Theatre Northwest's new season is staring us in the fish eyes.
The city's popular professional theatre company begins the new campaign of drama with an award-winning flourish. The double-bill of Fish Eyes and Let Me Borrow That Top has scored high applause across Canada. These interlocking plays (there is also a third one in this trilogy) were written by Anita Majumdar and she is the star in Prince George starting Thursday night.
It is a look into her own youth as an Indo-Canadian growing up in the Canadian suburbs. It has a lot of bangra dancing, a lot of laughs, and looks hard, in a comedic way, at the ways two cultures come together in the everyday Canadian high school.
She explained to The Citizen the real-life truths that ended up composing these characters.
Citizen: These plays are centred on coming of age, and the angsts of youth. Please talk about why you centred on at that period of time in a person's life. Who were the real people and real situations in your own youth that found their way onto these pages?
Majumdar: When I was in high school, I remember thinking, "I can't wait till I'm out of here and be treated like an adult!" I had this felt experience of double standards as a woman of colour, but I assumed that was a high school issue and that everything would change after the age of 18. When I finally became an adult, I realized that high school had actually been a primer for what to expect when I grew up.
When I started writing Fish Eyes, I was in my early twenties and one of the only people of colour in my theatre school acting class. My first day of school was 9/11.
I watched a diversity-driven city like Montreal change into a people who moved to the other side of the subway car when I or anyone who looked like me got on. As well, for three years I witnessed a few teachers taking advantage of or bullying young students under the pretense, "that's just how it goes."
Placing Fish Eyes in a high school setting redirected the rage I felt and did that thing that high school plays do: it made it funny. The nostalgia we have when we revisit high school as adults gives us the opportunity to cringe and laugh at what seemed so important in those early years. But it also offers a fresh perspective on the everyday inequities we readily accept as adults.
Fish Eyes also came out of loneliness. I'm an only child and learned to talk to myself to keep myself company and never stopped. Being the only South Asian-Canadian kid in elementary school who didn't speak English till she was six also isolated me. So it made sense that I gravitated towards the solo show format. And perhaps that's why Fish Eyes has had so much appeal for so many years. Given how vast this country is, I think there's a reason we're attracted to stories about isolation and "otherness" in Canada. Fish Eyes both addresses that isolation and tries to fill its void.
Citizen: When you move the performances from place to place, how do the themes of the play resonate in different communities?
Majumdar: That's hard to say given that I'm only ever in each community for the duration of the performance, which is too short a time to accurately assess the social climate beforehand.
And it also depends from performance to performance. A student matinee resonates in a different way than an adult/evening performance does. But sure, communities with larger concentrations of South Asian-Canadians usually means there are more audience members who catch the Bollywood and other cultural references that are laced throughout the plays, but for some communities the stories act as a gentle introduction to a culture that can seem complex. Either way, the premise of high school seems to unify those collective audience experiences while at the same time reminding us that Canadian teenagers come in all shapes and colours.
Citizen: What were the things that advanced your career and ignited you to stay on in the performing arts when so many other professions are available to you?
Majumdar: I always knew I wanted to be an actor, but what I didn't anticipate was becoming a playwright, a choreographer, or a producer. If I'm honest, I wouldn't have stayed in the performing arts if I had only been an actor. It wouldn't have been feasible to make a living on only that. But more than happening upon a multiple revenue source, acting alone wasn't enough to keep me happy. I need change-ups to my work to keep me on my toes and each time I wear a new hat, I understand my first love of acting in a new way.
As an actor, my first film, CBC's Murder Unveiled, was pretty life-changing and helped me figure out my process and what I needed (and didn't need) to prepare for a role that I didn't write myself. It was also the first time I travelled for work and got to go to film festivals and win my first award. But I remember shooting that film and then having to fly back to Toronto to produce and perform a workshop production of Fish Eyes at Harboufront Theatre. Tina Rasmussen at Harboufront taught me the fundamentals of producing and marketing theatre, for which I'll be forever grateful. Just like writing, it was another set of tools to ensure I didn't need to wait for the phone to ring in order to get work in the arts.
I would also say being accepted into the National Theatre School of Canada was a pivotal moment. That was where I was able to understand that all of these arts traditions that I knew how to do or was interested in could have a place in the theatre. It was three years of figuring out that it was possible to shape Canadian theatre and add my voice into the mix and not just as an actor fulfilling someone else's vision. It empowered me to make a greater contribution and changed my sense of worth.
Tickets on sale now
This is Majumdar's first visit to Prince George. She and her double-feature launch Theatre Northwest's 25th anniversary season with a lot of laughs and a lot of truths, no matter which root culture you might come from.
Fish Eyes and Let Me Borrow That Top run together until Oct. 7.
Tickets are on sale now online at the Theatre Northwest website or at Books & Company.
The book form of the Fish Eyes Trilogy can be purchased online at www.playwrightscanada.com, co-published by Banff Centre Press and illustrated by Maria Nguyen.