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An interview with
ADITI BRENNAN KAPIL
BRAHMANI A ONE-HIJRA STAND-UP COMEDY SHOW BY ADITI BRENNAN KAPIL Fourth grade was hard enough before Brahman discovered he was intersex—or in the words of his traditional Indian aunt, a hijra. In this literal stand-up comedy show, Brahman shares the hilarious and moving story of how he/she found an identity in the collision of ancient and contemporary, east and west, and male and female. APRIL 2, 2012 • 7 PM • AT THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER • FREE RESERVE SEATS: email@example.com • (612) 332-7481 • pwcenter.org The Playwrights’ Center is wheelchair-accessible.
THE 2011-12 RUTH EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES
presents free readings of new work by today’s most exciting playwrights. For more information visit www.pwcenter.org. Also sponsored by
PROJECT JOURNEY •
COMMISSIONED BY MIXED BLOOD THEATRE
WORKSHOP & READING AT THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER’S RUTH EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES, APRIL 2012
FROM PRODUCING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
JEREMY B. COHEN “This is the problem when a whole generation of girls learn dating from a steady diet of Bollywood romances where every girl is a scantily clad virgin, and every boy is a ne-er-do-well waiting for love to transform him! It’s not healthy! Anyway, I was distracted. So Auntie’s drunken ramblings failed to lead me to the natural conclusion that I’m a hermaphrodite.” —from Brahmani: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show by Aditi Brennan Kapil
When Aditi first described this inaugural play of her new trilogy, I repeatedly asked her when we would start developing the play and bringing it to life! I’m so pleased to be concluding the Ruth Easton New Play Series in our 40th Anniversary season with the workshop of this hilarious new play by Aditi Kapil—an artist who has become as dear to my heart as she is to the Twin Cities community. (City Pages even named her 2011’s “Best Local Girl Made Good.”) Since joining our family as a Jerome Many Voices Fellow in 2004, Aditi has fast become part of the very fabric of the Playwrights’ Center—a nationally recognized Core Writer, a guiding voice on our board of directors, and even an actor in Sam Hunter’s reading last month! Like all of Aditi’s work, Brahmani lifts us up and transports us across borders of geography, language, and theatrical convention. In the conceit of a stand-up comedy routine, her wicked sense of humor brings home the search for identity faced by this incredible character, while at the same time framing her subject within 3,000 years of cultural heritage. It’s an ambitious task made possible by her creation of Brahman—one of the most wonderfully charming, uproariously sardonic characters I’ve encountered in years. I invite you to join us as we close out our 2011-12 Ruth Easton New Play Series with Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Brahmani: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show.
05 ADITI BRENNAN KAPIL An interview with
WHAT, IN YOUR OWN WORDS, IS BRAHMANI ABOUT? Well, it’s a stand-up comedy show performed by a hijra, in this case an East Indian hermaphrodite (or intersex person, which is the preferred term). It’s literally a stand-up routine in two acts, and there’s an accompanist who plays the guitar. I suppose to some extent it’s about the ancient colliding with the present, and about gender identity, and about giving birth to yourself, in a sense. It’s part of a trilogy based on the trinity of Hindu deities, and this one is the Brahma one, obviously. Brahma is the god of birth and creation, so this play is about creation—in this context, as much the creation of the world as creation of self. The other pieces of the trilogy, which are in various stages of development, are Shiv, which deals with the psychological residue of colonialism, and is about destroying what was in order to become something new; and The Chronicles of Kalki, which is about a girl who thinks she is the final avatar of Vishnu come to save the world from evil and demons. Vishnu is the sustainer, so that one’s just about getting through puberty and the really shitty times in high school. But most of all, beyond all of that heady stuff, it’s a stand-up. Hopefully there is something greater that you take away from it, but it’s a stand-up. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE STAND-UP COMEDY FORMAT? Here’s what I love about stand-up. At its best, I feel like stand-up successfully tells a story without ever trying to tell a story. All it’s trying to do is make you laugh. That is the priority; that is the sole imperative. You’ve got to be funny, or you will lose them. People who do stand-up can be so fascinating—and usually, they’re not the popular kids, you know? They’re not the ones who have no problems.
They’re people with some really, really deep stuff to process, who somehow manage to turn all their past humiliations into a kind of power as they stand on stage and own them, and make the audience laugh. In that moment, they’re not laughing at you; they are for sure laughing with you, because you are the one who is in control of this universe, this spotlight, this moment.
