Tag Archives: Carolina Xique

The FPI Files: How to Measure Anti-Racism in Theater

by Carolina Xique

Last summer, the murder of George Floyd shook the world and started a long overdue conversation about the history of white supremacy in institutions, especially in the theater. More and more artists who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are sharing their experiences of racism in the arts and calling on theatrical institutions to reform the way we write, direct, cast, work, teach, and perform theater—most notably, the collective “We See You, White American Theater” (weseeyouwat.com).

But what does that reform look like? What can theater institutions do to better represent BIPOC artists? How can theaters measure their level of anti-racism if, historically, theater has never been anti-racist?

One exemplary organization that is doing the work of providing tools for anti-racist self-reflection in theater companies and organizations is based in the LA area: the Joy-Jackson Initiative.

The Joy-Jackson Initiative (JJI) works to build systemic equity in the arts by providing organizations with the guidance necessary to formulate and implement changes to create the safest possible spaces for the BIPOC collaborators who enrich them. JJI is currently creating the Racial Equity Assessment for organizations to take and learn about how they can better represent and care for their BIPOC artists and collaborators. I (digitally) sat with the Initiative’s founder, Gabrielle Jackson, to learn more about what went into creating the Assessment and how the Assessment will be used to introduce a better, more equitable theater culture.

LAFPI: First, can you share briefly how you founded the Joy-Jackson Initiative?

Gabrielle Jackson: The Joy-Jackson Initiative was founded out of a deep sense of disappointment and urgency. Disappointment that, at a time where we were encouraging each other to help flatten the curve and save human life, so many of my friends and colleagues could remain unaware of the violent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless other Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality. The urgency that followed was an understanding that immediate action was required to rectify the rampant white supremacy and willful ignorance that allowed for people in my community and in my industry to witness racial violence and do absolutely nothing.

I was going to do something. I was going to show people that this violence was happening in their own communities, in their own organizations. People had to know that it was so much deeper than a protest or a political movement. This was about real people and real life. 

LAFPI: The Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment is a huge undertaking, yet extremely necessary and relevant, especially after last summer’s call for anti-racist practices in the arts. You have said before that the assessment went under a rigorous review process. In a few words, what was the process like from concept to debut? What kind of collaborations were needed to make all of this happen?

Gabrielle: There’s an African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. This assessment is the product of so many collaborations and incredible connections. Initially I was using my own personal experience to create the Assessment’s questions. I spoke with some friends after I developed the initial draft and they called in their friends and hooked me up with some really wonderful organizations who were interested in helping me continue to build the work. 

One such org was Black Theatre Girl Magic. With the help of BTGM’s incredible team, we were able to gather a group of incredible Black women from across the professional theater spectrum to review and advise on the initial assessment. We organized a 3-day summit where we story-circled and shared our professional experiences and gathered the information that would help me develop the first Beta Version of JJI’s Assessment.

We beta tested with a small group of theaters from across the country and gathered data and participant feedback.

In a little over two months we had developed and tested a great first draft of the Assessment.  We took this feedback and immediately went back to the drawing board.  I personally read every set of “requemands,” as I like to call them, put out by every collective, organization and student group I could find. These folks were all calling for change and had very incredible plans for progress. I distilled the information from these resources and turned these demands and action steps into questions for the assessment. Then JJI’s Managing Director Julie Oulette, who is one of the most knowledgeable people I know and someone who has really worked in this business from every angle, took the assessment and organized it and edited it so that it was digestible and made sense to people who were leading these orgs that we were addressing.

We then organized another peer and professional review of the assessment with industry vets and folks who really knew the business and the people who made it. We also invited students and entry level professionals who were just starting out and had some really excellent ideas and paths forward. We then hand selected our second beta cohort and conducted a second beta test of the assessment. As with the first Beta test period, we culminated in a data share and town hall where the leaders of participating organizations were invited to share their experience with the assessment. Now we are rounding the corner on our publicly accessible version of the assessment and will, again, be hand selecting a small cohort of organizations from across the country to participate in our first full rollout of the assessment and its accompanying facilitation program.  We could not have done any of this work at this pace without the power of collaboration. We’ve turned something that could very easily be a 10 year undertaking into something that has been vetted by industry professionals and is ready and effective in a very short period of time. 

