Priyanka Shetty Premieres ‘#Charlottesville’ at the Abbey’s Virtual Theatre Project
Since the pandemic began, the Abbey Theater of Dublin’s artistic director Joe Bishara has thrown himself into producing solo shows for streaming as part of the Virtual Theatre Project with a wide-ranging group of talents. Next in line, #Charlottesville is simultaneously a premiere and a reunion. I talked to Bishara and playwright and star Priyanka Shetty by Zoom.
Bishara met Shetty when she signed up for adult acting classes he led in his prior role at CATCO and worked with her individually on material to apply for grad school.
“When the dust settled, due to her ridiculously good work ethic and also her virtuosity as a storyteller, she got offers from multiple grad schools to get her MFA in acting,” Bishara said.
Shetty chose the University of Virginia in Charlottesville for her MFA which meant she was there for 2017’s Unite the Right rally while she worked on The Elephant in the Room (which premiered in Columbus at the 2018 South Asian Theatre Festival, directed by Bishara).
“[Elephant drew from] kind of a racist incident that happened at my university right after the Charlottesville incident,” Shetty said. “I kind of wondered if there was a connection, that it was suddenly okay to be blatantly and openly discriminatory. Once I was done with Elephant, I started the interviews for #Charlottesville.”
Shetty spent a year conducting and transcribing close to 100 interviews with residents, students, faculty, and community members affected by the August 11 rally and the August 12 counterprotest.
“Some people I interviewed were also victims of the car attack,” Shetty said. “I spoke to Heather Heyer’s mother. Heather Heyer is the person who lost her life at the car attack. As I started doing these interviews, some threads began emerging. All the stories sort of connected with each other and as I transcribed these interviews, I saw how I could tie [them] into a play.”
The original version of #Charlottesville premiered at Charlottesville’s Live Arts in a seven-member ensemble, including Shetty. Bishara started the conversations about turning it into a one-person show for ease of touring.
“I think this place is even more timely than the one that I wrote before,” Shetty said.
When I spoke with Shetty, she was visibly moved from the memory of performing the piece in the town where wounds are still fresh from the events.
“A lot of [people] who had very closely followed the events of August 11 and 12 who were there [and] read all the newspaper articles, came to that show,” She said. “And the number one feedback that I got was, ‘I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know previously.’
“That was amazing for me to hear, because that’s when I knew this play had value. Even [knowing] factually through newspapers and documentaries, what happened on those days, we had no idea about the human experiences. So I delved into that a little deeper in this version of the script: what the people went through and what the people think.”
She expanded on that focus by bringing in a historical perspective on the location.
“It’s more than what happened in August 11 and 12. That’s why it’s called #Charlottesville because the focus is on city, right?” Shetty explained. “Historically, there are a lot of things that have gone on which is why people were like, ‘We are not surprised it’s happened here.’ In the writing and in my exploration as an actor, I’ve made that my focus now, [making the piece] more based on the human experiences and the true heroes in the community who were there, who stood up for what was right.”
I asked Shetty about distilling a play with seven actors on stage to a piece entirely carried by her and combining the words of actual people into composite characters.
“I had to figure out who these people are and how are they going to represent these five other people in a believable manner,” she said. “[In] constructing a whole new person from the words of maybe four or five other people I had to make that very clear to myself that this is not a one-on-one mapping with a particular person that I’ve interviewed, but these are distinct fictional characters who are now the vessels for the words of these individuals that I interviewed. Identifying that took some time, and I struggled with it initially.
“I wanted to make them very identifiable, believable, real human beings. After that, the challenge of me as a performer, how am I going to make these distinct characters with distinct voices and distinct personalities? It’s been interesting, in fact, a lot of fun. And it’s a good challenge for me as a performer, because even though in Elephant, which was a solo show, I did play other characters but I didn’t have to switch between them so many times and so quickly.”
Trying to fit those viewpoints together, Shetty said, “I purposely made it non-linear. [But] even though we’re jumping from one time to the other with respect to the events, there’s a linear progression of thought that’s keeping the play together. We are trying to make it multi-dimensional so that it’s not predictable in a certain way. I think the words of the people themselves, [are] super engaging.”
Bishara was closely involved in those revisions.
“It’s been a joy,” he said. “Priyanka and I have a shorthand because we’ve worked together so closely for a number of years on a variety of projects. [#Charlottesville is] definitely the most challenging, but in a great way, She only arrived yesterday, but we had been meeting in this fashion for a number of weeks, like once a week, just touching base reading sections of the script, having conversations about it, ‘What are we trying to accomplish in this section?’ It’s been a lot of fun working with developing the distinct physicality for each of these characters and recognizing that with this type of piece, it really actually leads with the physical, and then it bleeds into what we’re doing with the actual oral interpretation for each person.”
All the one-person shows Bishara’s presented at the Virtual Theatre Project had their own flavor, but he said, “This one is way different from all of them, because it’s not just Priyanka’s voice, it’s all these other people’s voices that she’s trying to represent appropriately. It’s like I wake up in the morning. I’m like, ‘I can’t wait to work on this again.’”
#Charlottesville streams live and with limited in-person seating on February 19 and 20 at 7:00 p.m. and is available to stream on-demand February 21 – 28. For tickets and more info, visit dublinohiousa.gov/abbey-theater.