“EVEN THOUGH I WANT TO TELL THIS DEEP STORY OF THIS DEEP IDEA, I WOULD NEVER WANT TO WATCH THE SHOW WHERE IT WAS TOLD WITH SENTIMENTALITY AND SELFIMPORTANCE. SO THE ONLY WAY I COULD EMBRACE IT IS BY PLANTING IT FIRMLY INSIDE A STRUCTURE THAT WOULD ALLOW NO ‘WOE IS ME.’”
And for my weird displaced boy/girl who has this particular life—not only as gender-fluid but also as an immigrant, having that displacement—I felt the most interesting way for him/her to take ownership of the moment and to create him or herself anew was to take the mic and own the laughter and, you know, do stand-up. Also, I like the challenge. And I think it’s a deep story and a deep idea, but even though I want to tell this deep story of this deep idea, I would never want to watch the show where it was told with sentimentality and selfimportance. So the only way I could embrace it is by planting it firmly inside a structure that would allow no ”Woe is me” or “My plight is great” or “I seek your pity.” I mean, that’s the great thing about stand-up—you do not get to pity me; I’m going to make you laugh instead.
I find Eddie Izzard so fascinating because of the things he gets away with talking about, in terms of his thoroughly unconventional life and thoroughly unconventional lifestyle, to this really wide swath of audience, some of whom, if they met a transvestite on the street, would probably be like, “…No. You are not okay.” And yet he gets up there, and by making them laugh, he gets away with just being who he is. Exactly, uncompromisingly, who he is. And so many other comics, you’re like, god, you would be shunned by society if not for the fact that you are able to make us laugh, you know? And I think that’s the kind of power, and that’s the kind of ownership, that I wanted for this character. HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED ANYTHING UNEXPECTEDLY DIFFICULT OR UNEXPECTEDLY ENJOYABLE WHILE WRITING IN THIS STYLE? It took me a while to find the right voice for Brahman/i. I started writing, and I wrote about a page and a half, and I was like, this is cool, this is a good start. Then a few months later, when I was ready to work on it again, that character felt too profane, too jaded, too in-your-face. And that just wasn’t going to sustain for a whole play, or even a whole stand-up routine. I got tired of that voice, and ended up starting over. Throughout, finding the right tone for the character was a challenge. Stand-up is so personality-based, and I had to find that personality in order to be able to write as that person. Also, especially in creating the first draft, I played a lot with the balance of story and comedy. Really, stand-up is just a series of bits. It’s the strongest
“THE COOL THING ABOUT THE RUTH EASTON OPPORTUNITY IS THAT A STAND-UP NEEDS TO BE TESTED AGAINST AN AUDIENCE FOR ME TO HAVE A CLUE WHAT I’VE GOT, OR WHERE TO GO NEXT.”
material you’ve got, strung together, because you want to keep them laughing. But the challenge for me, because I’m writing a play that’s built like a stand-up, is that while I do want to do that, I also want to make sure that I string together a story, that there is a journey. Balancing those two needs was difficult; for a long time I was having a hard time doing the two simultaneously. I could either write a funny bit, or I could write a story that felt more like a one-person show than a stand-up, and the two weren’t merging. But at some point I found a way to organize my material. It was helpful to finish the first draft and give as much time as I did to making sure I had a story. Going back over it now, I am either taking out the more story-ish monologuing, or just rejiggering it so it’s a bit—so that the same information still comes across, but it comes across in the context of a riff on something. And some of the story-bits I’m leaving, because I’m curious to see whether those moments of rest from laughter are nice. Like, Dennis Leary does this stand-up where all of a sudden he’ll just drop out of being his weird, profane, beer-drinking stand-up self, and he’ll say something profoundly sincere, like about his kids or something. And it’ll sit there, and you can see the audience feeling him in that moment and being like, “Yeah, yeah, love. It’s beautiful.” And then he just kind of busts out of it and he’s like, “But, fuck it.” And he’s up and he’s at it again. But he can get away with those rests, which is an interesting experiment. The cool thing about the Ruth Easton opportunity is that a stand-up needs to be tested against an audience for me to have a clue what I’ve got, or where to go next. You know how comedians test their material all over the place, and then once they have their act together, they tour it? I need to test my material. Lately, whenever someone asks me to read something, I’ll take in some of the stand-up, because I need to know. This is the one thing I’m writing where it is so much about how it connects with the audience, and much less about me and my brain. The other thing I discovered in the writing is that there’s an understated story between Brahman and the guitar accompanist that needs to be further explored. So I’m excited about checking that out with humans in the room also, because I think it’s very non-verbal.
