Artist Profile: Anusree Roy – Playwright & Performer of “PYAASA” at Theatre Passe Muraille until March 27th
Interview by Brittany Kay
I was lucky enough to sit down with my own personal mentor and friend, Anusree Roy, to talk about her upcoming production of Pyaasa opening today at Theatre Passe Muraille. In her dressing room, we spoke about the discipline it takes to be an artist in this business, the challenges of a remount, and her deep gratitude for Theatre Passe Muraille.
BK: Tell me a little bit about your show?
AR: Pyaasa is set in present time in Calcutta, India and it’s a play I wrote starting in 2006… so 10 years ago. It’s something that I’m coming back to, which I’m really excited about.
Untouchability is something that is constitutionally banned. Doctor B. R. Ambedkar, who was an untouchable himself, put forth this constitutional change. You can’t practice untouchabililty, but in India it’s very widely practiced. It’s changing, absolutely, but the caste system still very much exists.
When I wanted to write a play, I wanted to look at the world, that world, the caste system world, acknowledging my social location in the system, which is a higher caste person. We had untouchable people clean our toilets all the time and we treated them really badly and I treated them really badly because that’s the environment of the society you were raised in. Pyaasa is a journey about this beautiful young girl named Chaya and her life story in ten days, beginning to end of the show. She’s a girl who’s young, bright and wants to go to school desperately. That’s all she wants. It’s a fun show and it’s a heartfelt show. It’s also a sad show and a truthful show.
BK: It’s just you on stage. Is this is a one character show, or a show with many characters?
AR: I play four characters. Chaya, Chaya’s mother Meera, this other servant lady named Kamala, who both work for Mr. Bikash. So it’s 2 women, 1 man and 1 girl.
BK: Why the title Pyaasa?
AR: Pyassa means thirsty. There’s a lot of water and water nuances all through the play. The name came to me. It wasn’t something, where I was sitting there going what should I name my play? I just thought of it because subconsciously I was aware of the amount of water in the show. I think if I were to analyze why the way it works in the caste system, in the villages that are in the rural areas, our water tank is sacred because I’m from the higher caste and your not and you can’t get water from mine. There are a lot of disputes about water, which is a necessity in life. So when you cut something off that’s a necessity in life, it becomes even more important. The name came to me and I stuck with it. It’s allowed us to kind of really look at the play through that lens.
BK: There was a lot of development with this play in its first edition. What were the steps and processes it went through? Before this remount, how did it come about?
AR: In 2006, Thomas (my director), David (the designer of the show) and I were doing our masters together. I was having sushi with Thom and I was telling him about my life story back in India and telling him story after story about my past.
At one point I was talking about the untouchables, the caste system, and how it’s abolished but how it still exists and he stopped me and said, “There’s a play there. You know there’s a play there right?” I was like “yeah, okay.” And he insisted on saying, “No, there’s a play there and you have a three week deadline to get me a first draft.” I’m doing my masters and I have sixteen papers due, but he just kept on saying, “Get me a first draft in three weeks.” So in three weeks, I gave him the first draft and ironically, 90% of that first draft is what’s in the show today.
BK: If anyone can work under pressure, it’s you.
AR: It just came together. I felt so passionate about it. When you play a solo show, it’s not about how good your storytelling is, it’s all about how distinct each character is. Thom and I, while creating the show, did a lot of that character work. David, Thomas and I created a company together and we did our first one-night-only here at Theatre Passe Muraille. TPM was in a financial strain at the time and whatever money we raised, we gave it to them. We wanted a production space, so it seemed like a fair trade.
BK: That’s amazing. And ballsy.
AR: We just did it. We did it fearlessly and we did furiously and we did it in good faith. The universe was there. The play won 2 Doras for Outstanding Actress and Outstanding Writer and as a result of that, it just escalated. Suddenly we had a touring agent. TPM, beautiful Andy McKim, contacted us and said he wanted to produce the play and put in his very next season. That was his first season programming as an Artistic Director here. It just grew and grew. Our touring agent took us to many places: Vancouver, Ottawa, Victoria, and many others. It became our golden child. Honestly, it wasn’t something that we spent years labouring over. We just did it in good faith, really hoping it would bite and it did. And of course our awards helped us marketing-wise. That was the trajectory of the show.
For the last five years, the company is no longer together, but we’re all very good friends. Our lives have taken us very different places. David is doing a PhD, I’m more into film/television and theatre, and Thomas is the AD of Theatre New Brunswick. We’ve split as people but our core is the same. So when TPM contacted us to do the show again, we said of course, of course.
BK: What are the challenges and excitements of remounting a show?
AR: Challenges? It’s one person. I haven’t done a solo show in five years. It’s a lot of work. It’s A LOT of work. It’s kind of keeping your body in shape and your mind in shape. I feel like an athlete, you know what I mean?
