(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–South Asian American Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
AMRITA RAMANAN: I’ve been fortunate to engage both as an artist and administrator through my work in the theater. I dramaturg, produce, connect with audiences and communities, teach, mentor, conduct research, foster dialogues and exchanges, and most importantly, remain a perpetual learner. My passion for what I believe to be the foundational elements of dramaturgy – storytelling and inquiry– are reflected in every facet of my artistry, whether it be navigating through a new project with a writer or ensemble, a season planning conversation with a theater company, or compiling a grant application. I try my best to take risks and put myself in environments that shift my perspective and make me meditative.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
AR: I find articulating my identity a very complex and exciting challenge because, like all of us, there isn’t an easy classification I fall into. To begin, I was born in Mesa, Arizona to parents from Bombay and Kerala who immigrated to the U.S. in their early 20s. We then moved to Las Vegas when I was five and I spent the remainder of my childhood there. During my childhood, cultural aspects from India and America were harmoniously fused. My brother and I would hear Tamil and English spoken by our parents. We celebrated Thanksgiving alongside with Onam. Our cuisine ranged from deep-dish pizza to dosas, burritos to baingain bharta, chocolate chip cookies to kesari. I took Bharatanatyam classes – learning the various hasta mudras every Wednesday – and attended piano classes every Thursday where my hands and fingers switched gears to perform the compositions of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. So, I’m ethnically and racially Indian, but culturally a mutt. My cultural background is heavily influenced by South Indian culture – specifically the region of Tamil Nadu where nearly 90% of my extended family lives – but I’m also a U.S. citizen who has lived in Arizona, California, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington D.C.. What does that make me? Maybe you can call me a Southwest and Northeast American Desi.
The process of “dramaturging” my own identity has led me to be acutely aware of how I perceive my identity versus the perception of my identity in the field, which can sometimes be dishearteningly limiting. Even though progress continues to be made, we don’t live in a post-racial society, so I know when I walk into an office for an interview or a theater for a post-show discussion that there are often assumptions made about me based on the appearance of what my racial, ethnic and culture backgrounds are. It has taught me to never compartmentalize the artists and audience members I interact with and acknowledge their identities as expansive and indefinable.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
AR: When I was in college studying as a theater major, I initially focused my training in acting. Following my first semester, I had a conversation with a theater professor who essentially told me that there aren’t roles available for me in the American theater, so if I wanted to make a living in this, I should focus on something else. The conversation fueled me to pursue a career in theater where I could be a critical player in the season planning process and advocate for projects that DID have roles for people like me (however you want to define who people like me are J). But the negative impact of this interaction with my professor caused me to develop a fear of being tokenized or marginalized and thus made me initially build a resume consisting of projects that fit within what was popular in mainstream American theater. I somehow felt like I needed to prove to the American theater circuit that I could scan Shakespeare’s text or dramaturg a Tennessee Williams play just as good as anyone and that my dramaturgical expertise was not limited to knowledge of the Indian Diaspora. But the lack of juxtaposing my artistry with my love and continued interest for South Indian history and culture haunted me. It made me feel void inside and confined me to a very westernized skill set. Now, I aim to pursue dramaturgy projects by U.S.-based Indian artists or about Indian stories as well as increase my understanding of traditional and contemporary theater practices in India. And I’ve been lucky enough to receive some amazing opportunities that have allowed me to do so. So, have certain opportunities been made available to owning to “who” I am? Yes. Have certain doors been closed? Yes.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
AR: In this moment, yes. Until we reach a point where the theatrical landscape is fully reflective of our growing diversity, there is true value in companies that focus on the theatrical minority. Where we would be without Silk Road Rising, Penumbra Theatre, The Women’s Project, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and so many others who have maintained their focus in giving female artists or artists of color opportunities to do their work and value of their voice? Yet, it is my sincere hope that we reach a point in the future of American theatre where the work seen at every theater across the nation is so multi-faceted that the necessity to hone in on a specific racial, ethnic, gender or cultural group exclusively is a thing of the past.
What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? I think the benefit is that the work gains a sense of authenticity and prevents the common trap of another community misinterpreting stories by a community – whether consciously or unconsciously– that differs from their own. But the flipside is that this can also become a very limiting philosophy that counters inclusivity.
JL: What is the current state of South Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
AR: It’s getting there. Historically South Asian culture has been heavily exoticized in America and theater was and is a victim to that. However, there are shining bright spots that restore my faith in the representation of the South Asian community in the current American theatre ecology. Just this year, I’ve seen productions or announcements for upcoming productions of work by Anu Yadev, Aditi Brennan-Kapil, Madhuri Shakur, Anupama Chandrasekar, and Rajiv Joseph – and I should say that many of these folks identify both with the South Asian American community and other racial and ethnic communities. This is refreshing and should be celebrated, but it needs to continue to build as opposed to resting on its laurels.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
AR: I think every Artistic Director and Managing Director should take a walk down the streets of San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington D.C. for an hour and ask themselves if what’s represented on their stages is representative of the people they observed. Produce more projects written by, directed by, acted by, dramaturged by, and designed by people from various racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Push work forward that celebrates biracial, tricultural, and multi-lingual stories. Develop more global collaborations and international exchanges. Use the world as inspiration for your stage, and make your stage reflect the present and future melting pot of the world.
AMRITA RAMANAN is a dramaturg, producer, administrator, and researcher, currently serving as the Community Programs Manager for the South Asian Arts Council in Boston. Her production dramaturgy credits include My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Trouble in Mind, Ruined, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies and Crowns (Arena Stage); Skywriter (2009 Cap Fringe Festival); and Cymbeline (Great River Shakespeare Festival). In addition, she has served as the dramaturg for several workshops of new plays in development, including The Resurrection King by Stephen Spotswood (Active Cultures Theater) and Darwin’s Cousin by Christin Siems (The Inkwell). Administratively, Amrita formerly held the positions of Artistic Associate/Literary Manager, New Play Producing Fellow and Dramaturgy Fellow at Arena Stage; School Programs Intern at the Shakespeare Theatre Company; and Education/Outreach Coordinator at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. For two years, Amrita served as an adjudicator for the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities Larry Neal Writer’s Competition and a script reader for The Playwrights’ Center. She holds a B.F.A. in Dramaturgy and Theater History from the University of Arizona.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com