Wrapping up Theatre Exile’s 25th anniversary season is Today is My Birthday, by award-winning screenwriter and playwright Susan Soon He Stanton. This comedy follows out-of-work journalist Emily as she returns home to Hawaii after her life in New York City falls apart. The story is told in a creative way through a blend of live radio broadcasts, voicemails, and phone calls as Emily faces new challenges, an alter ego, and an attempt to free herself from a self-imposed isolation. Below, cast members Stephanie Kyung-Sun Walters, Joseph Ahmed, Daniel Kim, Rachel O’Hanlon Rodriguez, and Twoey Truong, and director Cat Ramirez talk about this monumental season, the show’s script, how it feels to no longer be isolated and away from the stage, and what audiences can expect from Today is My Birthday. The show runs from April 28th to May 22nd, tickets are available here.
Q: How did it feel to be a part of Theatre Exile’s 25th anniversary year and to have a full season of live shows again?
Cat Ramirez: Oh wow, it feels so special and surreal to be working with such incredible artists in a room after making years of Zoom theater. I had the pleasure of working as Deb Block’s associate for Exile’s 2019 production of Among the Dead, and I’ve been dreaming of being back in this theater ever since. While the pandemic certainly isn’t over, I’m grateful that we’ve been able to find ways to do live theatre safely, and I can’t wait to share what we’ve been working on with a live audience.
Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters: It’s a thrill to be a part of this monumental season and after waiting to hit the boards for two years. Not only is Exile a theatre company that I’ve admired for some time, but this cast and creative team is a dream come true. I’ve worked with all of the cast members in some way, shape or form and to come together after so much time away from our creative and community spaces – what an exciting moment! I’ve said this a lot about working with Cat Ramirez (our director), but I truly feel like Cat and I “grew up” together in the Philly theatre community and to see them helming this ship brings me so much joy.
Joseph Ahmed: It feels special, surreal, and sometimes terrifying. The chance to be onstage performing again after a year of Zoom theater, cameras, or nothing at all is something I relish deeply. It also comes with a hefty dose of responsibility – to my own health, to the health of the cast and crew, and to the health of the audience.
Daniel Kim: Being on stage again fills me with a profound sense of gratitude and humility. Theater is inherently an ephemeral art form – the pandemic has made me appreciate all the more how fleeting and precious it is when theater artists are able to share their craft with a live audience. It is also a great honor to work at Theatre Exile – up until now, I’ve only been an audience member.
Rachel O’Hanlon Rodriguez: When I moved to Philadelphia – gosh, 12 years ago – I had a dream of working with Theatre Exile and it is really exciting to fulfill that dream. It’s so nice to be able to be back on stage and working in collaboration with so many incredible people after so much isolation and fear. I feel honored and grateful and humbled all at the same time.
Twoey Truong: It is a privilege to perform in a live production telling a meaningful story with artists I admire and respect.
Q: Tell me a bit about your role in Today Is My Birthday?
CR: I feel incredibly privileged to be directing. Today Is My Birthday is a fast and furious journey that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, and profound and petty. My job is to tell this roller coaster rise of a story in such a way where the audiences can feel those dualities. I’m so lucky to be collaborating with some of the most generous and brilliant artists I know. It really feels like I’m surrounded by an All Star team of actors, designers, stage managers, and technicians. I’ll bring an initial idea into rehearsal and my collaborators instantly make it a thousand times more exciting.
SKSW: It’s an honor to play Emily. There are so many moments in her journey that I can relate to or connect in some way with. In many ways, I think I needed to play Emily at this exact moment. Our search for connection while honoring our own self-love is truly crucial to our survival and…ultimately, our joy!
JA: I play many, many people in this play. Susan Soon He Stanton has intentionally written a lot of doubling into the show, but our production is going even further. I play three former love interests of Emily, one potential love interest, a best friend, a boss, a hotline worker, and a hyped-up Top 40 DJ who in turn plays a horny grandpa and a German doctor. It’s a dizzying ride.
DK: I get to play Emily’s Dad, who works as a music librarian. I’ve never been cast in a role that fits my offstage life so closely – I’m the same age as the character, I’ve got an adult daughter, and I love classical music. (As for the character’s shortcomings – I leave that to my wife and children to judge!) I also get to play the world’s oldest ukulele player, which is great fun!
ROR: Like Joe, I play so many different people in this play. I’m a Manhattan mom/ long-distance best friend, a hype and smooth radio DJ, a hostess at a restaurant, as well as the sound of a generic voicemail machine we’ve all come to know and love. It’s been a lot of fun figuring out who all these different people are, and I hope the audience enjoys Emily’s journey among all these characters!
