The South Asian Theatre Festival Returns July 22 Featuring Priyanka Shetty’s Elephant in the Room
The Fourth South Asian Theatre Festival, coproduced by Spotlight Ohio with CATCO, returns to the Columbus Performing Arts Center (CPAC) this Sunday, July 22. The festival said in a release that it “[F]ocuses on collaborations among diverse community artists to engage, educate, and showcase the South Asian culture. The 2018 edition is themed ‘Live, Love and Laugh’ and will unveil three theatrical works – a one-woman play in English and two other plays in South Asian languages. We strongly believe this initiative will foster greater cultural exchange and help connect diverse communities in Columbus.”
I spoke with the author, Priyanka Shetty, and director, Joe Bishara (Associate Producing Director of CATCO), of the English-language work, The Elephant in the Room, which the same release called, “Unapologetically Indian, The Elephant in the Room is a tumultuous ride through seemingly immiscible cultures, love and loss, issues of race and the desperation that comes with not fitting in. It is a tribute to the influential; factors of time, death, changing contexts, and the forces that build and break. The play navigates the author’s transition from her deeply embedded roots in India to finding context and common ground in America. It is an attempt to find an inkling of a bigger picture and the joining of the audience in this struggle.”
Bishara said, “We’ve been managing the Columbus Performing Arts Center for the city for about ten years. Part of our agreement is supporting theatre companies who don’t have a home of their own. That support is to the level the company wants. Sometimes it’s providing a lighting designer; sometimes, it’s full production support. We’re very proud we facilitated several festivals. We’re proud we’ve hosted the Columbus Black Theatre Festival, proud of the Conservative Theatre Festival, and proud we’ve hosted this for two of its three years.”
Priyanka Shetty spoke about the roots of her work. “I’m an MFA student in acting at the University of Virginia. The Elephant in the Room grew out of an assignment to deliver a ‘passionate speech.’ I talked about the difficulties of being an immigrant in America in a light-hearted way. It went very well.”
Shetty continued, “My classmates originally encouraged me to turn the monologue into a one-woman show or a YouTube video, believing it could go viral. Then Charlottesville – where the University is – happened. The next semester I suffered my first overt racial discrimination. Suddenly, this light-hearted take went much deeper. I worked on the piece and was a finalist for the GCAC CATCO Playwrights Fellowship.”
Bishara said, “I met Priyanka Shetty when she came to one of my group acting classes. I was impressed by what I saw. She said she was interested in acting and pursuing an MFA. She became a private student, and we worked on her audition packet, ultimately leading to her acceptance at the University of Virginia.”
I asked about her work as an actor and writer. Shetty said, “I was a writer first. I wrote stories from a young age. Many people thought I’d be an author. I worked as a software engineer but developed a fascination with acting and came to the US. I noticed early there weren’t many roles for me, I was always cast in the stereotypical roles such as a scientist or an aborigine. I did work written for other nationalities, which is interesting, but I wanted to follow the path of Mindy Kaling or Tina Fey and create work for someone who looks like me.”
Bishara said, “I found her work as an actor and a person incredibly brave. She was making remarkable money in IT, but it wasn’t feeding her soul. When she said there weren’t roles for her, I encouraged her to create work for herself. Part of my mission, whether they’re in elementary school or grad school, is to help my students grow as much as they can and as much as they want to. One of my favorite things to do is work with new playwrights. It’s always exciting.”
Columbus and the South Asian Theatre Festival are the first full workshop production of Elephant in the Room. Shetty said, “I intend to use what I learn from the Columbus audience and work on the script through my last year of grad school. I want to perform this show for as long as I can, touring through many cities. But I also wrote the character of Priyanka to be carried on by other actresses when I’m involved in other projects or no longer interested in touring.”
With their working relationship and CATCO’s relationship with the festival, Joe Bishara was a natural to bring this material to life. He said “The commonality is that I’m also the first generation of my family in the US; I’m half Egyptian. I understand people making generalizations about our backgrounds and asking insensitive questions.”
Bishara continued, “As a director of new work, the process is more about refinement. She writes her material, shares her stories with me, and I say here are my questions. What do we need to spell out further, what would be more impactful left out? As the process continues with The Elephant in the Room, I’d like to remain involved, and I think and hope there’s at least one more run in Columbus.”
Priyanka has big plans for her next projects. “I’ve conceived The Elephant in the Room as the first part of a loose trilogy. It’s about one woman’s outsider perspective in America. The second piece would take a larger look at America, interviewing participants at Charlottesville from both sides, possibly inspired by The Laramie Project. The third part of the trilogy could be about traveling abroad through a set of countries and get their perspective on what’s happening in America.”
Take advantage of this opportunity to see brand-new work from an engaging new voice.
The South Asian Theatre Festival takes play Sunday, July 22, at the Shedd Theatre in the Columbus Performing Arts Center. For tickets and more info, visit spotlightohio.com.