THE ACCOMPANIST IS A FAIRLY NEW ADDITION, CORRECT? The accompanist showed up when I wrote the first draft this past summer, I think, but he did precious little for a long time. I thought, meh, I’ll put him in there and maybe he’ll get cut because he doesn’t do anything. But it seemed like a good way to break up the moments, especially because it’s going to be longer than a typical comedy routine. I mean, usually stand-up is an hour, maybe? It’s hard to keep going much longer than that, just in terms of stamina. But because of how my story was evolving, I wanted two acts, so I thought an accompanist would give me another tool to play with. He only says about 10 words in the entire play, at least right now, but those 10 words have blossomed into this really important thing to me. I’m fascinated by who these two people are and how they ended up on this stage in front of us, together, at this time. It’s starting to clarify for me in the writing of it, and now I need to go back and make sure the story in my head is in the script, too, because I think it’s not in the script yet. So that’s one of those improv-ish discoveries that came out of the writing. TO SWITCH GEARS, YOU DEVELOPED AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP HERE IN 2009 AND 2010; IT RECEIVED THE INAUGURAL NEA DISTINGUISHED NEW AMERICAN PLAY SELECTION AND A NATIONAL NEW PLAY NETWORK ROLLING WORLD PREMIERE, AND THE THIRD NNPN WORLD PREMIERE IS RUNNING AS WE SPEAK AT BORDERLANDS THEATER. ANY REFLECTIONS ON THE PROCESS TO DATE? You know, that play—and I think this was unique to that play—was incredibly hard for me to write. It took a really really long time. So, you know, bless the support—the NEA support came at a time when it was the thing I wanted to work on, but it also could have been the thing that ended up on the back burner and never got made because, I don’t know, something else actually paid money and I went and did that instead. So the NEA support allowed me to really delve very, very deeply into that world. Someone said that everyone has to write their family play, and in some weird, global-immigrant way, maybe this one was mine. Because it was hard like that. It was hard to write because it was way too intimate, and it took a really long time to figure out what I was really trying to say with some clarity, and to get some distance from the actual people who were populating my mind. So there was that. And for a good chunk of the writing process, I was
like, this thing is un-producible. No one’s ever going to produce it. I think I always feel that way, though.
“SOMEONE SAID THAT EVERYONE HAS TO WRITE THEIR FAMILY PLAY, AND IN SOME WEIRD, GLOBALIMMIGRANT WAY, MAYBE AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP WAS MINE.”
But it ended up becoming a rolling world premiere with, as you have noticed, one of the productions happening almost a full year after the first two. What is great about the NNPN concept is that you get to keep working on your play, as well as see it have multiple lives with different casts and crews and everything, allowing it to grow and fully launch itself as opposed to being one of those weird, “I-have-premiered-and-now-I’m-gone” kind of things that sometimes happens to plays. Frequently happens to plays. I think I finally understood what the play was about only once I was in the space with the actors actually doing it. It was beautiful, and they were so amazing, but in that first production at Mixed Blood, I didn’t give them as much time with the finished text as they would have had if we’d either had more time or if I’d finished it earlier. They were there helping me finish it, and then they had whatever time was left to actually settle into their roles. So I feel like I opened that show a little undercooked. I would have loved to give them more time to just kind of relax into it. That said, they were phenomenal. Then I went to Long Wharf, and I actually did rewrite some stuff. I rewrote a scene that had never completely worked for me—they were already in rehearsals and all of a sudden the playwright comes blasting in from another
production going “I’m going to rewrite something!” But I did, I rewrote, and I cut some bits. And because they had a lot more time than we did at Mixed Blood, they were able to say, sure! We can try to run it without those lines, and you can see what you think! So I had a second leg of development there.
“WHAT IS GREAT ABOUT THE NNPN CONCEPT IS THAT YOU GET TO KEEP WORKING ON YOUR PLAY, AS WELL AS SEE IT HAVE MULTIPLE LIVES WITH DIFFERENT CASTS AND CREWS.”