TT: I play Emily’s Mom as well as Mrs. Asuncion, a family friend and editor of a local newspaper. I also play Mrs. Kobayashi, a somewhat antagonistic receptionist and Joyce Young, a public radio host.
Q: What drew you to this story? Why did you want to be involved?
CR: I’ve never read a play quite like Today Is My Birthday. The script is truly a roller coaster both in the complex themes expressed in the piece and in the unconventional storytelling that is employed. Those two things mixed together creates a piece that feels deeply human and deeply moving. I knew that I would become a better storyteller after working on this play.
SKSW: I love the evolution of relationships. People Emily has loved for decades have remained constant, new friends grow into beautiful, deep confidants, and even the high school bully returns (which is also, oddly, something that happened to me personally in the past ten years). But I think the most beautiful moment of all is when Emily’s mother tells Emily that a pursuit of a dream doesn’t require the “marriage and kids” that society tells us we need. My own mother has been instilling that in me for my entire life. I believe what Emily’s mother says in this scene is a magical way of Susan reaching into my own family’s soul and bringing it onto the stage. Our independence as women is glorious!
JA: I’m deeply committed to the Pan-Asian performance community in Philly, and I’ve been excited that as time goes on stories particular to this demographic have become more widely produced in the city. It’s tremendously exciting to be in a room with so much talent from my community, and to be telling a story that feels so universally present right now – how do we reach out to other people, envision the future, and acknowledge our trauma?
DK: I’m a big fan of the script. It’s fresh, it’s got some really hilarious moments, as well as some sad stuff. But most of all, it rings true to me. Also, I would leap at any opportunity to work again with Cat, Stephanie, and the rest of the company!
ROR: I love how fun the script is. The play reminds me of the experience of scrolling through social media on our phones. The scenes are short. No one is ever in the same room with the other. There’s moments of miscommunication and tenderness. There’s bizarre and wild entertainment alongside hidden trauma and a need for connection. I deeply appreciate the story Susan Soon He Stanton has created, and think it’s an incredible exploration of healing and joy.
TT: I’m drawn to stories about technology and the way it can both allow us to feel more connected and sometimes more isolated from one another.
Q: Why do you feel Today Is My Birthday is a great show to wrap up Theatre Exile’s 25th anniversary season?
CR: I mean, have you seen this cast? I really can’t rave enough about the work everyone is doing, particularly Stephanie who is taking on an absolute beast of a role. Also, after two years of living in a pandemic, I don’t know a single person who hasn’t had to deal with grief, isolation, or loss of agency. This is a piece that explores those feelings and what it means to come out on the other side a little more whole.
SKSW: Many of us returned to our homes during Covid…and many of us found new homes. New passions, new ways of thinking, new celebrations, and unfortunately, new grief to carry. And as Susan puts it, via Emily, “we are made up of thousands of others” – I think that’s the message to carry and add to your own thousands within you.
JA: I mean, it’s a blast. The play, and the production of it that Cat has envisioned, are chock full of surprises, humor, and wit. But it’s also a deeply relatable story, with a big heart underneath all of its horny grandpa jokes and drunken mistakes.
DK: To me, one of the central themes of the play is birth (and re-birth). The pandemic has placed all of us into our own cocoon. Now that we are emerging into our post-Covid reality, we are finally seeing what we have become – we are all celebrating a metaphorical birthday of sorts.
ROR: I think we could all use a smile. The play celebrates life – in all of its confusion, complexity, and humor in a fun and exciting way. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen a play that’s composed of phone calls, and indirect communication. I’m excited to see how folks enjoy this new kind of storytelling and Cat’s incredible direction and vision of Emily’s world.
TT: The play explores starting over, making connections and self-discoveries, and these themes are universal to the human experience and resonate strongly with our current times.
Q: During our Covid isolations, what digital content kept you sane and connected to the outside world?
CR: Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez and I were actually roommates for most of the pandemic, and I remember we got really into World of Dance – there was something about seeing people able to express themselves so virtuosically through movement that felt really wonderful when we were cooped up in our fourth floor walk-up. I’m also the Creative Director of a group called Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists (PAPA) and, last June, I worked alongside many of the cast members to create COME TO PAPA, a 10-day 30-event digital performance summit that featured incredible performances, workshops, meditation sessions, and everything in between. It helped me stay connected to the Pan-Asian performing arts community, which was so important to my health and well being.