BK: Oh for sure! It’s a whole marathon from beginning to end.
AR: Exactly. My meals are planned. My workouts are planned. Everything is very scheduled to save energy for those 5 hours of rehearsal and those 45 minutes of show. It’s a very intense show.
BK: What about the excitements? Anything you are looking forward to this time around?
AR: The excitements? It’s coming home to the boys. That’s what it feels like. TPM feels like home and the three of us are coming home.
BK: Why TPM initially?
AR: At the time, we knew it wasn’t doing well financially and we needed a space. So our proposal to them was, if you give us a space for one night, we’ll give you all the money we make. We didn’t know that it would grow. People stayed that night and said, “No no no no! This can’t just be one night. You have to do this show many, many, more times.”
TPM has always felt like home. It has supported me so much in my career, especially Andy McKim, huge shout out to him! My father calls him my theatre dad, because it’s true. He gave me that initial push you need as a creator when you’re 25. He gave me that. He really gave me that.
BK: That’s a lovely answer.
AR: It’s true.
BK: Because it was created in 2006, why does this story need to be told to audiences today?
AR: Because it’s still relevant. Judith Thompson, in one of the earlier versions, came to see the show and she asked me “Why is it relevant for a Canadian audience?” I found that really fascinating and at the time I didn’t have an answer for her. She told me to look at the homelessness in Toronto – look at the way we treat street people here, as if they don’t exist. People with mental health issues, they’re doing their thing and we’re just walking by.
We, as a society, practice classicism in the most heinous way. We do it. All of us do it. I’ve done it. I do it constantly because when you’re in a rush, you’re going, and you don’t want to give a panhandler money. There is a division in class that we practice. How is that different from the play I’m doing that’s set in India? It’s not really. I am segregating you and someone is segregating someone in India. It’s the exact same thing.
BK: Where do you find inspiration for your work?
AR: The truthful answer to that would be prayer. I have a very good, solid relationship with prayer and meditation. I really quiet myself when I need to think as to where the character is going and what their journey is or what the story will be. I’m writing a play for Nightwood Theatre right now called Trident Moon. It’s a ten person show and so I have to come up with characters for that and their journey. How do you sustain yourself for a three-year mark as it’s taken me three years to write the play. It’s prayer. It’s quieting yourself. Finding it inside of you, versus outside. Those things are true and I know that because I practice it.
BK: How do you commit to this kind of work?
AR: Discipline. Discipline. Discipline. There is no shortcut to success. I truly believe it. My mom always tells me that. It’s with everything. You wake up and you do the work. You don’t think about it. You don’t whine about it. You don’t wait for the inspiration to hit you. You don’t wait for Monday. You don’t wait for your soul to be ready. It is ready. Get up. Write. That’s it. I really practice it. You set your times, for me it’s four hours. Whatever it is in the day you decide to write, you turn everything off; your phone, the internet. You sit wherever you’re sitting, and you write. Do the job. Do not whine. Because the more you sit and wait for the clock to strike 12 and the inspiration to hit, it’s never going to happen. That’s not reality. You live in a state to be inspired. You’re not sitting there, waiting for inspiration to show up to write. That’s bullshit. That is bullshit. What I learned as a young writer, and I’m really grateful for it, is that discipline and inspiration are two separate things.
Success comes to people that work hard and opportunity arrives. That’s it. They work hard. You just do your job and let the world take care of itself. There’s a lot of glamorizing of what it is to be inspired in order to write. I do not prescribe to that. I prescribe to the discipline route. You will write shit, don’t get me wrong on that. There are days when everything you’re writing is shit. That’s the process. And then when you get there and it’s not shit. If you write everyday, something will be good. One day something is good and whatever is not, you throw away. But you wrote, versus sitting and waiting.
BK: You are absolutely right.
AR: You have to train like an athlete.
BK: Do you have a definition for success or what it means to be successful for you?
AR: That my parents are proud of me? I don’t know… (she laughs) I think my nine-year-old self wants me to make my parents happy. I don’t think that will ever go away. But my adult self is very goal orientated, in everything in my life. I strive to achieve them. But how do I define success? Going to bed in gratitude, knowing that I achieved my goals… but mainly to make my parents happy.
BK: How do you wear so many different hats, especially in this production? How do you divide your time?
AR: Priority and sacrifice. I have to make sacrifices for things that I want to do. I don’t socialize a lot, because I don’t have time. When I do socialize, I don’t do other things. It’s just knowing that whatever you’re doing is all you’re doing. Wearing so many hats has taught me that time becomes very valuable, so I have to make time for my partner. He is extremely important to me. I can’t have him feeling like I’m neglecting him because of work and I can’t neglect my work. It’s always a balance. One thing that I do fail miserably at is how to answer back to emails on time. I’m consistently behind. I get about thirty emails a day and I cannot get below the fifty-email mark. I feel like everyday my inbox goes up to a hundred and four emails and I get down to fifty but I can’t go past it. It just doesn’t happen.
