have a side job, you just can’t focus on [your work]. It’s too hard. People do it, of course, but I really am interested in changing the mindset of this being a cash-poor industry. Of always feeling like you need to beg. I’m tired of it."
When negotiating her Solo Fest contract with ACT, Lieu pushed back in a way that “they have let me know is unusual,” she says, laughing. “And I let them know that I know it works. If I had to subscribe to the original model they gave me there would be no way I could pay my design team a living wage, or pay myself at all in the process. ACTLab is a longstanding program and I’m excited to be there, it feels like a milestone for me, as a producer and performer, to be at ACT. But in terms of hitting financial goals, we had to rework it to make it work for everybody.”
Two years ago, before Lieu had even premiered 140 Lbs or decided for sure she wanted to be a mother, she had a vision. “I wanted to scale this story, whether that’s a museum exhibit, a book, TV or film, and those were crazy ideas,” she says. Today, she has an installation, an altar to her mom, in the Wing Luke Museum exhibit Where Beauty Lies, open until September 2021. A book agent reached out to her in New York; they’re still redlining the contract, she says, but she’ll submit a finished book proposal before she gives birth. “It’s a family story, my real-life journey, discovering me as a performer and also an activist,” she says.
Activism is baked into the story of Lieu's mother, a Vietnamese refugee and Bay Area nail salon owner, and the American medical establishment that killed her—the doctor responsible for her mother’s death had been censured before and was on probation when she died, unbeknownst to anyone in Lieu's family. Lieu is partnering with the organization Consumer Watchdog, using her story to raise awareness of a California ballot measure that would raise the quarter-million-dollar financial cap on medical malpractice suits in that state, which Lieu says hasn’t been raised since 1975. “Adjusted for inflation that should be $1.3 million,” she says. “So that’s a clear call to action, to systematically change incentives for lawyers to support poor people, for doctors to become more accountable.”
“But,” she continues. “This is also a real-time unraveling story: what happens when you piss off the child of a nail salon owner who has two Ivy League degrees? You go into a nail salon and these people are personality-less in a way, they’re someone who is serving you. But they’re breeding another generation of children of war, children of refugees who want something better for their parents, for themselves, for their children. I was born here. This is my native language. I have so much more agency and power than my parents ever did. What am I going to do with it?”
How Lieu's relentless schedule will shape up after her baby (which she and her husband currently call Cletus the fetus) arrives remains to be seen. She’s planning a tour to universities in the fall, but for now, she’s also focusing on taking care of herself and adjusting to her new reality. “There came a point in Chicago where I was like, I can’t keep up with my old pre-show routine—I try to do leg lifts and I’m toppling over,” she says. “So I started slow dancing. Before each show, I slow dance with me, Cletus and my mom. I do that to center myself, so it’s less about the physical presence, and it’s more about what I can handle and control and have the stamina for, which is the emotional presence.”
See Over 140 Lbs February 6-16 as part of Solo Fest at ACT