Online Town Hall with Assessment Beta Testers

LAFPI: Companies will be able to take the assessment and, ideally, commit to implementing more anti-racist culture. What are the next steps after that?

Gabrielle: A huge part of all of the work we did in our last round of beta was holding office hours. Initially, Managing Director Julie and I were only there to answer technical questions. And that’s how it was for the first few days. Participants were in and out asking us questions and giving us great feedback. But about a week in, people were starting to be confronted with some pretty unsettling data. And the fact that these were numbers written out in black and white made it inescapable. There was a shift in the way office hours were happening. People were coming to visit, and vent, and seek community and validation and guidance.

This was no longer just a Q&A. We knew 2 things: the Assessment was working and more space needed to be held for these arts leaders to understand their data and create real solutions. So we went right to work on developing a facilitation program. I went to a leader in the field of Equity, Diversion and Inclusion (EDI) and intimacy and begged up on her guidance and mentorship, I started taking classes and using the office hours as another study, taking every conversation home with me to decompose and explore. We also started developing practical tools, like glossaries and reflection sheets that would help folks find deeper meaning in the concepts they were encountering in the assessment. Now, I can proudly say that what comes after the work with JJI’s Assessment is a fully personalized period of reflection and facilitation guided by myself and other key members of JJI’s team. The work is so delicate and important and we are ready and eager to help unravel the stories behind the numbers and help organizations find new and bold paths forward.  

LAFPI: A huge issue that was raised this past summer was that there are theater companies that have reputations for disregarding and even allowing racist practices, as well as hiring artists who have historically exhibited severe racist behaviors. Are the results of the Assessment meant to solely inform a company about their culture and create a plan to solve it, or will the results also be used to inform outside artists?

Gabrielle: My ultimate goal with this work, once we have collected enough data, is to partner with data analysts and create a report on the macro data from the Assessment. The great thing about a study like this is that each individual theater remains anonymous. We only view the data in aggregate and are able to analyze the numbers on the whole. I think granting public access to the aggregate data – the way we do in our town halls and other online media – will really help to create transparency in our industry. I think once we have all the information and the numbers are clear, we can start getting honest and calling in organizations to make real change. The numbers of course will also help the individual organizations themselves as they will have exclusive access to their own micro data and will have a view of their personal numbers and information. This will help orgs to assess areas for improvement and create space for real and actionable change in their operations. 

LAFPI: What kind of questions can companies expect in the Assessment?

Gabrielle: We’ve tested the efficacy of this Assessment with almost every type of theater company. So we are asking questions about everything from above title billing for theaters who are Tony eligible to whether touring companies are vetting hotels and accommodations for a history of racist action. We’re asking about what Black and Indigenous texts are being used in curriculum, and whether or not there is specific language in an organization’s bylaws that outlines anti-racist policy.

There’s truly  something to be gained for every organization at every level. 

LAFPI: This Assessment, undoubtedly, is aimed to create lasting impact in theater arts culture. Once the Assessment is released and artists can start creating post-pandemic theater, what do you hope theater will look like for theater companies? For BIPOC artists?

Gabrielle: I hope theater companies will use this time to actually do the work of change in their orgs. In the span of 7 months, we’ve been able to accomplish so much. It’s honestly made me realize that there is nothing a well-teamed organization cannot do if they are truly dedicated to their cause. And that’s the thing, right? An organization has to be dedicated to the cause and not just the lip service around it. So, I hope that theaters will have really backed up all those solidarity statements with action and accountability and that they are safe for us to return to when we can.

For BIPOC artists I wish us all the comfort, peace and stability that makes it easy to be choosy.  More than anything, I’ve learned that wherever one or two are gathered, even if it’s in a Zoom room, art can be created. So, we now have this smorgasbord of opportunity in front of us. One of the questions I’ve been pondering in my own creative work is, “What are we going to do with all this future?” I hope that BIPOC artists have the means and the support to seek healing from all the compound trauma stemming from this time in our history and a lifetime of intentional othering by forces of racism and white supremacy. I hope that BIPOC artists find it within themselves to create work that speaks to their souls and sparks joy for them. I hope that Black artists, Indigenous artists, and other artists of color can finally have the space to be truly, truly free.

LAFPI: When will the Assessment be available for companies to take?

