Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with playwright Aditi Kapil about her life as a playwright and the inspiration for AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP, now playing at Forum Theatre. In this candid, and insightful interview, Aditi speaks of her childhood in Sweden and of the first time she ever saw her work produced. She also speaks quite passionately about the impact and role of cultural identity in her writing and what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. Please enjoy.
JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
ADITI KAPIL: I didn’t see much theatre growing up in Stockholm, Sweden, probably because we couldn’t afford it. But there was this small theatre in town that did English-speaking productions, and when I was in high school (English-speaking IB program) we received tickets to their touring productions once a year. My mom and I went, we saw musicals the first two years, I think “Guys and Dolls” and “Carousel”, which was great. The 3rd year we went to see a German company’s English production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love”. It was intense, I was maybe a little young, and I had one of those completely raw experiences that only happen when you have no idea what’s coming and it just catches you wide open. There’s an old guy mooing off to the side, what’s that about? And these two intensely complicated characters fighting and loving their way across the stage, a crazy backstory that I had to figure out for myself, and then Eddie is on the floor after getting kicked in the balls, and May takes off her bra and wipes herself down, and it’s exposed, practical, not at all lascivious, but hot at the same time, and I remember thinking “is this ok? Are we supposed to be here?” And I looked over at my mom to see if we’re embarrassed, if we’re leaving, if we have some sort of opinion that I can latch on to. She’s mesmerized. I looked around the full house, everyone was mesmerized, they had us. Because it was brilliant theater. And I remember thinking- theater is hot... theater is cool… I want a piece of this. That moment is probably what led to my taking an acting class as a blow-off in college, hardest class ever.
JL: Next, tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
AK: I guess I’ll work anywhere. I’m city, so too much quiet is hard for me. Ambient noise, like a coffee shop, or listening to music, helps me tune out, and then tune in, gives me something to push back against maybe? And then when I come back and realize itunes dj has had me in children’s music for the past half hour and I didn’t notice, I know I went someplace. But then I also wonder how what’s going on around me or in my headphones is sneaking into the work in ways I don’t even realize.
Oh, and I have to type, can’t write longhand, my handwriting is illegible, had I been born pre-typewriter I probably wouldn’t have been a writer. Had I been born pre-computers, I might have been a writer, but some shorter form, like haikus or something, because I’m also a shitty typist. One wonders how I get through the day.
JL: Describe for me all the sensations you had the first time you had one of your plays produced and you sat in the audience while it was performed...what was different about the characters you created? How much input did you have in the directing of that work?
AK: My first premiere experience was my play “Love Person” at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, directed by the lovely Risa Brainin, wonderful cast, wonderful design team. I saw preview night on a Thursday, and then opening night on Friday. Opening night was pretty amazing, the show had settled just enough into its bones, the audience was open and receptive, I saw my story get communicated with so many layers of intricacy and individuality that I couldn’t possibly have created on my own, I watched the audience as closely as I watched the play and seeing them love my messy, confused, characters did that thing that fills your soul, made me feel less lonely in the world, feel like other people thought about these things too. That kind of connectivity is I think what theater is all about.
Ok, so I wanted to say that first because, by contrast, preview night was really hard for me. This might be a consistent thing, because I feel like the exact same thing happened when I went to see “Agnes Under the Big Top” at Long Wharf, directed by the very amazing Eric Ting, again wonderful cast, wonderful design team. Preview night was choppy, I imagine the show wasn’t as tight as it was on opening, but I don’t think that was all of it, other people in the audience seemed to get it, to go on the ride with it. But I did not, I was not on the ride, I was resistant to the ride, and honestly the ride can’t have been that much different on the 2nd night when I did get on board, so part of that must have just been me.
First off, I guess I have to accept that the thing on the stage is the play that has up until this moment lived exclusively in my mind. And in both cases I’d been part of rehearsals, but it’s not really the thing, it’s not theater, until there’s an audience in the room, for me that’s the moment I write to, the moment between the audience and the work. So when that moment hits for real, I seem to be wary and kinda resistant. And then there’s the fact that seeing your words on stage in front of people feels a whole lot like standing in a crowded room naked. It’s hard, it’s scary, it’s incredibly vulnerable. What if they laugh and point?
