Keo Woolford’s last appearance at East West Players—his one-man show I Land—scored him an Ovation Award nomination as well as a Scenie Award for Solo Performance Of The Year. The Hawaii native now returns to EWP as director-choreographer of Lee Tonouchi’s Three Year Swim club. We caught up with Keo recently to find out more about TYSC and other Keo Woolford career highlights, which include the boy band Brownskin and starring as The King in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King And I—at the London Palladium no less.

Hi Keo, welcome back to East West Players, though in a different mode this time … as director-choreographer of Three Year Swim Club. How does it feel being on the other side of the fourth wall?

It’s great to be back at East West Players!

Is this your first directorial credit after so many acting roles?

This play marks my directorial debut on the main stage, though I recently directed a feature length film in Hawaii called Under The Hula: Life Within The Dance, in post-production at the moment, and a short film called Lunchtime, which continues its festival run right now.

How did you become involved with Three Year Swim Club?

East West Players Producing Artistic Director Tim Dang approached me with the Three Year Swim Club project with the idea of me playing the coach. After I read the script, he told me about his concept of using hula as the metaphor for swimming and he asked if I would consider directing it. I loved the concept! I thought it was brilliant, and though I really love acting, I felt directing the piece would be a wonderful challenge. I really love the creation process and I really love working with actors. I think I’ve found a new love in directing!

It seems that you’ve done just about everything in your career, including a stint in the Hawaiian boy band Brownskin. How did your time as a teen idol compare with the more adult acting/performing career that followed?

I have such a blessed and diverse career, and every aspect has been an amazing learning experience for me and incredible fun! (There’s talk of a reunion, so things might come full circle!) It’s hard to compare the boy band experience with acting, but what I can say is that each transition feels completely natural. I’m really enjoying learning new things and meeting fascinating people along the way. I’m in a place where I feel I am open to everything and attached to nothing.

At the I Land Q&A I remember asking you how you ended up starring on the West End in The King And I (which I understand is the longest running revival of an R&H production ever). That must have been an amazing experience for you, and an amazing change from what had preceded it.

Playing the King of Siam at the London Palladium solidified my love for acting. It was a tremendous growth period for me in so many ways and there were so many amazing memories from that experience, but one of the really outstanding moments was from my first performance.

How did you get cast as The King?

I was actually a replacement, so the show was already up and running. Being from a boy band in Hawaii with no major theater credits, I was under very watchful eyes, especially playing opposite Elaine Paige, the “First Lady Of British Musical Theater.”

Is there anything that stands out in particular about that production?

The show itself was somewhat of a blur to me because I was so nervous. But what I do remember was when the show ended and we took our bows, Elaine actually walked down stage center and turned and bowed to me with tears in her eyes! That was definitely not part of the blocking! That simple gesture had such a profound impact on the rest of the run for me, though I heard Broadway’s south pacific has since taken over the title of longest R&H revival.

Among your many acting credits are a number of starring roles at East-West Players, including the Hawaiian-themed Stew Rice, which I also got to see you in. How does it feel to be “back home” in Little Tokyo?

I really love the people at East West Players. It’s really like a family to me. It feels like “home.”

I Land won you a StageSceneLA “Scenie” award for Solo Performance Of The Year. That was quite an evening of theater!

Thank you so much for the acknowledgement! It’s so wonderful to have people like yourself show such an appreciation for theater.

When did you realize that you had a solo show in you, enough of a story to tell as a one-man show?

I really have to credit Roberta Uno, the director and co-creator of the show, who really pushed me into developing I Land. Initially, when she approached me about writing a show, I didn’t think there was anything I had to say or if I did, I didn’t think anyone would care and so I shied away from the idea. But with her encouragement, she ultimately got me excited about developing a show and she attracted others like Diverseworks, Asia Society and Ma-Yi Theater to support the endeavor.

What kind of journey did I Land take you on, beyond its East West Players run?

East West Players was an awesome run for I Land and then it went off-Broadway. From there it toured around the United States and even Manila over the next few years. It would be great to revive I Land at some point, and it is actually the departure point for the feature film I recently wrote and directed: Under The Hula: Life Within The Dance.

Part of East West Players’ mission is to provide increased opportunities for Asian and Pacific Islander artists on stage and in other media. How frustrating is it that these opportunities still aren’t as prevalent in “mainstream” media as they ought to be, considering the wealth of Asian and Pacific Islander talent in Hollywood and L.A.?

I think that tide is really changing, and East West Players has done a wonderful job in helping to showcase Asian and Pacific Islander talent. The roster of alumni from EWP is truly impressive. A lot of Asian/Pacific Islanders have taken destiny into their own hands and have been producing their own work. It’s truly empowering for me, and it’s so encouraging to see how many are doing just that rather than trying to fit into “mainstream.” I love the quote in Russell Simmons’ book, Do You! It goes something like, “Do you and let the mainstream come to you.”

Can you tell us something about Three Year Swim Club, something to whet our appetites? You’re choreographing as well as directing. How does Three Year Swim Club integrate dancing into its storytelling?

I think Three Year Swim Club is such a unique theatrical experience because it really is a play more than anything, but using hula motions as the swimming metaphor, the show has a fantastical feel in places.

You’ve combined film and TV acting with your stage career, along with songwriting, producing, and now directing and choreographing. Is there one area of “the business” that gives you particular pleasure or satisfaction?

At this point in my life, I’m really just enjoying every aspect of creating. It’s the creation process that gives me the most satisfaction, whether it’s writing, or acting, or directing, creating a story, a character, or a complete work. It’s so fulfilling to bring something to life, and I really love the collaboration aspect of them all as well.

If you could pick the one greatest moment for you career-wise since you started out professionally, which one would that be?

I think the greatest moment was when I decided to go on this journey. I love to do so many things and could have gone down a completely different path. I’m so glad this was the one I chose.

One last question, Keo. What’s next on Keo Woolford’s “Must Do” list?

After the play is up and running, all my attention will be focused on completing my film. There is so much to be done and I’m so excited to continue that creation process. 

Thanks so very much for spending time answering all these questions. I can’t wait to see you and say “Hi” on Opening Night!

By Lee Tonouchi
Directed & Choreographed by Keo Woolford
February 09 – March 11, 2012


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