Gabrielle: The Assessment will be available to a hand selected cohort in 2021 and is preparing for wide release in 2022. JJI is currently looking for its first cohort of Full Program participants. Anyone interested in taking part in JJI’s 2021 Rollout should contact us through our website at www.joyjackson.org/theassessment

Despite the grave uncertainty American Theater is facing amidst the pandemic and the plummeting economy, one great gift theatermakers have been given is the gift of reflecting on our own internalized racism and white supremacy. There’s no doubt that the Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment will be one of many programs paving the road toward true racial equity in American Theater, so that BIPOC artists may not merely survive, but thrive in an industry that so often uses their voices. It’s not about diversity and inclusion of BIPOC people—it’s about telling stories for us, by us, and with us in mind. And that starts today.

Read More About the Release of JJI’s Racial Equity Assessment Here

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories. 

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: CoA asks “What’s Going On?”

by Carolina Xique

Is it August already?

2020 feels like the year that’s never going to end. You would think that during a worldwide pandemic, American people could put aside their differences, find compassion, and do a better job of taking care of each other. But, in just two short months after states began enforcing quarantine, the country proved that old habits die hard. In late May, George Floyd, a Black security guard in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was killed by police, and his murder was broadcast throughout social media the following morning in an eight-minute video.

However, George Floyd is not the first Black man to be killed by cops. Hell, he’s not even the first one to be killed by cops​ this year. ​Back in February, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in his neighborhood when he was shot and killed by three white men claiming, “a civilian arrest.” In April, Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT who was sleeping soundly with her partner in their apartment, was murdered in a flurry of bullets in an unannounced, mistaken drug raid. These three highly profiled murders of Black folks became the catalyst for the newly-revitalized, revolutionary Black Lives Matter movement that we are still experiencing today.

As the country trembles in fear with the reality of their own mortality amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, non-Black folks are now understanding concepts that Black folks everywhere have been screaming from the rooftops: that to be Black in America is to have grappled with your own mortality from that moment you realize your skin color is different. To be Black in America is to have to write social media posts that read, “If I’m ever arrested by cops, and I’m found dead in my jail cell, I would never kill myself. Don’t let them rule it as a suicide.” To be Black in America is not only to be one of the most vulnerable groups amidst a viral pandemic, but to also experience the social pandemic of police brutality.

These murders, paired with the continued protection of police officers against the consequences of police brutality, have coaxed people everywhere to protest, share historical injustices toward Black folks, post resources on social media, and facilitate difficult discussions with their own communities with a question that Black Americans have been asking for the last 400 years: ​When will enough be enough?

And now, since the government is still not listening, since the police have used violence against protesters and killed several more black citizens after George Floyd’s death, Los Angeles artists are taking the movement into their own hands.

This past weekend as well as tonight (August 1 & 8 at 8pm), Company of Angels premieres a virtual play festival titled ​What’s Going On?, inspired by the Marvin Gaye 1970s hit song. According to CoA’s website, “these 5-Minute Plays are set during the uprising in Los Angeles and the world that’s followed the murder of George Floyd by Police in Minneapolis, Minnesota… These plays address not just one aspect of what we’re going through, but rather speak to what happens when you add civil unrest to a pandemic, racism to a quarantine and a mask to social media?” The evenings include the work of 9 BIPOC women+ writers (playwrights & spoken word artists) and 10 female directors.

Playwrights of “What’s Going On?” at CoA

To learn more about these plays and how they speak to the moment, I contacted company member/producers Xavi Moreno & Julianna Stephanie Ojeda.

LAFPI: ​What about the pieces you’re directing/starring in are you most excited for folks to see? What images/questions do you hope they leave with?

Xavi Moreno: ​I’ll be in the final play of the final night, The Stimulus Check by Israel Lopez Reyes. I’m always excited to do plays that the audience can relate to, where they can see themselves saying the words that are coming out of my mouth. So with this play I feel people can put themselves in the shoes of both the characters and connect with it, to take them back to the moment they received the check and what they spent it on instead of what they should’ve.

Julianna Stephanie Ojeda: I directed ​Kiss​ by Diana Burbano and performed in ​Diciest Timeline​ by Howard Ho directed by Joyce Liu-Countryman. I’m most excited for people to see the importance of human connection. In ​Kiss,​ we get to see that with Shae (Taylor Hawthorne) and Loren (Analisa Gutierrez). With ​Diciest Timeline​, we see it through Sarah and Steve’s (Victor Chi) relationship. Both plays have so much heart and I hope people leave feeling that love and connection.

