Texas Tech University

An Interview with Playwright Dipika Guha

Shane Strawbridge

October 24, 2018

I have always been interested in the bloody underside of nation building and who pays a price for the narratives we choose to tell about ourselves.

Shane Strawbridge: What is the genesis of Passing?

Dipika Guha: I wrote Passing while I was travelling through South East Asia. I was passing through many countries quite quickly and became fascinated by how museums in different places dealt with dark chapters in their history – how some narratives won out while others were simply erased. I have always been interested in the bloody underside of nation building and who pays a price for the narratives we choose to tell about ourselves. On arriving in Australia, I had an image of a woman in a white dress rising out of the water. In Sydney, at the Sydney Museum I stood in a reconstructed church inside the museum, while the voice of an actor playing a pastor piped in through tall speakers. In Fiji, I wrote Matilda's first monologue. I feel like I collected this play in pieces. During a workshop at Boston Court Theatre two years ago, I changed the location of the play from a museum to a church. I felt it simplified some of the play's themes. But the bones of the play are still very much a response to the idea of how we curate storytelling about who we are as individuals and as a nation; who gets to tell their story and what are the conditions for the telling of it?

SS: Why is Passing an important story for audiences to see now?

DG: We are in a moment of immense seismic political shifts in much of the world. Many of the treaties and institutions (like the UN) that arose as a response to World War II are under threat. The way in which we deliberately choose the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are has been highlighted enormously since the last American election and the Brexit vote. This play deals with how we reconcile ourselves to our own personal and national histories. It's possible it may have a special resonance in the light of this moment where we are collectively re-evaluating who we are in the light of who we thought we were.

I feel like I collected this play in pieces.

SS: Can you talk a bit about your past working relationship with director Jesse Jou?

DG: Jesse was in the year above me at the Yale School of Drama. I loved his work and so pursued all opportunity to work with him. Jesse directed my first professional production at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre and we worked together on other plays of mine like A Brief History of America, which was a commission from Fairfield University. I love how Jesse works in a room with actors, the way in which he creates a sense of collective ownership of the work we make together. Most of all, I love that Jesse truly stages the play on the page. He lets it breathe and live so as a playwright you can really see your play with the flaws and imperfections. His work is a great gift to playwrights.

SS: In recent years through programs such as NPX and #TheCount, female playwrights and playwrights of color have been given more of a platform and a spotlight for their work. What are your thoughts on these programs?

DG: The Count, which you mention in your question is an annual breakdown by race and gender of productions of plays across the country. This week it reported that in 2017-2018, 84.9% of productions were written by white writers and 15.1% by writers of colour. Within this, women of colour wrote 6.1% of all productions and foreign-born women of colour (my category) wrote 0.7% of all plays produced. So, this is a short way to say everything that programs are doing to encourage women and playwrights of colour is great. But the decisions to put those plays on stage are made by artistic directors supported by boards of theatres. And that's where the culture has to change. What advocacy groups such as the Kilroys (who are a advocacy group for female playwrights) have done is to highlight how the pipeline is not the problem – there are large numbers of plays by women and people of colour. But they're not being staged. If theatres don't value the work written by women and playwrights of colour then these programs are stymied in their efforts and female writers and writers of colour are discouraged from staying in a field which is reluctant to value or recognise their work.

SS: If you were to create your personal playwright family tree, how would you trace your theatrical genealogy?

DG: I love this question. Beckett is up there, then Ibsen, then Caryl Churchill, Paula Vogel, then Irene Fornes. I would claim amongst my siblings Meg Miroshnik, Christina Anderson and Christopher Chen.

SS: Any final thoughts?

DG: Thank you for doing my play – I hope it's fun and creates conversation on campus!