So I guess I’m wary and resistant. To my own plays. On the first night, that is, by the second night my body and mind seem to have acclimated, and I can have an experience in the theater.
JL: What do you hope to convey in the plays that you create--what are they about? What sorts of people, situation, circumstances, do you like to write about?
AK: I don’t know that it’s always purposeful, but themes of displacement, language, communication, identity, mythology, survival, tend to work their way into my plays. Little known fact, perhaps to anyone but myself and my dramaturg, nearly every play I’ve written contains the line “I am Indian!”, see if you can spot it. It’s like ‘where’s waldo’.
Not so hard to work it in when Indian characters keep showing up in plays I never intended for them. Possibly I have something to prove in this area, I’ve been to India twice in my life, I speak no Indian languages. By contrast I’m fluent in Swedish and Bulgarian and feel deeply connected to those cultures. My Indian side I seem to be desperately grabbing at, often through my writing.
I think my characters also tend to be fiercely unsentimental. And they tend to be people you don’t generally see in mainstream theater. Maybe what interests me most is taking characters who normally would be in the outskirts of mainstream narrative, and shifting the lens to position them center stage, move the mainstream narrative out to the margins, see what happens. Give my traditionally marginalized characters (be they deaf, immigrant, comic relief) the great tragedy to live, the great romance.
I’m also very interested in writing complicated, difficult, women, and working with directors and actresses to put those women unapologetically into the public psyche. I feel like our public images and ideals of womanhood could use some shaking up, bit of an update.
JL: Tell us about your play and what inspired you to write it.
AK: “Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale” began as a 10-minute piece called “Cirkus Kalashnikov”. In 2004, I traveled to Sweden and Bulgaria with my then 2-year old daughter to visit family. In Bulgaria an uncle told me about the Kalashnikov factory that had closed in the town of Kazanlak, destroying the town’s economy. A few days later I took my daughter to this rickety little traveling circus, the Cirkus Arena, I spent the whole show watching this ringmaster with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth run the really pretty underwhelming show brilliantly with a well-placed “OPPA!” “BRAVO!” “DA!”. Later, in Sweden, my Indian father, who spent the last decades of his life driving Stockholm subway trains told me how he’d killed 3 people and 1 dog in his time in the subway. All of this worked its way through me on the 13-hour plane ride back to Minneapolis, and when we landed I wrote “Cirkus Kalashnikov”, a 10-minute piece about a former Bulgarian ringmaster turned subway driver in a US city.
Then a couple of years later I read an article in the NY Times about how starlings came to the US, imported by an ornithologist and Shakespeare fan, and over the next century became this invasive chattering nuisance species, and I decided to try to expand the short play into a larger exploration of immigrant stories, so I added Agnes and Ella, loosely based on two women I worked with while I was in college (I spent my summers in Sweden as a home care worker) and a hybrid character loosely based on two Indian cousins named Happy. Oh and I gave my ringmaster a wife, named after my Bulgarian Aunt Roza.
To be clear, while I stole extensively from family mythos, the play grew into its own thing and no single character has a direct real world correlation. The same way the ringmaster is a conflation of my uncle, the ringmaster I saw at the Cirkus Arena, and my father’s subway stories, every other character in the play became something very different from the original point of inspiration.
JL: What do you hope audiences are thinking about after experiencing this play?
AK: Audiences have had such extreme reactions to this play… I guess my hope is that we see the beauty in the leap that so many people take daily into the unknown. I guess I’d love to see us celebrate the beauty in our failures, and in loving each other even when we’ve grown less beautiful, in fact isn’t it even more beautiful to love after the illusions are stripped away, however painful the stripping?
Like many immigrants, my parents had big dreams when they took the leap. By the measure of those dreams, they failed, most do. The identity displacement that takes place when you move to another culture can be this huge bite out of the soul, and then I watched my mother go through a similar displacement when she went from being an extremely healthy woman to dying of cancer. I watched many of my patients, in my time as a homecare worker, rage and kick against being defined as ill or bedridden, against this identity imposed upon them by life, one they never signed up for. My mother felt like she had somehow failed in her battle against cancer, many of my patients felt they had somehow failed at life, and I guess I grew to resent the idea of ‘winning’ as the purpose of life. I’d like to celebrate the courage it takes to grasp at life, to leap, to keep telling your stories, to keep reaching for the brass ring, to touch each other even when you feel invisible. That’s beautiful to me. That’s uplifting.