LAFPI: ​Why do you think it’s most important for folks to see this play festival right now, while we’re all dealing with information-overload and overwhelmed emotions?

Xavi: For more than 60 years we’ve had the privilege of sharing the wonder of storytelling together. We’ve persevered through the fire of 1988 that destroyed our theatre, the L.A. Riots, the 2008 recession, and gentrification forcing us to move from theatre to theatre. None of those events has stopped us like Covid-19 has. With What’s Going On?, with doing theatre online we get this opportunity to continue our commitment to support diverse L.A.-based artists and to tell stories from unique underrepresented voices. Plus we get to share it outside of the limits of our physical theatre space in the City of Angels. In our first performance last week, we had performers telling us how friends from college in the east coast watched it, family members who they haven’t seen them in years watching them perform for the first time. That was beautiful.

Julianna: Patricia Zamorano said it best in the live broadcast comments on Facebook, “Bam! It’s possible!” To me that means it IS possible to produce a show that is a true reflection of our city and what we are experiencing. We need that more than ever. That need was reflected in the comments and the feedback we received from the audience. They shared that they felt seen and that they recognized a bit of themselves in our first weekend. Hopefully, the second weekend will be the same!

Catch Xavi Moreno, Julianna Stephanie Ojeda and other talented Los Angeles artists in Company of Angel’s ​”What’s Going On? A Virtual Play Festival.” Streaming live Saturday, August 1 & August 8 at 8pm. For more information and to tune into the Livestreams, visit https://www.companyofangels.org/whatsgoingon​.

“What’s Going On? A Virtual Play Festival” Company

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories. 

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!
Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: “Ageless” in a #BraveNewWorld @ Santa Monica Rep

by Carolina Xique

“We’re living in unprecedented times…”

How many times have you heard that in the last two months?

Living in the thick of Los Angeles County, one can’t deny the effects that COVID-19 has had on the LA community, especially within the arts. Before the pandemic, theaters were getting ready to launch their 2020-2021 seasons, clean their venues for incoming Hollywood Fringe productions, and hold long-awaited annual galas, festivals, and workshops. Now? Companies are relying on Zoom and other streaming platforms to continue providing artistic content to the community, including readings, webinars, and even full-blown theatrical productions – some prerecorded, some live!

Because these times are unprecedented, because we’ve never had to bring theater into a virtual space, we’re left with the questions: What is theater now? Is it changing? And what does our future look like now that this has happened?

We (virtually) sat down with Tanya White, artistic director of Santa Monica Repertory Theater, to talk about SMRT’s upcoming 2nd Annual Playreading Festival; the eerie relevance of the Festival’s predetermined theme, #BraveNewWorld; and the reading of AGELESS by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by SMRT co-founder and resident director Sarah Gurfield. The Festival, held on May 16th via StreamYard, includes a Special Kick-off Conversation on May 14th, a playwriting workshop, and pre- and post-show discussions concerning Portman’s intriguing piece.

LAFPI: Tell us a little bit about Santa Monica Rep’s mission and why it’s important to you.

Tanya White: Our mission is using theater to tell stories and also engage our community in the process, both in the creation of work and also in the discussion with the artists & production. Whatever it is that we are doing, we always have a post-show discussion.

Tanya White

We’ll be actually talking about why that mission is important at our Kick-Off Conversation next Thursday, preceding our Festival . The panel is going to discuss what theater is and why it matters. I believe that theater is kind of an essential piece of a society that allows people to step out of their own experience and look at something from somebody else’s point of view.

Of course, you have the playwright’s point of view and the director’s perspective of the piece. But what you’re also seeing is walking, talking people who are experiencing things that you can mostly identify with, even if you are different than the character. We all experience the same kinds of feelings. But it’s communal in the fact that we’re all witnessing the same thing. It’s how it’s expressed, I think, that makes us unique.

LAFPI: This is Santa Monica Rep’s 2nd Annual Playreading Festival, spotlighting women artists. What has it been like transitioning from providing the event in-person to providing it online?

Tanya: Before this, we really didn’t focus on recording a live theater event. If we did, usually it’s for archival purposes, not actually to rebroadcast or stream.  People are at different levels of comfortability with technology. So that that’s been challenging.

