My Theatre

04 March 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Anita Majumdar

By // Theatre (Toronto)

photo by Dahlia Katz

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Anita Majumdar’s raw and riveting Outstanding Solo Performance-nominated Fish Eyes Trilogy (a Nightswimming Theatre production at the Factory Theatre) followed the distinct but intertwined storylines of three women as they come of age in small town BC. Anita masterfully performed each character, as well as the supporting cast, with nuance and grace, her use of dance to embody the characters and their stories demanded a sympathetic, if not empathetic, response from the audience, and a strong reflection on the social systems we cultivate.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre or dance?
I remember being cast as Dorothy in our grade 3 one-night only production of The Wizard of Oz that only our parents were invited to see in our elementary school gym. It was on a Friday night when the school was still open but there wasn’t a brownie girls’ meeting or sporting event scheduled. It was in the late 80’s in Port Moody and the role of Dorothy was, as you can imagine, a coveted in role in our class and I was the only girl of colour in the class. Everyone had seen the Judy Garland version of The Wizard of Oz and was confused as to how Dorothy could be played by someone who wasn’t white.

It also became bizarrely political because my teacher had gone to university with my dad, and so rumours started to fly that the only reason I got the part was because my dad “called in a favour”. I cannot stress enough: this was a ONE NIGHT ONLY production in our school gym FOR OUR PARENTS.

I was told later that the reason my teacher gave me the role was because I could sing and hoped that showcasing that would break through my crippling shyness. I guess because I was so shy, everyone had advice for me on how to perform.

A girl in my class brought me a light brown wig to make my hair look more like Judy Garland. My best friend Terra, who was promoted from munchkin to Aunty Em, tried to make me feel better by telling me that no one would be watching me anyways because the play was secretly actually about Aunty Em. But the best advice actually came from my dad who worried I wouldn’t be able to memorize all my lines and told me not to worry if I forgot how the line was written in the script and that it was ok if I improvised just to give the gist because the audience would never know the difference anyways.

I can’t tell you how many times I have relied on that advice since.

Can you tell us about your background and training in dance and in theatre?
I started my dance training very late in life (by classical Indian dance standards). I took workshops in bharatanatyam (the oldest form of classical Indian dance based in south India) as a teenager, but when I was 17, I started learning kathak (a north Indian classical dance form) and then some odissi dance with Ellora Patnaik after I moved to Toronto. I started choreographing in university dance shows with some friends, and when I started going to the National Theatre School of Canada, I was asked to choreograph more often for our productions right from first year.

Theatre-wise, I had two wonderful drama teachers in high school, Richard Dixon and Shanda Walters who chose obscure plays no one in town had heard of (like Ubu Roi) and first taught us about developing strong, physically present characters. Then I went to the University of British Columbia and part of my degree was in Theatre which stressed the Stanislavski approach. After that I went to the National Theatre School in Sherry Bie’s first year as artistic director, and there they stressed the individuality of each actor. We never talked about methods or styles, but worked with what we brought to the table. That’s also where I was introduced to writing solo shows and the very first version of Fish Eyes was developed.

If you had the opportunity to see any historical show, what would it be and why?
A few years ago, a friend sent me the hilarious Key & Peele sketch that depicted the first production of Othello in Elizabethan England through the eyes of two patrons of colour. As funny as it was, it made me think about what it might been like for to watch a production like Titus Andronicus or Othello where attention to race and skin colour was such a salient part of the script and what it would be like to watch it with an audience well versed with the language, but engaging with characters and stories of colour for (possibly) the first time.

What inspired you to create Fish Eyes Trilogy and also, how did you research and develop the work?
After the initial dramaturgy of Fish Eyes had completed and I was touring the show pretty consistently, I started to feel like I wasn’t done with the show, but that I didn’t want to write a sequel for the same protagonist. I started thinking I wanted to writing a trilogy about three individual teenaged girls who lean on Indian dance to navigate their personal dilemmas. As I began work on the second story of the trilogy, I started thinking about placing it more specifically in my hometown in Port Moody, B.C. As a location, I knew it like the back of my hand, but I made a few trips back there as I started writing and in particular, my old high school. As I walked up the steep hill and passed the various levels of parking lots, I began thinking about a solo show trilogy that took the school gym assembly dance featured in Fish Eyes and having it repeat in each play but from a new character perspective in each story.

For Candice’s story (Let Me Borrow That Top), I watched a lot of YouTube makeup tutorial videos and spent some time on Carly Bybel’s videos. I was struck by the push for positive attitudes/personalities to make an audience believe that the host of the channel was a good person, and therefore, deserving of views and attention. And the most interesting videos deviated from makeup and got into their personal lives. I started to see Candice more and more as a person who needed an outlet to talk about the things she couldn’t voice to anyone in her immediate surroundings.