JL: How has the community where you work and live addressed issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to get your work produced on the main stages?
AK: I’m very fortunate in that I, in Minneapolis, have an artistic home at Mixed Blood Theatre. Mixed Blood is this amazingly progressive theater with really high artistic values, and a commitment to putting marginalized stories center stage, who in a recent act of radical hospitality stopped charging for tickets a couple of years ago, which has really revolutionized our audiences. It’s a pretty amazing place to premiere work, allows for a kind of dialogue that is hard to find anywhere else. Our community has all the same issues as many others, we are constantly in a debate about how our major theaters can be leaders in a dramatic discourse that reflects our place and time in all its diversity, but for my own work I feel pretty well cocooned from all that in that I have this phenomenal theater premiering my work.
JL: What excited you about taking part in Forum Theatre’s 10th Season?
AK: I’m so excited about all the plays in this season, and so ridiculously honored to be included! Theater to me is a dialogue with ones community that ideally starts in a room with a group of people having an intense live experience, and then trickles out from there, and the dialogue represented by Forum’s 10th season excites me so much. I’m excited to be a strand in that dialogue, but also really excited for the artists and audiences who will be connecting over these ideas across an entire season.
JL: What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
AK: I can tell you what I tell students. Develop your own taste through voracious intake of art, aspire to create what you most want to see in the theater right now, and then try to make that. Try really hard, hold on to the vision in your mind, and don’t quit until your artistry is equal to your imagination. And along the way don’t be afraid to fail a lot. And the upside is that theater is a collaborative art form, so you won’t be on your own trying to figure it out. But yes, it’s that hard, so let’s not pretend it’s not
JL: What’s next for you as a playwright? Where can we follow your work?
AK: I have a trilogy based on the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva that we’re premiering in repertory at Mixed Blood Theatre in October. Each play displaces a deity into a contemporary immigrant in the west, and each play is in a different style. The Brahma play is “Brahman/I, a one-hijra stand-up comedy show” and it’s literally a stand-up routine. The Vishnu play is “The Chronicles of Kalki” about a girl who may or may not be the final avatar of Vishnu come to save the world from demons and evil, and it’s more of a comic book style girl gang thriller. The Shiva play is called “Shiv”, this is the one where I try to get into post-colonial residue more, it has more of a memory play quality. It’s a pretty epic undertaking, and I’m so excited about the artistic team gathered around the project, doing such beautiful work to get such a huge beast up and running.
I try to keep my website updated-www.aditikapil.com, I’m sporadically active on twitter @AditiBKapil
AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP
Written by Aditi Brennan Kapil
Directed by Michael Dove
Featuring Joy Jones, Annie Houston, Nora Achrati, Ed Christian, Jon Jon Johnson, and Jason Glass.
September 5-28, 2013
Click here for a full list of performance dates and here for ticketing information
About the Play
To the music of the subway, six lives intersect in this comic adventure about immigrant life in America. A Liberian nurse, a Bulgarian one-time ringmaster and his wife, an Indian subway driver trainee, a nomadic busker, and a bedridden woman pursue dreams, peace, and a place in this strange new world.
2:00pm - Matinee of Agnes Under the Big Top (Click here for ticket information)
3:30-4:00pm - Break
4:00-6:30pm - Town Hall on Diversity and Inclusion in Theatre
If you're unable to attend, follow the conversation on Twitter with #ForumTH
For questions, click here to contact Artistic Director Michael Dove.
Saturday, September 21, 2013
Forum Theatre @ Round House Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD
Forum Theatre produces adventurous, relevant, and challenging plays from a diversity of voices that inspire discussion and build community -- and that are accessible, affordable, and entertaining.
Since Forum Theatre’s inception, we have aimed to be both the home for stories that provoke discussion and the place to host that discussion. We want our plays to be a conversation with the audience. We tell stories about who we are as a local, national, and global community.
So what is a Forum show? That’s never been the easiest thing to describe, but a few things tend to always be true: A Forum show asks big questions. A Forum show is intricate and challenging, but has a big heart at its center. And a Forum show gives you something to think about and a lot to talk about.
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I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!