“I always want to make art that is real and truthful.”

Veena Gokhale interviews award winning, Indo-Canadian playwright and actress Anusree Roy whose work comes to Montreal for the first time this fall.

Anusree Roy has an impressive list of accolades to her name – three Dora Mavor Moore Awards, the K.M.Hunter Award, RBC Emerging Artist Award, The Carol Bolt Award, The Siminovitch Protégé Prize as well as a Governor General’s Award nomination. She has also been a playwright-in-residence at Nightwood Theatre, Factory Theatre, The Blyth Festival, Theatre Passe Muraille and the Canadian Stage Company. Her plays, which have tackled challenging social issues including untouchability and prostitution, have been performed all over Canada. Now, Teesri Duniya Theatre brings Roy’s popular solo show, Letters to my Grandma, to Montreal – September 27 to October 13, 2013, Centre Culturel Calixa-Lavallée.

Sehar Bhojani in Letters to my Grandma - photo-by Mateo H. Casis

Sehar Bhojani in Letters to my Grandma – photo-by Mateo H. Casis

It is the story of Malobee, a new Canadian who faces many challenges. It is her wedding day, and she comes upon letters that bring alive her grandmother’s struggles during the 1947 partition of India. Directed by Lib Spry and performed by Sehar Bhojani, Letters to my Grandma is inspired by Roy’s real-life grandmother.

VG: You come from an upper middle-class family in Calcutta, India, which you have said believed in “revolution through the arts.” Could you paint a portrait of your childhood and teen years in India for us?

AR: It was an amazing time! My grandma, Aruna Roy, was a fearless fighter. She fought during the partition and raised money for the war by directing and acting in plays. She got women to donate their jewellery so that it could be sold to raise money for the war; stories like that were told to us over and over again. It was important to my grandparents that we knew the value of salt and rice. At family dinners every night when the whole extended family ate together, everyone spoke about what they had done during the day. Somehow the topic of the war would come up and suddenly it would be past midnight and we would all be still listening to stories.

VG: There is this dramatic event in your life – a robbery that left your parents, you and your sister practically penniless soon after you immigrated and landed in Toronto. How did that happen exactly?

AR: We had just landed and a month after that we had to leave the guesthouse we were in and rent an apartment. At the end of moving day, we realized that one suitcase was missing. And that was the one that had all our money, passports, visa, landing papers – everything! It was awful. My sister and I put up “missing suitcase” signs but no one responded. We then realized that the moving guy (who we couldn’t track down) had taken it.

VG: What kind of impact did this sort of riches to rags story have? Do you think it influenced you in the longer term?

AR: Of course it did. It changed me. It defined who I was and gave me a sense of how fragile life could be.

VG: Letters to my Grandma, was inspired to some extent by your real-life grandmother, wasn’t it? What kind of person was she, and how did you relate to her?

AR: She was a ferocious fighter. A beacon of hope, joy, light and everything amazing! She was such a brave woman. She was complicated as well – very self-aware and determined. I loved her, deeply.

VG: What was the writing process like for this play? You have acted in Letters to my Grandma yourself, and I believe the play has changed and evolved over time?

AR: It took a long time; I wrote it over many years. The first draft was 12 minutes long – I performed it at York University. The play changed significantly with each draft that I wrote; it became deeper, less personal and more fictional, which was a good thing. And the play changed later as well. When you are developing a play over a span of time, you really get to see its strengths and weaknesses. You really get a strong sense of what is working and what’s not, and as a playwright you’re always wondering about how to make it better, tighter, stronger. So, I kept rewriting until I was satisfied with the draft.

VG: You are both a playwright and actor. When you first started in Theatre School at York University did you think you would be pursuing both these crafts?

AR: No, I have actually performed since I was 5 years old, but I never really wanted to be a playwright. Although, ironically, I wrote plays all the time, and directed them as well! But my life goal then was to be an actor. I feel so blessed to be able to do both!

VG: Your earlier plays take on seemingly intractable social issues in India, untouchability in Pyaasa (which means Thirsty in Hindi) and prostitution in Brothel # 9. How did you come to write these plays?

AR: The plays came to me … so I wrote them. Each play encapsulates where I was at that time in my life … you know? I told the stories I needed to tell because they needed to be shared with the world. I believe in social justice and social change and I really believe that theatre has the power to make that happen.

VG: Does being an activist-writer pose any challenges?

AR: No, not that I have experienced.

VG: Have your plays been performed in India or elsewhere?

AR: They have not been performed in India. I have toured them in many cities in Canada though – that was fun!

VG: You have done Opera librettos for The Golden Boy, Noor over Afghan and Phoolan Devi. That sounds particularly impressive! I would imagine that it is very different from play writing. Could you speak about that process and tell us something about the stories as well? Were these operas produced?

AR: Yes, it’s a very different process. It’s much more time consuming – you become obsessed with the words as the composer will set each and every word of yours to music – so you have to be absolutely sure that that is what you want to write.

The Golden Boy is a piece, not a full opera. It is about how a young boy deals with the death of his father and how his mother decides to tell him that dad is never coming back. This piece was performed in various venues across Ontario and Tapestry New Opera produced it as a part of their Opera Briefs.

Noor over Afghan tells the story of Noor and Jaan, two young Afghani sisters. Their life takes a dramatic turn when one sister asks the other to take her place in marriage. As the groom waits outside, the sisters swap clothes, jewellery and hence places. From that moment on both their lives are changed forever. Noor was produced by Tapestry at Opera Briefs and the Canadian Stage’s Festival of Ideas and Creation.

Phoolan Devi is a full-length opera that I wrote as a commission for the Indo-America composer, Shirish Korde. This piece is inspired by Phoolan Devi’s life. She is also known as the Bandit Queen.

VG: You have won many awards and kudos and you are only in your early 30s. What’s your perspective on your success and fame?

AR: I feel deeply grateful for all that I have been given by the Creator, you know? I am always acutely aware that things can be taken away from me in a heartbeat, as life is so fragile and unpredictable. So I deeply value what I have been given. It comes and it goes, what we have to focus on is how are we making a difference with our work. How are we making a change?

VG: Please tell us about your forthcoming projects.

AR: I am currently Story Editing for a brand new Canadian Medical Drama called Remedy. It will premiere in February 2014 on Global TV. Really exciting stuff and a huge learning curve!

My new play Sultans of the Street is premiering at YPT next year! I am really excited for it as we just finished auditions and I we finally have a cast! My play No one we know just had a workshop at Blyth and I am currently speaking with them to see what the future of the play is. Keeping my fingers crossed. I am writing a new play for Factory Theatre called Little Pretty and the Exceptional. It explores mental health issues in the Indian community in Toronto. I feel so grateful to be writing a new play for Nightwood Theatre this year. I am looking at the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan through the eyes of women. And I will be performing in Nightwood’s upcoming season, in the play Free outgoing! It’s written by an Indian writer, Anupama Chandrasekhar, developed in the UK at the Royal Court, and is getting its North American premiere in January 2014.
VG: Do you have a compelling dream or vision, about your work, your life?

Anusree Roy

AR: In my work I want to do things that make a difference, that make people stop and think … that make them want to go out and change the world. I always want to make art that is real and truthful. In my life I want to be healthy and grounded in who I am and what I am meant to do with my time here.

Visit Veena Gokhale online at http://www.veenago.com/

Veena Gokhale started her career in the mercurial world of print journalism in Bombay, in the 1980s. She first came to Canada on a journalism fellowship, returning to do a Masters. After immigrating, she worked in communications for non-profit organizations. She lives in Montreal.