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Feb 11, 2014

I Interview Playwrights Part 638: Dipika Guha

Dipika Guha

Hometown: I don’t really have one. Although I’ve lived in several places that have pieces of my heart-Calcutta, London and New Haven to name three.

Current Town: New York

Q:  Tell me about Blown Youth.

A:  Blown Youth is the result of a commission from the ever amazing New Georges and the New Plays initiative at Barnard College. The commission was a result of director Alice Reagan’s vision for Barnard to be a real home for playwrights to develop new plays and the appetite New Georges have for adventurous, theatrical plays. I’ve had the opportunity to nurture Blown Youth with Alice who is a wonderful director and the super undergrads at Barnard. And of course the support of New Georges who are such a beacon of hope for new plays that go out on a limb in a generally risk averse theatrical culture.

The play is a response to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was borne out of my desire to challenge to the notion that Hamlet (the character) is the embodiment of human consciousness when he is, in fact, a man. Where Hamlet’s madness smacks of genius, would a woman in his shoes be seen as just as stunningly witty and seductive-or just a pain in the ass hysteric? Trying to write the play with this question in mind was like staring at the sun. I was at my wits end trying to write this play when I threw in Irene Fornes’ Fefu and her Friends into the mix and the play blossomed into a story tracking the lives of seven women in the decade after they leave college. We enter through the eyes of one in particular, Celia, a struggling actress intent on playing a great role. Fornes describes women as ‘live wires’ and says ‘if women should recognize each other-the world will be blown apart’. I was interested in what this meant-and whether it was good or bad and how as women we might be able to live in the world without electrocuting each other!

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  A new play called I Enter the Valley about the life of a legendary poet who at the end of his life has writer’s block. It was inspired by the life of Pablo Neruda. I read his memoir and it fuelled an age old love/hate relationship I have with the Casanova character (I have a Don Juan type in almost all of my plays!). This idea of your past being like a foreign country is also central to the play. That as you get older, you look back and who you were at different points of your life starts to seem utterly foreign to you. It’s an oddly Chekhovian play. Lots of coming and going and feeling very strongly about things! We’re doing a reading of it at The Women’s Project in March.

And a piece called Architecture of Becoming also at The Women’s Project with four wonderful playwrights-Lauren Yee, Vick Grise, Sarah Gancher and Kara Corthron. It’s a piece about the impulse to create in characters who don’t necessarily call themselves artists, a present day response to orientalism and the struggle to tell your story in a way that’s authentic to you. We thought ‘becoming’ was a much nicer word than ‘process’ which, in an intensely collaborative venture like this, is the only thing we are perhaps qualified to talk about.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  As a painfully shy child displaced from Calcutta to East London, no one at my kindergarten had heard my voice. Then they put me on stage in a production of Chicken Licken. I distinctly remember one dress rehearsal (I was maybe four or five) when I stood in my costume and opened my mouth. I remember the eyes of the teachers turning wide. It turned out I’d taken everybody’s lines! I was quite sure that on stage I was invisible (which maybe I was in an oversized animal costume) I liked that feeling a lot. I also liked taking everybody’s lines.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Longer rehearsal periods, more breaking bread and drinking with audiences, cheaper tickets, cheaper rent, state subsidized theatre, new forms, new forms, new forms!!!!

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Irene Fornes, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Tennessee Williams, Beckett, Caryl Churchill, Chekhov, Harold Pinter, Sarah Ruhl, Doug Wright, Diana Son, my eternal classmates Christina Anderson and Meg Miroshnik and my uber-hero, Paula Vogel.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I’ll answer this question in two ways: first of all not to cop out, I am still incredibly excited by Robert Wilson, Robert Lepage and that kind of epic, heightened, visually arresting storytelling where things that don’t normally touch, touch. I’m also excited by the re-invention of language through simplicity (where the ordinary turns extraordinary) and where alchemy or the logic of metamorphosis is at play.

I also see theatricality as a mode of being. We sometimes encounter it when we go to the theatre but it’s bigger than that. India, where I grew up, is a tremendously theatrical place. I think this is in part because there’s an awareness of the sacred in the everyday. I think that when you notice this quality about life and you engage in the desire to create ritual however big or small, you are a part of a kind of theatricality. The quality of your attention meeting the everyday can create an elemental force. Theatricality as a mode is accessible because it’s part of our lives-you don’t need to be at the theatre to touch this chord.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  That longing is everything. You don’t need to have written a play to know that you want to write one. Your yearning is all you need-it sets your course.

Q:  Plugs, please:

Blown Youth at Barnard directed by the wonderful Alice Reagan:
Come see Architecture of Becoming at Women’s Project
And a part of a play called Mechanics of Love at Ladies Night at INTAR in a few weeks
Meg Miroshnik’s play The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls at Yale Rep

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