When she visits Paris, Gabby So likes nothing better than to wander the city’s cemeteries, pining over the graves of the world’s great artists. Chopin is a fave. “Do you know the movie Midnight in Paris?” she says. “I’m like Woody Allen. I have this fantasy of meeting the giants before us.”
The young theatre impresario is far from just a dreamer. Last year, after her first solo performance which she created herself – Breakfast at Tiffany – So took her next one-woman show, Red Rose/White Rose — a play that she wrote, produced and starred in — to Edinburgh for the world’s largest fringe festival. For 15 performances, she single-handedly entertained audiences with her story of a wife and a mistress, winning a nomination for the festival’s Asian Arts Award.
Now she’s just a few days away from boarding a plane to New York to put on another show, Ritz Diamond, that opens at the Alchemical Theater Laboratory on November 18, 2016. In a break from her rehearsals, 26-year-old So speaks quickly and enthusiastically, pausing only to take the occasional sip of her English breakfast tea. Her alabaster skin shines, but it’s her obvious drive and passion that make her particularly luminous.
How is it, performing a one-person show night after night? “It’s a challenge,” she replies. “You have to have enormous energy.”
So isn’t a stage darling. She grew up and still lives in the middle-class suburb of Shatin, where she was enrolled in ballet and piano classes at four years old. Like many young Hong Kong kids, this had more to do with impressing the admissions staff at good schools, rather than a feeding a burning desire to perform.
It turned out that So was talented. She was fortunate that her parents, who run Chinese language learning centres, let her choose her own creative path. So says her dad likes poetry, and dabbled in writing it, and both parents are quite forward-thinking, sending her to the co-ed school her father had taught at. In return, So says she always fought to keep earning good grades in school to “maintain good face.” It helps that her parents found it hard to say no when she had an idea. “My will power is very strong,” she says. “They knew they couldn’t fight it. I was a little bit rebellious all the time in my life. I would break a few rules. I didn’t usually get caught, but sometimes I got punished.”
After switching from a Catholic secondary school toLi Po Chun United World College, a progressive boarding school in Ma On Shan that had a dedicated theatre programme, So volunteered with Hong Kong’s Playback Theatre, a local community drama group. She also attended night classes at the Academy of Performing Arts. “She was the youngest in the class,” recalls Andy Ng, a stage actor who taught So when she was 17. “She always asked a lot of questions. She wasn’t like the other students who mostly just did what I told them to do.”
So’s determination led her to the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Theatre, Film and Television. That’s where she landed an internship as a script reader for Will Smith’s production company. (She met him once in a lift, she says. “I was shocked. I mean, I knew he was my boss, but I was star struck. He wasn’t intimidating. He was charming but in a normal way.”)
Her Hong Kong upbringing helped her in the United States. She says she finds learning lines easy because of her school’s emphasis on rote learning. She was the only Asian girl in her class, so she put herself up for every female Asian role that was offered. She worked for film production companies seeking partnerships in China.
So says her family wasn’t surprised she went into theatre. By that point, “it would have been a shock if I hadn’t,” she says. But they did request she study the subject as a minor, because they were worried about stability in the arts professions – a request she ignored. She didn’t want to rely on any fallback plan. “I’m also lucky that I don’t have to ‘feed my family,’ to use the Chinese expression,” she says. That burden is shouldered by So’s sister, who recently joined her parents in the family business.
So explores her relationship with her sister in Ritz Diamond, which is loosely based on the novella The Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The play tackles sibling rivalry between two sisters over a Chinese family heirloom. The sisters are vastly different characters, mirroring So and her own sibling, who is just nine months younger – almost a twin, she says.
“I wanted to try everything new [but] she was happy at home,” So says. “She knew how to play the role of good daughter. She always knew how to talk to grandparents. I was rebellious.” Her sister was viewed by the family as obedient, which made her the favourite, according to the Confucian ideals that value respect and subservience to elders and figures of authority. “Now I know how to deal with it,” says So, “but when I was young I wondered why she was favoured.”
As So worked on both characters, her energy naturally went into the more familiar freedom fighting role she recognised as hers. But she later came to appreciate the beauty of the quieter sister’s diplomacy and attention to detail.
She does want to contribute to her family, though – so the next thing on her list is making her career truly sustainable. She has given herself a three-year deadline to achieve the goal. Her early experience in community theatre has had a lasting effect. So says she wants to make artistic work with mainstream appeal. “To be commercial doesn’t mean you have to be cheap. You can still be artistic,” she says, pointing to Broadway as an example. “They make musicals that families can enjoy. When you are a critic you can see the artistic details, but it’s not high art.”
So’s recurring themes, which centre on struggle, may not seem to naturally lend themselves to this ideal, but she says she wants to put struggle up on stage to soothe and to comfort, to show struggling as a part of life “To say ‘You’re not alone,'” she says. She knows it’s a risky plan. “But that’s why I have to be good.”
Ritz Diamond runs from November 18 to 20, 2016 at the Alchemical Theater Laboratory in New York. Click here for more information.