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This desi playwright is making waves in the US

Last updated on: March 26, 2014 17:07 IST

This desi playwright is making waves in the US

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Playwright Madhuri Shekar speaks to Chaya Babu about landing in the spotlight

Madhuri Shekar has two plays being produced back to back at the moment.

She just finished her MFA in dramatic writing in 2013, and a year ago, she didn't even think she would be pursuing theatre professionally.

It still seemed like something she might do at night on the side of her marketing career.

"I fell in love with theater all over again, and playwriting specifically," she said of her time taking a single theater class during the second year of her masters in global media and communication at University of Southern California.

That's right -- she finished one graduate degree only to realise in the middle of it how much she missed and loved a pursuit that she had put aside for more practical work, and then, in the first year of her first job, she applied for another graduate degree.

And she got in.

USC's MFA program gave Shekar the time and space to devote herself solely to playwriting, something she had never done before despite a passion for it.

She was able to build a body of work in an environment with deadlines and a community of peers and professors.

Even now, she said, her two classmates (there were a total of three students in her class) are the first people she goes to for feedback and critiques.

"Just having the dedicated block of three years to focus on this exclusively was a huge gift," she said.

"Having the opportunity to say, 'If I write something, I'm going to see a reading, I'm going to see a workshop production, I'm going to see it realised,' is huge because it's so hard to write if you don't have that.

It takes so much more willpower and motivation. And it's crazy to see how much I've improved over the three years. It's enormous."

This same attitude is reflected in her discussing the various elements of her situation as a playwright currently, from the support of her family to the fortunate experiences she had winning theater competitions to the "good busy" of schlepping between Atlanta and Los Angeles to produce her best two plays simultaneously.

In Love and Warcraft won the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, which led it to where it is now, in production at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre.

A Nice Indian Boy, her masters thesis play, was selected to be produced by East West Players, an Asian American theatre group in LA, which gave the play second place in its EWP Face of the Future Playwriting Competition in 2012.

On a free moment from Atlanta, Shekhar's grateful positivity is apparent in her voice on the phone; there is calm in her tone, but also a sense of having been through a whirlwind of recent success.

"It's pretty amazing how I got these productions," said the playwright who she was in the middle of rehearsals, a phase that she said involved fine-tuning of the script and rewrites as she saw how the actors came together on stage.

Both had their stage debuts in February and both are at top regional theatres.

The East West Players Web page for A Nice Indian Boy read: 'The Supreme Court Ruling on gay marriage has been decided, and this play is timely in continuing the discussion.

A comedy about love and marriage, Naveen Gavaskar and Keshav Kurundkar share all things Indian -- from the Hindi language to the difficulty of being gay in Indian culture. Keshav, however, is adopted by Indian parents… and Caucasian."

Shekar's interest in how Indians deal with romance and relationships is evident from this as well as In Love and Warcraft.

Each explores this theme in different ways from each other, but also in ways distinct from how the life-or-death issue of Indian marriage is typically presented in film, literature, theatre and more.

"I initially wanted to something around arranged marriage, but I felt that that topic has been covered so much in the arts, and a friend suggested I add a twist with a gay man wanting an arranged marriage," she said.

"That's not what the play is now, but it opened a lot of possibilities about, 'What if a gay, Indian, Hindu man wants to get married? What does that mean? How can we manage all the expectations and conventions of Indian marriage with this other perspective?' It's a very personal play -- I'm obviously not gay or a man, but it's based on my family dynamics and the ways in which first and second generation Indians see marriage, and that's definitely something close to me."


Image: Madhuri Shekar
Photographs: Courtesy Madhuri Shekar

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Shekar was born in the United States, but moved with her family to Singapore when she was 6 and then to India when she was 9.

From then through college she lived in Chennai.

Her approach then to the complicated topic of love and sex -- one that is widely known to be a site of tension between the immigrant generation in America and its children -- is from a varied point of view.

She's seen both sides, having been a young person growing up in multiple places.

She describes In Love and Warcraft as being informed by her personal experience as an Indian woman with her particular background of moving around.

The play is about a young college-aged woman who is obsessed with the online game World of Warcraft.

She's kind of a gaming geek, but she's also a love guru of sorts, writing love letters for those who are having trouble with the objects of their desire a la Cyrano de Bergerac.

"She's like an expert at relationships, but she's a confirmed virgin, she's never had a real boyfriend or a real relationship and she doesn't want one," Shekhar said.

"What happens in the play is that she meets someone in real life and suddenly she's feeling all these things that she didn't think she could feel and he's really into her, but she has all these intimacy issues and it's like, how do you break through that?

It's kind of about how you can use the online world a shield or a barrier because that's where you're comfortable and in control, whereas real life can be really messy and completely out of control."

Shekar's life inspired this in the sense that her move to Chennai was a difficult time for her when it came to making friends.

She turned to the Internet to build a community around her interests like British fantasy novels, and a lot of her life was in that space.

And she continues to be friends with some of these people today.

So, she explained, In Love and Warcraft is a lot about the relationships we create in our online lives.

The play is first and foremost a romantic comedy, but it's also about female sexuality, how American pop culture has a narrow definition of that and the emotional consequences of not conforming to that or meeting that standard.

"It's largely a product of my time at USC, observing the undergrads as a TA," Shekar said. "It comes from my take on the culture and the culture shock of growing up in India and then living here -- there are just very different sexual mores and sexual expectations and the way you talk about sex in these two countries."

While there aren't official numbers for this, Shekar herself feels that she is a rare breed -- an Indian playwright in the US -- at this point in time and is thus in a unique position to bring these themes to life on stage.

She's already planning what's next: LA's Central Theatre Group has chosen her as one of seven playwrights to take part in a seven-month workshop to write and produce another play.

And she's a candidate for Emory's playwriting fellowship, which means she has an upcoming reading at the university.

"I've loved theater for so long, but the possibility of pursuing it full-time or making it my career was just so far out of anything I could imagine," Shekar said.

"This has all been a huge gamble, but everything has just kind of taken off. And it's been an incredible journey."


Image: In Love and Warcraft at a student workshop production at USC in 2012. The play, written by Madhuri Shekar, won the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, which led it to where it is now, in production at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre.
Photographs: Courtesy Madhuri Shekar

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