Two Indian playwrights featured at second New World Play Festival in Chicago

Aalisha Sheth (Courtesy: Nothing Without a Company)

Two Indian playwrights have turned their experiences growing up in India into fodder for play-writing. They were among 10 playwrights who presented their work during the Nothing Without a Company’s second annual New World Play Festival in Chicago.

The festival which spread over the month, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights of October 11 to 13, 18 to 20 and 25 to 27, at Berger Park Cultural Center saw a lot of Indian-American faces, according to Aalisha Sheth, one of the playwrights.

Sheth grew up watching American TV shows and knew that one day, she wanted to be a part of the writing team for one of them.

“I always liked writing and when I was 17, I published my first article from which I gained tremendous acknowledgement. That’s when I knew that I wanted to make writing my career,” Sheth told Desi Talk.

Sheth’s play, “The Last Plait,” which is featured at the Chicago festivval, is about the dysfunctional intimacy between a hypercritical mother Raksha and her defiant daughter Mukti, and how they deal with questioning myths and a challenging patriarchy.

“I wanted to bring more South Asian representation on stage and tell a story from both points of view as a mother and a daughter. That is why I decided to focus the play on hair so that I could show the difference between good and bad and how an Indian woman is considered a good girl when her hair is tied up and vice versa,” she said.

She was in the first graduating class of India’s first liberal arts college in Pune and is now in Northwestern University’s graduate program. “When my friend called me up and asked me if I would like to showcase my play in Nothing Without a Company’s second annual New World Play Festival, I immediately said yes,” she said.

(Courtesy: Facebook)

While Sheth’s play for this Festival is focused on larger South Asian social issues Priyankar Patra’s “One Ticket To America,” dwells on a more intimate yet wider familial theme.

Growing up in a large patriarchal family, Patra lived with his grandparents, uncle, aunt, cousin and parents under the same roof, and just like any other large family, everyone had completely different perspectives about certain topics.

This affected Patra as a child, making him want to run away from home. So he decided to put that feeling into good use in his drama.

“My stories intentionally or unintentionally explore the dysfunctional nature of my family, both the good times and the bad,” he told Desi Talk.

Patra’s play is about a young Indian man’s changing obsession with America.

“He’s first shown trying to set up a Skype call for a video interview with the faculty of Northwestern University in Chicago and then shown already in Chicago trying to make a decision.  It is sci-fi in nature but the soul of the play lies in the changing relationship between the protagonist and his parents,” he explained. “The protagonist’s parents are an extension of my parents and I am an extension of the protagonist. I wrote what I knew – about my parents and their relationship with me. As time progressed, the scope of the play broadened and it became a bigger play.”

“The first draft of the play was written for school. It was a very small piece then. I often write about larger than life characters and circumstances but I wanted to write something very small and intimate for once. That’s when my mind when back to my family,” he added.

When asked about how it feels to have his play featured in such a festival he said, “It feels great. It’s amazing to be associated with a great artistic community. Nothing Without A Company’s mission to promote smaller and site-specific plays have helped bring a lot of local social issues into light. And I applaud that! The company’s co-artistic director is a friend of mine. When she sent out a word to all of us that they were looking for genre-specific and site-specific plays for their new festival, I forwarded my play to them. They liked it and, decided to go ahead and produce it.”

Priyankar Patra (Courtesy: Nothing Without a Company)

Patra is currently based in India, was born and raised in Kolkata. He did his  MFA from Northwestern University.

He has been making short films with his friends and cousins since he was about 10-years-old, and that grew into a passion and a profession.

“It just evolved into an interest in screenwriting and playwriting. My desire to be a writer came out of a necessity. From a very early age, I used to make short films with my friends. In the beginning, the films hardly had any story. They were just thoughts or moments. But as we started experimenting and the films became longer, we needed stories. All of us had stories and none of us knew how to tell them,” Patra told Desi Talk.

“This is around the same time when I watched ‘Amelie,’ a French film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, which made me want to write and create these wonderful characters in these beautiful buildings doing extraordinary deeds. It’s strange to think that ‘Amelie’ is what made me want to write because none of my scripts are remotely like the film,” Patra continued.

Being a filmmaker, Patra described the difference between film and theatre.

“Film and theatre are very different in form and structure. For me, a film is poetry and theatre is prose.  When I write films, they tend to be more visual in nature, they don’t have too many dialogues and the characters are often silent for a prolonged period of time in a scene. That’s when I write about very minute details,” he said.

“When I write plays, I try exploring the dual and hypocritical nature of people. In plays, the minute details I write are in the character flaws. Like in the play, One Ticket To America, my protagonist is extremely flawed in the way he worships the culture of one country and mocks the culture of another. So I tried getting into the specifics of his character to get that right,” he added.

Sheth and Patra’s plays were directed by Christina Casano and were scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 25 and Saturday, Oct. 27 at the Berger Dining Room/Sun Room.

According to a press release, Nothing Without a Company’s mission is to present revolutionary acts of art in site-specific and reclaimed environments, while the writers write one-act plays which are workshopped and rehearsed with actors, leading up to their world premieres.



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