Gabby So threw herself so enthusiastically into dance practice that, when she stubbed her left toe, it could barely fit in her ballet slipper. Then, when the prima ballerina accidentally stepped on her swollen toe, she fell down in front of thousands of people watching her perform in Swan Lake.
Aged just 15 at the time, it seemed to So that the world stood still: “To me it felt like a long time but later I realised no one really noticed that I fell. That’s when I learned that falling down is just part of the process.”
So, who progressed from ballet and the piano to wearing multiple hats as the director, producer and performer of her internationally acclaimed one-person shows, didn’t let the tumble cramp her style: “When you stand up again, it’s a new act and the show must go on.”
Her most recent production is a solo show, Struggle for Happiness, an emotional story about the award-winning Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky’s journey to love. The show opened on January 9 at the Studio Theatre in New York for a five-day run. Her father also co-directs the New York show.
The Hong Kong-born actress, now 27, calls the stage her second home. Having started performing onstage at the age of three, she went through professional acting training in high school and later graduated with first class honours in her Theatre major at the University of California, Los Angeles, before interning at Will Smith’s company, Overbrook Entertainment.
So decided not to take up offers from Harvard and Cambridge or follow her parents’ advice by studying journalism. She was determined to chase her dream to be an actress.
But like many budding Hollywood wannabes, neither audition after audition nor roles in independent films landed her any major studio jobs. At the age of 25, So decided that she was too old to wait any longer, and that her showbiz destiny was in her own hands.
She began writing her own scripts, inventing her own characters and telling her own stories in solo performances. She did not have high hopes when she sent off her adaptation of Red Rose/White Rose, a 1947 book by Eileen Chang about the interaction between a wife and a mistress, to various cultural organisations seeking sponsorship.
But when she received a positive response from the Hong Kong Arts Centre, she was over the moon. “Things started to feel real,” she says. Her play debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016 and was nominated for the festival’s Asian Arts Award.
That year, So put on another solo drama, Ritz Diamond, in New York, adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novella The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, about the dynamics of So’s relationship with her sister. “I like to reflect on life and focus on humanity so my plays are more inclined to explore social issues. I love observing and describing instead of being critical about political events,” she said.
“Most female characters in Hong Kong movies are either explicitly flirty sex symbols or the pure girls next door, but both cater to the male audience. But the women I know or read about can be heroes so I write my own.”
“Only by writing my own script can I tell my own story.”
So admits that one-person shows have their own challenges. For example, there are no other actors to offer feedback. “You cannot be sure that any change that’s out of your comfort zone will work,” she says. “You keep trying something new but you can’t be sure if it’s really new.”
Even collaboration has its pitfalls. “I cooperated with different directors then, but I didn’t know if I shared the same direction and how much I wanted to compromise.”
So has tried to build up her performance skills through acting classes at The Circus Theatre Group in Hong Kong and by learning from the famous French clown Philippe Gaulier, who is also a professor of theatre.
One question that So has asked herself is whether her Asian background and heritage has been more of a help or a hindrance when it comes to Hollywood fame. “It depends on how you feel – if it’s racism or not. But I see this [my background] as an advantage – as you can think of something unique and refreshing to [westerners].”
The success of martial arts superstar Bruce Lee reminded her of how one person could single-handedly change how the world perceived China and Hong Kong. “In that era, he was able to achieve so much in Hollywood only by himself. I also want to contribute something to my city.”
Having worked in Hong Kong, mainland China, London and New York, So says that sexism is an open secret in showbiz around the world and was not surprised by the recent sex scandals involving producer Harvey Weinstein and other figures.
“I got asked to dress in a sexier way and [I know] that my body is also a tool as an actress. You started to doubt [your principles]. Showbiz is full of attractive people with fame and wealth so it’s an exchange. I don’t judge if it’s right or wrong,” she said.
So says she plans to continue with her solo show format. “I agree with Woody Allen that 80 percent of success comes from showing up. So I will keep doing them.”
Struggle for Happiness will play at the Studio Theatre in New York from January 9-14.