The Art at Work series highlights TCU College of Fine Arts alumni who are putting their passion into practice.
Dallas-based actor Oscar Seung ’09 earned a BM in vocal performance from the TCU School of Music. Following his graduation from TCU, Seung went on to a career in theater, film, voiceovers and national commercials. He recently appeared in the 2020 Netflix film We Can Be Heroes.
Currently, he is performing as Kim Jong-Un in the world premiere of The Supreme Leader, now open at Dallas Theater Center’s Kalita Humphreys Theater (through Nov. 21). Written by Don X. Nguyen and directed by Kevin Moriarty, The Supreme Leader co-stars recent Theatre TCU graduate Garrett Weir ’21 as Roger; Theatre TCU alumna Ashlie Whitworth ’20 is an understudy.*
Ahead of the opening, Seung shared his experience working on a world premiere play and starring as the North Korean leader in The Supreme Leader, as well as his memories from his time as a student at TCU.
Tell us about your role in The Supreme Leader. How does your character compare and contrast to the real Kim Jong-Un?
As absurd as it sounds, I actually share a lot of parallels with Don’s [X. Nguyen, playwright of The Supreme Leader] fictional version of Kim Jong-Un. The most obvious [connection is] Kim Jong-Un went to boarding school in Switzerland, and I was actually born in Switzerland and spent the first eight years of my life in Lausanne. In our research, we discovered Kim visited Lausanne — three years after my family and I immigrated to the States.
As an immigrant, I understand the vexation of trying to reconcile your own culture with Western culture. I know the deep pain of living a life fulfilling familial and societal expectations at the expense of your own wants and dreams. I also know the ache of not fitting the mold, no matter how hard you try.
What can audiences expect when they see The Supreme Leader at Dallas Theater Center?
I was fascinated by the fact that some audience members might come in thinking they’ll know how this play ends. We know Kim Jong-Un is The Supreme Leader. We know the person he becomes. But Nguyen’s script deftly explores the idea of choice. Did Kim have a choice or was this his destiny? I’m not going to spoil anything, but Nguyen answers the question in the most profound and heartbreaking way. The final scene takes my breath away every time.
I love telling this story with this extraordinary cast. I love working with this brilliant and supportive creative team Dallas Theater Center. And even though it took me over a decade, for the first time ever, I’m grateful to perform with a fellow AAPI actor on stage in Dallas.
Tell us about the experience of working on a world premiere show.
It has been extraordinary. So many times when I was learning an art song or an aria at TCU, questions would pop up and I wished I could just grab Donizetti or Schubert by the shoulders and ask, “What were you thinking here?! Why?!”
The difference with a world premiere is that the playwright is right there in the room. Nguyen has been with us for every single rehearsal and will be with us through opening week. It’s such a luxury to be able to walk up to him during rehearsal and ask a question. It added a whole new dimension to the creative process that I’ve never experienced before.
How did your training at TCU prepare you for a career in the arts?
To this day, graduating from the TCU School of Music is still the most intense and hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. With every script I receive, I analyze it the same way I’d analyze a score. I’m forever grateful for the exacting standards and the unshakable discipline that TCU instilled in me as an artist.
Share a favorite TCU memory with us.
I loved my professors at TCU. They championed me, they empowered me, they pushed me, and when I needed it, kicked my butt into gear. I attribute much of my success to what I learned from them.
Dr. San-Ky Kim and Dr. Sheila Allen were my voice teachers, but were also there for me as a friend and sometimes honorary therapist. They never let me get away with anything — and I loved them for it.
Richard Estes directed every opera I was in at TCU, and he taught me what it meant to be a professional working artist. To this day, I show up to set early, I know all my lines backwards and forwards, and I treat everyone on set like family. Estes taught me to always be part of the solution, never the problem.
Dr. Blaise Ferrandino opened my eyes to music theory. I knew very little about music theory when I came to TCU, and he was so incredibly supportive and went out of his way to catch me up. In one of his lectures, he casually stated, “Music is what happens between the notes.” It completely blew my mind. I remember spending the rest of the class just reeling from that statement. It’s a quote I’ll carry with me forever.
Dr. Jennifer Hund single handedly taught me everything I know about how to write a research paper. But more than that, I developed a real love for musicology because of her. I discovered how historical context can — and should — color and influence a performance. I still use the skills I learned from Dr. Hund to prepare for every one of my roles in theater, film and television.
Finally, I treasured every rehearsal, every conversation, every lunch I had with the late, great Ronald Shirey. That man is the reason I was able to go to TCU. Shirey remains the single greatest influence on who I am as an artist. I dive into a script the way Shirey taught me to dive into a choral score. I walk onto set the way Shirey charged into every rehearsal: with excitement, enthusiasm and a touch of acerbic fervor. When I need a laugh, I often think about what Shirey would have to say about my career as an actor. I think about what he’d say after seeing me on Netflix or in a national commercial. I think it’d go something like, “Oscar! For heaven’s sake! Stop making a spectacle of yourself and just do the work!” Hooray for Shirey. Always.
Interview lightly edited for clarity.
*November 17, 2021 update: Dallas Theater Center will host a special TCU night on Friday, Nov. 19! Students, faculty, staff and alumni are eligible for a discounted or free ticket to The Supreme Leader. Following the performance, Seung, Weir and Whitworth hold a special talkback. It’s expected to last about an hour.More Information