And one of the things we were challenged with before this pandemic was getting the word out about us. We’re a really small group of people, so our capacity is limited. Our audience has largely been people who have followed us for the 10 years we’ve been in existence, which has been great. But the exciting thing is that now we have more reach. The idea that somebody can be anywhere in the world and see this is really exciting. We can say, “You don’t have to be in Santa Monica to come see us!” So having suddenly having a virtual space is great for us.

LAFPI: The theme of #BraveNewWorld was decided well-before the global pandemic. What kind of new questions do you think have arisen that are going to be a larger part of these conversations because of what’s going on right now?

Tanya:  Right now, we’re having a shared experience. We’re in the same space and time together. I mean, this is not a recording. To engage at this level, we have to be present. And so maybe the question is, “what is space” versus “what is theater?” But that’s what we’re jumping off from. So what is theater? And does this count as theater?

A question that comes up for sure is “how can we help each other?” Not just on an individual level, but also how we talk about theaters. How do we support each other? How do wesupport arts and each other? I feel there’s gonna be a lot more collaboration, a lot more people working together, because there used to be the feeling that everybody’s competing for the same audience, and the idea that that’s a finite thing. Like, if somebody comes to see a play in Santa Monica Rep, they’re not going to go see something at LA Women’s Shakespeare. So I think it is the question of how open and loving people are to helping each other? How can we cross promote? How do we how do we help each other get what we need to keep doing this work?

Maybe people will start also looking again at who our audience is. Because people do target, right? We look at who we’re reaching out to. Or if we’re selling tickets, we get in front of people who can afford to buy them. But the other day a friend of mine was saying how they’ve been to every museum in the world because they can now, virtually. I mean, access becomes a whole a whole new thing.  So now somebody who doesn’t [ordinarily] go see a play has access to theater in this way. We have a Festival ticket where you can participate in a playwriting workshop and a panel with two playwrights, or you can just register for the reading, which is free. You know, we say a suggested donation, but it’s not a ticket price.

LAFPI: What in the programming for the Festival are you most excited for audiences to take part in?

Tanya: The reading of AGELESS. I think we’re using the technology really well (God willing, it works!). I’m really excited about the about how the play translates into a virtual experience, and how we’re using the technology to tell the story. So I’m excited for everybody to log in and be part of that.

And it’s a good play. The subject matter is great and interesting, but it’s a good story. Well-told.

LAFPI: That rolls in right into my next question – Why this play right now?

Tanya: Well, we put the call out to women playwrights to send us stories of dystopia or utopia. We got several plays that we were going to do and, originally, we were set for June. Then we had to pare down and look at taking it online. We decided to do it sooner, not knowing when the stay-at-home order would be lifted, and we picked AGELESS because it had more roles for company members. We always serve our company members first.

And the theme of aging seems to be not just relevant, but especially of interest to women, as well. We’re highlighting plays written and directed by women. And again, it’s a good play. And really that’s always what it comes down to. Also, will it get some discussion going? We like to pick things that we know people want to talk about.

LAFPI: Who should attend this Festival and why?

Tanya: Anybody who’s really interested in examining what our future could look like. Such a great time to do that, when we’re all in a place where we’re reflecting. We have to. We’re alone. And we’re all aging. So I think anybody could come in and find themselves in this play because it follows characters as they age and characters as they don’t physically age, which I think is kind of an LA thing, too. The whole idea of not aging is a big deal.

So, yeah, I really think anybody anybody could enjoy the play. Maybe not young children, but I would say anyone from maybe fifteen or sixteen. But particularly, young women should come,  because the play examines so many women. So who should see it? Everybody. Right? Except toddlers. No toddlers! Don’t bring your toddlers to your Zoom.

Santa Monica Repertory Theater’s 2nd Annual Playreading Festival will start with a Special Kick-Off Conversation on May 14th, and officially begin May 16th at 11am. The Festival features a virtual staged reading of AGELESS by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by Sarah Gurfield.  With a $25 Festival Pass, audiences can participate in the Kick-Off and all events. The reading alone is free with a suggested donation. For more information, visit santamonicarep.org/bravenewworld.html

Know a female or FPI-friendly theater, company or artist? Contact us at lafpi.updates@gmail.com & check out The FPI Files for more stories. 