Once all three stories were written, Nightswimming commissioned the entire trilogy to see how they could better reference one another and help tell a larger story overall. A lot of the edits and honing was figured out through performance opportunities.

Do you have a favourite moment/song/dance in the Fish Eyes Trilogy?
I would say it would be Naz’s Kiss Kiss dance at the end of her story. Both from a character perspective and an acting perspective, there is so much catharsis in this dance. For Naz, it’s getting to a place of acceptance that her relationship with Lucky is over and to begin seeing that maybe he was never worth waiting around for in the first place. Also being asked to dance for a wedding of two people who conspired to make Naz’s life a total hell in high school gives Naz an opportunity to reframe the power dynamic. Dancing to Chris Brown, Naz subverts the original intention of the song and reclaims her authority while also confronting her enemies. The dance is an articulation of Naz’s skill and the freedom to break the rules of form. As the actor, this dance moment consistently feels so satisfying. That the physical and emotional work it takes for one person on stage to tell the story up to this point is so hard and schizophrenic at times, that getting to dance Kiss Kiss feels like a big slice of cake!

In the trilogy, three teenage women move in and out of each other’s lives, enacting harm either overtly or obliviously on each other. Which characters do you most sympathise/empathise with, and why? Are any of the characters irredeemable?
Naz is the one I empathise with the most because she really does so much heavy lifting. She sets up so much of the play’s location and most of all, she sets up the first introduction to the school assembly dance which we will see 2 more times in the course of the evening. The aftermath of Naz’s version is the most dire, but we see someone hit rock bottom and then be forced to pick herself up off the floor and still search for ways to succeed. In a lot of ways, that’s what I remember of being in high school; it was finding strength to keep going and holding onto a hope that there was a promise of a way better life on the other side of graduation… far away from Port Moody.

I don’t think any of female characters are irredeemable. Even with Candice, she’s unapologetic, but once we meet her and hear her side of the equation, it’s clear that she’s a different kind of victim of the same patriarchal system. There’s a difference between an unlikeable character and an irredeemable character. You might not like Candice, but she doesn’t deserve getting stuck with Buddy.

Perhaps the only irredeemable character is Buddy, but even in that, I think that’s mainly because we don’t get a play that’s about Buddy or Lucky, so there isn’t a male perspective story within the series. The choice not to showcase a male pov within the trilogy was, quite simply, the fact that I think there are enough plays dedicated to male perspectives and male characters. What there is a lack of are stories about women of colour, and that’s how I chose to use my time when given the opportunity to offer my voice.

You have talked about in interviews and the performance program—about how you “keep waiting for the show to become redundant” – contextualized by the thirteen years that have passed from first writing Fish Eyes… in the wake of the #metoo movement, can you speak more to how Fish Eyes Trilogy remains prescient… and an important piece of Canadian theatre?
In some ways, when I was first writing about these stories, the racial issues that the play contained were more present and challenging to audiences. I was writing about the effects of colonialism and white privilege because everywhere I looked, that’s what I encountered and so it felt the most immediate to address. I wrote the Fish Eyes Trilogy with women at the forefront because of things that I was going through personally at the time and felt frustrated with the lack of permission to talk about it in first person. There felt like an unspoken rule that anything that wasn’t rape wasn’t worth talking about in a public sphere, so I think I used the Fish Eyes Trilogy to speak to that in between place that is complicated, but doesn’t involve legal action (or inaction). I wanted to explore a high school environment where the rules of rape culture are first taught to young men and women that are then applied to adult worlds and pass on through legacy to children, and on and on it goes.

The Fish Eyes Trilogy feels like it’s part of the same machine of multiple voices that lead to the #MeToo movement where we are FINALLY ready to talk about the multiple ways in which sexual harassment can look like and feel like through varied accounts from around the globe. If the Fish Eyes Trilogy can serve as an aid or jumping off point to engage the necessary and uncomfortable conversations, then it’s done its job. I guess what I mean when I say I keep waiting for the show to become redundant is that I am impatient; I want to be in that place where we stop victim-shaming and habitually asking, “Well, if it was that bad, then why didn’t she do something about it?” without taking the time to critically ask, “Why would a person do that to her in the first place?”

What are you working on now/next?
I’m working on a new play commission that it’s in very early stage with Nightswimming alongside creating some more Candice mock-YouTube makeup videos. I’m also in early writing development for a web series and start performing in a new adaptation of The Jungle Book in the U.S. this spring.

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