Also, during that production I discovered there are things that I probably have to make into an optional cut, in case the staging makes them impossible to do—because Long Wharf didn’t have an actual train on stage that you could sit on top of. So we came up with an alternate ending—if you don’t have a train you can sit on, you can instead do the scene like this. So that was really handy. Then, for the Borderlands production, we had this idea to change the character of Agnes to be Latina, instead of Liberian. We thought because of the make-up of the Tucson community, and the role Borderlands Theatre plays in that community, that that would be a really interesting exploration. It’s not a conversation I’d necessarily be open to with any other theater, but I was with this particular theater, since we were in a process of exploration and experimentation, and in the spirit of stretching and investigating the play. So I actually went through the whole script and created an altered version for Borderlands. And then a few months later, after extended conversations with the actress Barclay [Goldsmith, Artistic Director of Borderlands Theatre]
had in mind for the Latina Agnes, they decided to go back to the original text and a Liberian Agnes. So that alternate script will never see the light of day. Borderlands had the greatest challenges to overcome with this play, and some of the best stories about the adventure of getting it to opening! Their production sounds fantastic, and they’re getting fantastic reviews. It got an amazing reception in Connecticut, too. The play that I thought no one would ever produce because it was too heady and out there, but it got named best play of the year in Connecticut by the Courant, and got a great New York Times review. So that’s kind of cool. It’s kind of cool that it has a life. WHAT ELSE ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW? I have a commission from Yale Rep that I’m working on, so that’s my other baby at the moment. It’s tentatively called Imogen Says Nothing, and it’s a riff on a character in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing who only exists in the first folio, and a handful of Shakespeare editions that bothered to include her. She doesn’t have a single line in the whole play. It just says “Imogen enters” and “Imogen exits,” for two scenes or something random like that. She’s supposedly the wife of Leonardo and the mother of Hero. I mean, what it looks like is there was going to be a character named Imogen and she got cut, and they just forgot to cut her from everywhere in the first folio. She’s like a residual typo of a character, like a ghost. Anyway, I’m writing her story. WHAT DO YOU LIKE OR DISLIKE IN A PLAY? I like to be surprised. I like to be transported to someplace I haven’t been. I really like strong female characters that break the mold. I like any strong characters that break the mold, I just see fewer strong female characters that break the mold. I guess I dislike obviousness and self-pity and sentimentality and … preciousness. Indulgence. I dislike indulgence on stage. Pretty much anything and everything else I can get onboard with, as long as the artistry is strong and honest and, you know, not maudlin. I’m—well, I was going to say I’m not that picky, but the fact is I very seldom really like anything. I am that picky, I just don’t think I am. Oh god, that’s a terrible, terrible insight.
“I REALLY LIKE STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS THAT BREAK THE MOLD. I LIKE ANY STRONG CHARACTERS THAT BREAK THE MOLD, I JUST SEE FEWER STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS THAT BREAK THE MOLD.”
But I can’t blame a genre of theater for that, you know? I feel like art is all in the execution. It can be the dumbest idea you ever heard, but if it’s brilliantly executed, it’s brilliant, you know? Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dumbest idea ever, but he knew how to execute that. So I just like to see something fearless and ferocious on stage, even if it’s in a quiet play. Something brave that changes my world somehow. DO YOU THINK IT GOES THE OTHER WAY, TOO? THAT A REALLY STRONG PLAY, EVEN IF GIVEN A LACKLUSTER PRODUCTION, CAN ALSO BE MOVING? Abstractly, I’d like to think that’s true, because, you know, I’m a playwright. But as a theatergoer, I don’t feel that, no. I think if I saw a shitty production of Death of a Salesman, it would be a shitty production of Death of a Salesman. I might be able to see through it and be like, hey, I think there’s a quality play in there, and then go read it or experience it in a great production elsewhere, but that doesn’t make that theater experience awesome. That just means I saw a shitty production. The theater experience is the theater experience.
I’ve seen reviewers look at unfortunate productions, and they are wise and good and they see through that and they go, you know what? There was some real quality language in there. It was really poetic. It wasn’t delivered well, but I could tell. And I’m like, god bless you, because
while I may be able to tell, I kind of don’t care, if I’m sitting there in the audience. I care about what I’m actually getting. But I do think that the reverse is true—I think a really great production can make something out of a play that maybe wasn’t so strong to begin with. I do think that happens, probably frequently. You know, it’s the fact that I consider theater to be the live experience. It’s between me and what I’m actually experiencing. I can break it down afterwards and think the material wasn’t done justice, but ultimately, to have a really satisfying evening, I want to be taken away.
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Published on Mar 9, 2012
Core Writer Aditi Brennan Kapil discusses her new play BRAHMANI: A ONE-HIJRA STAND-UP COMEDY SHOW, as well as the nuances and benefits of wr...