Susan Lieu had been sitting in her car for over an hour. She planned to stop quickly by her tailor’s shop, to have a hole in her costume mended. But she couldn’t make it home in time for her Times interview, so she made do by taking the call in the Seattle tailor’s parking lot.
It’s one of many chats Lieu has scheduled directly with reporters. She has no public relations consultant, no representative emailing video links or offering photography of her onstage.
Lieu has to self-promote for her solo show, coming to Los Angeles’ Highways Performance Space on Saturday and Sunday and Orange County’s Nguoi Viet Community Room on Dec. 21-22. It’s a national tour for which she’s juggling nearly every job behind-the-scenes: writer, performer, financier. She has spent tens of thousands of dollars of her own money.
Titled “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother,” the 75-minute performance recounts how, when Lieu was 11, her mother went in for plastic surgery and died mid-procedure from loss of oxygen to her brain. Directed by Sara Porkalob, the show sees Lieu playing 12 characters and tackling emotionally taxing topics like the dangerous ideal of Vietnamese feminine beauty, the lack of accountability in the medical system, and forgiveness amid overwhelming grief.
“The hardest part of all this isn’t the performance, surprisingly, because it seems to really resonate with people,” Lieu said. “What I’ve really found to be difficult about this whole thing is to do it gracefully, to still enjoy this process of being pregnant.”
Because if it weren’t enough of a challenge to be reliving a family tragedy onstage and coordinating everything offstage, Lieu is also expecting a child.
“I’m six months now — it’s the size of an eggplant!” exclaimed Lieu, who has been journaling about her journey toward motherhood. Those thoughts will be included in an expanded version of the show called “Over 140 LBS,” which she’ll premiere in February in Seattle. By then, she’ll have performed 51 shows in 10 cities, for a total audience of 6,500.
What Lieu gets done offstage is as impressive as the moving narrative she performs onstage.
“When I’m not performing, I’m making sure that I’ve done all the math right and all my checks have cleared, that I’m talking to enough press in the next few cities, that I’ve reached out to every single person I know who lives there,” she said. “I’m constantly updating my website and posting on social media to promote the show, I’m reaching out to groups or organizations in every city to get interest. It’s a lot and, yeah, it’s nonstop!”
An undergraduate alum of Harvard and graduate of the Yale School of Management, Lieu prioritized performing “140 LBS” nationwide after getting laid off from her management consulting gig.
“That was the biggest gift I could have ever gotten, because I would have just kept working and only dreaming of doing this someday,” she said. It wasn’t the best time to pursue her passion, since she and her husband had recently bought a house and were discussing when to start a family. “But I couldn’t imagine telling my future kid to be anything they wanted to be when I wasn’t really doing that myself.”
Lieu launched her tour using the profits from nine sold-out shows in Seattle, plus more in her hometown of San Francisco. She made a meticulous rubric of major U.S. cities with Vietnamese populations — potential audiences with whom the show may resonate with most — plus every single person she knew in each region. Her decision to circumvent the gatekeepers of theatermaking wasn’t to make any kind of a statement, but because she was facing her own deadline.
“I thought, I have a mortgage, I have massive student loans, and I have a baby coming — I cannot wait for my next break, I don’t have time to see if an artistic director will program me in one or two years from now,” Lieu said. “I don’t have any formal theater training, so I honestly didn’t really know I was breaking the rules because I didn’t know the rules to begin with.”
Her unconventional approach has led to performances in nontraditional spaces, like a funeral home in San Francisco and George R.R. Martin’s Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe. Other times, she booked theaters as private rentals and hoped its ticket sales would cover costs. “I just thought: How can I make this successful? If I were working with a startup, with a small budget and these kinds of time limits, what kind of unconventional things should they try?”
Lieu keeps the show’s overhead low. Everything she needs to perform — denim jacket, maternity clothing and some digitized family photos that get projected onstage — fits in a carry-on suitcase. She hires a local stage manager in each city to set up the space, execute the performance and sell merchandise afterward, when Lieu usually can be found chatting with ticket-holders who share their own stories.
It’s a solo show, sure, but Lieu isn’t in this alone. Thanks to the generosity of friends, family members and community organizations, Lieu has paid for only about half of her car rentals and flights — a godsend, since her stops include New York, Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. In a 10-city tour, she is paying for just one night of lodging, instead couch-surfing with friends and family. Multiple photographers have gifted her with head shots and production stills.
“I acknowledge my privilege here — I have access to these alumni networks, I have friends who are extremely generous with their time and their contacts, I’m married,” she said. “I’m so thankful that these people believe in the work enough to help me share it.
“And the fans, they buy tickets for friends in other cities to see the show, they help hang up posters, they tag their friends on social media. They have been behind me a hundred percent pushing this vision bigger and better than I could have imagined.”
Lieu, who has already recouped her investment, hopes to evolve “140 LBS” into a book or a streaming special, or adapt it into a narrative feature or miniseries. She credits her entrepreneurial approach to theater-making to her Yale degree but also her parents — Vietnamese refugees who provided for her by opening a nail salon. And she’s happy to advise other playwrights or performers who want to take control of this process as she has.
“If you follow the conventional, traditional path, you will have a conventional, traditional result,” she said. “That just wasn’t an option for me, and I’m so happy for that. If I were just waiting for someone to discover me, there’s no way I would have already performed the show as many times as I have.”
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $25-$30 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 453-1755, highwaysperformance.org or susanlieu.me
Additional performances: 7 p.m. Dec. 21 and 2 p.m. Dec. 22 at the Nguoi Viet Community Room, Westminster
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
You always can find our latest theater news and reviews at latimes.com/theater.