SKSW: I’ve always been a huge reader and during the pandemic, I started an Instagram account dedicated to my journey as a reader (@stephanie_readz). Through this social media outlet, I joined a lively book club of Philly Romance Readers and it’s brought me so much joy. The impulse to join a book club of strangers from the internet initially began as a way for my “real-life friend” and I to maintain some sense of social life, but now it’s a daily part of my social life! Like many actors and creatives, Zoom readings became a large part of my digital life. I can’t say I love them, but because of Zoom, I’ve been able to collaborate with artists from across the country! As a playwright myself, this has been invaluable. Working with Asian American artists from California to New York was possible with a much smaller budget!
JA: I have a deep love of good animated TV shows, so a lot of my pandemic was supported by media like The Dragon Prince, She-ra, and Steven Universe. I also saw some fabulous theater content adapted – the filming of In And Of Itself on Hulu is a must-watch. I also was lucky to be creating my solo show Half Magic in a digital format through Philadelphia Performing Artists’ Mini-Residency Program which kept me focused and making art I cared about.
DK: Doing Zoom readings was a godsend! For me, it’s never going to take the place of live interaction, but it really helped me to feel like I was still an actor. I became a total internet news addict (but that’s not necessarily a good thing!). And *all* those Netflix series! A two-hour movie seems way too short now – if something doesn’t have at least 10 episodes, forget about it!
ROR: Leading up to the pandemic I recently began performing poetry, and over the pandemic I made it a goal of mine to get better at sharing all the things I was writing in secret. So I started a new Instagram account! If you’re into poetry feel free to give me a follow at @the.inter.section. I also enjoyed seeing Zoom explorations of theater and digital creations, like from Die-Cast, and of course Netflix, Netflix, Netflix. Cat Ramirez was my roommate throughout the first year or so of the pandemic, and I remain really thankful for the world of competitive dance and dating shows that Cat got me into!
TT: I made friends in other industries online and learned how they navigated the pandemic.
Q: And now, what are your favorite ways to spend time with friends and family in person?
CR: I love hosting and feeding people with every fiber of my being. Even if you stop by for a few minutes, you’re likely to leave with some food. In December 2020, I missed my friends so much that I baked roughly 300 cookies and made my partner drive me all over Philly over the course of a week so I could (socially distant-ly) deliver sweets to my friends and collaborators who I hadn’t seen.
SKSW: Food and holidays! My mom is an incredible chef. She has hosted every holiday ever for my whole life. The pandemic derailed so much of that, but one of my favorite memories was cooking together via video call. We made the same family recipe and even when I was crying through all the mistakes I was making, she cheered me on (with some loving insults peppered in). It’s an odd memory in the context of life (cooking over video), but it’s one I will cherish for the rest of my life. My dad loves any reason to bring the gang together, but if you had to ask me, he’s the king of summertime. Nothing is better than a “scorcher” in his eyes! Being with my family in the summertime is the sweetest because I can see my parents in their elements and totally in their bliss!
JA: Anything outside! I’m starting to gear myself back up for biking and beach trips and all the fabulous warm weather things that I’ve been missing so much this winter.
DK: I’ve become a big fan of doing escape rooms with my family (and sometimes we even escape!). We also play way too many video games – however, my 13-year-old daughter absolutely refuses to play Fortnite with me or my wife because we “embarrass” her.
ROR: Outside! I really enjoy going on walks, sitting in parks, and sharing time with people surrounded by trees and greenery. My favorite places have become Bartram’s Garden, the Woodlands, and of course Clark Park.
TT: I enjoy watching movies and attending theatre with friends and family.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from Today Is My Birthday?
CR: If there’s someone in the audience who is feeling down at the start of the play, I hope they leave feeling a little less alone.
SKSW: Allow the light inside of you to shine in whatever ways you can. Your light will change and evolve with age, time, experiences, losses (big and small) and THAT’S OKAY! Be guided by the light inside your heart for there you’ll find your community, your independence, your joy, and your strength.
JA: This is one of those shows that sneaks up on you, letting you laugh until you realize one of those laughs is actually a sob. I hope that people walk away from this show feeling the ache and surreality of isolation, but with a renewed appreciation and desire to just be in the same room as a loved one – or even just to look them in the eye.
DK: Well, not to be mawkish, but I hope that audiences leave the play thinking: people make mistakes, people change, life is messy, but it’s okay – we’re not as alone as we fear we are. I am reminded of the CS Lewis quote: “The doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
ROR: I hope folks reflect on the fact that we need each other. That we’re fragile, fallible, and deserving of love and connection. Also a smile and a heart that’s lifted – even if just for a little bit.