Sook-Yin Lee's SummerWorks performance, How Can I Forget? explores the uneasy relationship between identity and memory.
The job of portraying Olivia Chow in the CBC biopic Jack was so involving that, for a while afterward, Sook-Yin Lee no longer knew who she was. For months, she had worked tirelessly on her depiction of the Trinity-Spadina MP, learned her dialect, and worn her clothes. She cut her hair like Chow, and even consulted with Chow on set.
Enter How Can I Forget?, Lee’s multimedia SummerWorks performance, which opens at the Lower Ossington Theatre on August 9. It’s a piece of experimental theatre, one that looks at identity through the tale of two embryonic twins. It also represents a cathartic mission for Lee, who, after wrapping Jack, wanted to regain a sense of herself.
“The genesis of the project was I had been in a movie in which I became the character, and I embodied the role to such a degree that I began to forget who I am,” Lee said. “The realization that identity fluctuates and can disappear was terrifying, especially when the movie was over, and I came home and I didn’t know who I was. It was a real conundrum. I wanted to turn to art to see if I could make sense of it, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone.” She collaborated with dancer Benjamin Kamino, her frequent writing partner Adam Litovitz, and co-director Erika Batdorf.
We spoke with Lee after a recent rehearsal, when she and Kamino were drenched with sweat from throwing themselves around the stage, yelling and screaming. The vocal aspect is important. “Voice is, for me, the connector to soul,” Lee said.
Her answers to our questions were deliberate and well developed, a sign she’s been thinking about these concepts for a while. The SummerWorks version of the performance will be its second mounting, and it’s different this time around. “Before, it was like kittens playing,” Lee said, and now it has more “boobs and balls.” The intensity has shifted and the ideas have undergone a metamorphosis.
It’s hard to imagine someone like Lee losing her sense of self—she’s made a career out of being sure of who she is. First, she was the confident, badass MuchMusic VJ. Since then, she’s transitioned into multiple roles as a producer, director, musician, and actress. Her name itself is a brand, recognizable as a standalone clause. The isolation she felt while filming Jack threatened this.
“I think I just lost my mind,” she said. “I have done so in the past, as well.”
It happened in 2006 when she played Sofia in the controversial film Shortbus, which documents a sex therapist’s pursuit of her first orgasm. “Sofia was a very difficult character to embody. She was incredibly neurotic and pent up, and to be her for a long period of time was difficult, but not in the same way as with [Chow]. This was just a deep tragedy and a deep love. There was a great deal of pressure to embody the story because everybody is very close to it. There was a lot of emotional attachment, including for myself, because I knew Jack and I know Olivia.”
She described the feeling as being “hypnotized,” which prompted her to begin thinking about identity in relation to memories. She wove this into How Can I Forget?, which she calls a “deconstruction of a finite memory,” born of “a playful desire to fuck with those memories that were once precious.”
“We looked at memory and then started to realize that these stories that we tell ourselves seem so finite, but in the creation of the memory, it always changes,” Lee said. “It almost takes on a life of its own; it transforms. The memory is not static. The memory is not one specific reality.” The show is in part about how our identities are not perfectly aligned with our memories.
As for act of performing How Can I Forget?, has it helped Lee forget?
“I still retain the memory, but it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional charge. It has a different kind of emotional charge, so I haven’t completely forgotten it. It’s probably mutated in some shape or form, and I don’t know what happened now,” she said. “Maybe that’s part of what forgetting is, when you don’t quite remember the details.”
Photo by Sheena Lyonnais/Torontoist.