Want to hear from more women artists? Make a Tax-Deductible Donation to LAFPI!

Donate now!

Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‐profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of LAFPI must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only and are tax‐deductible to the extent permitted by law.

The FPI Files: Laughing and Crying Through Treya’s Last Dance

by Carolina Xique

Amongst dating, career, passions, failure and menstrual cycles, what woman can say her life is perfect all the time? It’s always more interesting and truthful to see women on film, stage and television having the same messy moments that we experience in real life. Shyam Bhatt took it upon herself to create a role for herself that’s this kind of woman in her first play, a solo show, “Treya’s Last Dance.”

“Treya’s Last Dance” premiered in Los Angeles at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival, then traveled to New York and London. Now back in LA at  the Hudson Guild Theatre, opening September 18, the play explores LGBTQ+ issues, feminism, and discrimination as Treya navigates through her dating life, her passion for dance and her family’s struggles. We were glad to get the chance to talk to Shyam about her – and Treya’s –  journey before opening night. 

LAFPI:  I have to say, Shyam, that Treya’s Last Dance was a perfect blend of the humorous and tragic experiences that come with grief. How did this story come to you?

Shyam Bhatt: It’s totally fictional. Treya is a character who gets to be a little bit awful and awkward and prone to emotional outbursts in the worst, funniest and most heartbreaking ways. She gets to be a strong, full woman on stage. That was the sort of character I wanted to play and the character I wasn’t seeing written for people like me. And, in writing her, she just happened to have this event in her life that was pulling her through the play. That’s pretty much how it came about.

LAFPI: After reading the play, I’m most excited to see how the hilarity and the grief come together in your performance. Was it difficult to find a way to co-mingle the two in your writing process?

Shyam: I’ve always been one to try to see the humorous parts in life. These days, it’s so important to always maintain face in front of everyone, like you always have to have an amazing façade. And life will always get in the way of that. Life will always make sure that you have something spill on your white shirt before your interview or you’ll trip and rip your dress before you meet a date or something like that. I find that funny and great and part of the joy of being a human being: nothing is perfect.

So to co-mingle the grief and the humor wasn’t that difficult in the writing. What I’m finding now in the rehearsal process is that it’s much more difficult to move between those two as a performer fluidly, without creating a jarring effect. That’s an interesting thing that we’re finding now, my director and me.

Shyam Bhatt in “Treya’s Last Dance” – photo by Abs Parthasarathy

LAFPI: What has it been like working with Poonam Basu as director? 

Shyam: It’s been fantastic, really fantastic. I had worked with Tiffany Nichole Greene as director for the premiere of this play and it has changed quite a bit since then. Poonam is bringing a really new, fresh perspective to the whole thing.  She is an actress/director and she’s got a fantastic insight into both how it feels to perform and how it looks to the audience. She’s pulling out threads that weren’t obvious to me and making them really heightened on stage.  And she’s been really instrumental in the question you just asked, in how to bring together the grief and the humor.

LAFPI: Do you feel like she elevates your vision, to make it a great experience for you as a performer and make sense to the audience?

Shyam: Yeah, she’s got this bigger-picture perspective and she sees the play as a whole – making sure that we hit those beats, and refining it into a really nice theatrical production, in essence. It’s just very joyful to see the way that she shapes it. You’ll see, you’ll see when you come.

LAFPI: Has she changed your view of the piece? 

Shyam: She’s emphasizing things I would not have chosen to emphasize and that is creating a different mood than I had anticipated, one very beautiful in slightly different ways. But very good ways! It’s a very lovely process to be involved with Poonam because the way that she works is very involved and extremely supportive.

LAFPI:  One of the themes I felt was most prevalent in your play was societal pressure – not just affecting Treya’s love life, but also her brother’s sexuality. What made you decide to integrate the story of her brother’s passing with struggles in her dating life?

Shyam: Treya is a figurehead for all the stupid things that women go through.  The ridiculousness of dating highlights the dark, horrible thing that Treya is going through at home; and the stark, terrible tragedy at home highlights the utter frivolity and silliness that happens in dating. And the fun of dating, actually. The two can’t be without each other; you can’t have sadness without happiness and vice versa.

LAFPI: It makes the funny moments hilarious and the tragic moments heartbreaking.