BK: What about playwright versus actress in this show?
AR: When I’m a playwright in the show that’s all I’m doing, and I don’t care what actor Anusree feels. When I’m actor Anusree, I have to not care what playwright Anusree thinks. I have to do the job.
BK: What are your goals and plans for the next five years?
AR: I would like to make a transition to television where I write for TV and produce. Here is why; write this down. DON’T skip this…
I want to see the stories of my people on screen. Television is an incredible medium and I am deeply inspired by what I’m watching, but I do not watch our stories of people of colour on the screen. It’s important that a medium that has such a wide reach, share our stories, that we are more than the secondary characters… We are more than that! That’s something I want to do. Of course, I want to keep doing theatre. There’s no question about that. I have to. It feeds my soul. But television is something I want to make a transition to simply because I want to, because the medium is good and the writing is so good for TV. I want it to have stories from my people.
BK: Do you have advice for emerging artists?
AR: I’ve talked about this before, but I really, really believe in discipline. Do the work! Don’t participate in Facebook debates. Don’t participate in this convoluted need to please. Don’t participate in bringing each other down. Do YOUR work and the rest will follow.
I have a red folder, which my mother told me to start in 2006 that houses all of my rejection letters and all of my acceptance letters. To this day, I get rejected from things constantly, as I get accepted to things constantly. That’s how our business works. But it houses all of it to keep me on track and keep me grounded and focused on the work, because if I just save the rejection letters that doesn’t serve. If I just saved the acceptance letters, that’s not true. Because I house all of them, it makes me realize how much it actually takes to be an artist.
My true advice, honestly, is do the work. If you’re an emerging artist, contact every senior artist that inspires you and ask him or her to meet and take them out for coffee. Have conversations with them. Ask them if you can help them. You’ll be amazed at how approachable they are. Fear gets you nowhere. Fear is boring. You have fear. We all have it. So if you’re scared, it’s not going to serve you. You think a senior artist is not scared? We’re all equally scared because we’re just people sitting on a rock spinning through the universe doing nothing really. My best friend Barbara came up with that and I thought that was the most profound thing I ever heard because it’s true.
The more you do the work, the more it cultivates work. Then you’re more interesting and people are more interested. Ask senior artists what their trajectory and transitions were because they’ve all done the work. Ask to work with them. You’re going to be amazed at how many say yes because they’ve been through it or they’re going through it in their career right now. I’ve been fortunate to be in the business for the last ten years but I’m a complete newbie in the television world. I don’t think you’re ever not emerging if you’re constantly in a state to learn.
Rapid Fire Question Round:
Favourite Food: Mom’s cooking
Favourite Movie: Oh no! I can’t tell you, it’s too embarrassing. For Drama, it would have to be House of Sand and Fog. For ridiculousness, it would be Two Weeks Notice.
Favourite Book: Fall on your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald
Favourite Play: Crackwalker by Judith Thompson
Favourite place in Toronto: Annex.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten: “Apply to everything”, from Thomas Morgan Jones. It even applies to life, not just career – Apply yourself. Or in terms of your career – Apply to everything. Best advice he ever gave me in 2006 and now we’re working together again.
A Theatre Passe Muraille Production
A Celebratory Remount of the 2008 sold-out TPM run, launching TPM’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Play Series, featuring the original creative team:
Written and Performed by Anusree Roy
Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones
Production Design by David DeGrow
What: “Life is not easy, Chaya… but you have to believe in it.”
Set in Calcutta, Pyaasa (meaning “thirsty” in Hindi) tells the story of Chaya, an eleven-year-old untouchable who dreams of nothing more than learning her times table. When Chaya’s mother begs a woman from a higher caste to give Chaya a job at a local tea stall, Chaya’s journey from childhood to adulthood begins and ends over ten days.
A moving and heartfelt play, Pyaasa illustrates with subtlety and nuanced truth the inequalities and injustices that persist through the Indian caste system. But it also speaks to us about the inequalities and injustices that are all around us here in our own community.
Anusree Roy is a Resident Playwright with Theatre Passe Muraille.
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Ave. Toronto.
Tickets: Pay-What-You-Can Saturday & Sunday 2pm Matinees, $17 Under-30, $20 Artsworkers, $28 Senior, $33 General Admission
When: March 3-27, 2016
Tuesday to Saturday Evening – 7:30pm
Saturday & Sunday Matinee – 2:00pm