Shyam: And that’s one thing that Poonam is being extremely helpful with. As I said, it’s difficult to move between those two. And it’s really difficult, I think, as an audience member to give yourself permission to laugh at bits that come straight after something horrible. What she’s doing is managing those parts and the performance so the two punch each other up.

LAFPI: This play comments on the cultural differences between immigrants and the children of immigrants, as well as repressed sexuality due to Indian cultural pressures. What about Indian culture makes diverse sexuality so taboo, and what perspective shifts does this play suggest?

Shyam: Treya is Indian and British, but I think it’s a universal issue that crosses cultures. When people immigrate and have children in new countries, there’s a weird generational difference in understanding each other between the parents and the children – they’ve grown up, in essence, in different cultures, separated not only by time, but by space and culture and everything else.

Within traditional Indian culture, sexuality is not talked about and diverse sexualities are simply not thought to exist. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that not talking about them or allowing them to exist makes things extremely difficult for everyone involved.

I also wanted to highlight the fact that it’s not everyone who’s like this; it’s a community feeling. My own personal suspicion is that it comes from fear. Change is scary and change in a new country is really scary because you want to keep your inner circle close around you and have everything be the same as how it was. And that’s human nature, I think. But we’re moving into new – hopefully more accepting – diverse world. So these things can, should and will change. I hope.

LAFPI: I noticed specifically that Treya’s parents were supportive, and recognized that I’m not used to having diverse sexuality presented onstage with supportive parents. I really commend you on that

Shyam: Thank you. It’s so lovely to see shows where you have supportive parents because they exist, right? You always get the parents vilified and I thought, “I have a really nice set of parents.” I wouldn’t want to write a play where I even hint that we don’t have a nice relationship.

A scene from “Treya’s Last Dance” – photo by Abs Parthasarathy

LAFPI:  We see Treya’s grief process through a series of memories and adventures that remind her of her brother’s passing. How do you think that grief process fits into the new age of online communication and dating, which can be a little more alienating?

Shyam: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know, but I will say that I feel very inspired by a play called The Nether by the American playwright Jennifer Haley. The play is set in the future and also in the Dark Net of the future. It questions what we become when the lines become blurrier between real life and simulated life.

I think in terms of grief and all human emotion, we are entering this superbly fascinating arena where we need to deal with these emotions by ourselves, and there’s also this open arena [online] where people can talk with each other and share those emotions. I find it interesting and a little but scary that, often, when you get people to talk about an emotion, the emotion may be heightened and become something else.

We’re already seeing that online [in discussion forums], you get people with a complaint and they build each other up until the complaint becomes huge. And yeah, a problem shared in a problem halved, and all of that, but also, maybe sometimes a problem shared is a problem squared.

LAFPI: I noticed when reading the script that there are many intentional pauses and breaks. For you, what makes these important to Treya’s character?

Shyam: That’s the other thing that was on my mind while I was writing: Both “Scrubs” and “Ally McBeal” have women who have these daydreams constantly, daydreams that just carry on while they’re living their lives. Everybody has daydreams, everyone just goes off in their own world when they’re trying to listen to something. And I wanted Treya to have that experience in some way.

As for the pauses, who has a completely wrinkle-free life? Everyone pauses, everyone is waiting, watching, wondering what’s going to happen next, not sure of the next step. We all have to take a breath sometimes. And that’s built in to show that Treya is a real, full-fledged human being who doesn’t always know – actually, pretty rarely knows – exactly what to say. And even then, often puts her foot in her mouth.

LAFPI: She seems a lot less polished than a lot of women are portrayed on screen or on stage.

Shyam: Yes, I wanted her to be the opposite of polished. She is supposed to be not perfect. Imperfect. And have quite a raw feeling to her.

LAFPI: So in an imperfect world, is is there anything you want the audience to know before they see Treya’s Last Dance?

Shyam: It’s been a really awesome journey writing this and performing this in a variety of places and they should come in with their minds open and enjoy themselves. Enjoy the play in the spirit with which it was written: one of joy.

“Treya’s Last Dance,” written and performed by Shyam Bhatt and directed by Poonam Basu, runs Wednesdays at 8 p.m., September 18 through October 23 at the  Hudson Guild Theatre For information and tickets visit at  www.onstage411.com or (323) 965-9996.

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