Featured Member — Vishesh Abeyratne
**Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Vishesh Abeyratne, he is currently serving as one of two playwrights-in-residence at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC). His play “Divide and Rule” recently received a workshop as part of the TACTICS Online Series and was one of the winners in Infinithéâtre’s Write-On-Q! playwriting competition. His solo show “The Procrustes Pitch” was presented by Between Us Productions in New York and Riverside Theatre in Iowa. He has also written a play for young audiences called “Exposure”, published by YouthPLAYS, Inc.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what interests you in playwriting.
I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m currently based in Ottawa but I hail from Montreal. I’m the son of two Sri Lankan parents. My mother and father came to Canada a little over thirty years ago when my father got a job working for the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is an agency of the United Nations. My brother and I were raised in a neighborhood where we were the only South Asian residents and I spent most of my teenage years in a school where I was one of only two brown kids in my grade. So I learned what it meant to be the odd one out fairly quickly.
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was very young, but I only started seriously writing plays when I was eighteen. Since then I’ve been “emerging”, a process which has taken so long that I’ve grown too big for my chrysalis and gotten stuck — little help, folks?
What interests me in playwriting are the same things which I imagine interest all of us who practice the craft — the unpredictability of live theatre, the boundless possibility contained within an empty space, the irresistible musicality of spoken dialogue. But there is a much more personal reason I am drawn to the stage.
Because I am autistic I’ll express this using an autistic metaphor: during our everyday interactions in what we call real life we are frequently required to mask. This means adopting behaviors that allow us to present a filtered version of our personality. We do this in order to survive and to make other people feel more comfortable around us, but the price we pay is that we don’t get to be our authentic selves most of the time. Some are required to mask more often than others due to factors such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, neurotype, etc.
To me the notion that “real” life is somehow more “real” than the stage is a flawed one. Why? Because everyone is masking to varying degrees, everyone is an actor to varying extents. To engage in mimesis is to engage in the often frustrating business of being human.
So where does theatre fit into all this? It becomes a release valve or “freeing-space”. Sri Lankan performance began long ago with ritualistic dance-dialogues called thovils, whose literal purpose was to exorcise demons. On stage we are unbound by social conventions that dictate the way we speak and behave. Paradoxically, we unmask ourselves by inhabiting fictional characters within imaginary worlds. In the controlled environment of the theatre we can cut through the bullshit in ways that are safe.
Because I am autistic, because I am brown, I must pay particular attention to how I move in the world. I must pay particular attention to how other people — particularly those who belong to the dominant culture and neurotype — perceive both the tone and content of what I say. By writing plays I can collaborate with other like-minded professionals to question the society in which we live, to exorcise my own demons, to express my authentic self as truthfully, as vehemently, and as unapologetically as possible.
In the theatre I am free.
What’s an important aspect to your writing?
I try to make every one of my plays a trial by fire for the audience. If I can’t get you to interrogate at least one long-held belief of yours after you leave the theatre, then I haven’t done my job. My motto is, “Not all philosophers are playwrights, but all playwrights are philosophers.” I try to grapple with moral dilemmas to which there are no easy answers.
For example, is it ever acceptable to resort to violence to bring about social change when all other methods of peaceful protest have failed? Do the motivations behind our actions matter if those actions produce desirable results? If we live in a world where even the smallest choices have such wide-ranging unintended consequences, how can one still lead an ethical life?
I also make it my mission to write roles for South Asian actors that are complex and nuanced enough to defy stereotypes, and to put them in stories that are different from the typical clichéd narratives in which we often exoticize our existence for white theatregoers. This means no family dramas involving intergenerational clashes between traditional immigrant parents and their independent free-spirited kids. Kim’s Convenience has already been written and I have no desire to rip it off over and over again.
I want to see us inhabit a wide variety of genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I want to see us be satirical and snarky. I want to see us get radical. I want to see us get weird. I want our presence to be normalized, warts and all.
“Diversity” is one of our favorite buzzwords here in Canada — particularly in the arts community — but real diversity doesn’t just come from the kinds of bodies and voices we see on stage. It comes from the kinds of stories we see featuring those bodies and voices. And if we only choose to tell one kind of story about ourselves, we’re not allowing ourselves to be fully human. I’m here to change that and to rally fellow brown theatre creators to be a part of this change. Who’s with me?
Are you currently working on new work?
At the moment I am finishing up a new draft of a play that tackles the dual issues of Islamophobia and gun violence in the United States (I’m completing this as part of my stint as a playwright-in-residence at the GCTC). I am also writing a play focusing on a queer female millennial South Asian couple living in an Ottawa apartment during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. After discovering a hate symbol on their elderly neighbour’s fridge, they have to decide if they want to confront her about it or quietly move out. It’s a laugh riot!
What are some future aspirations with your work?
I’d love to try to address our rapidly accelerating climate crisis in a play of mine — sometime before we’re all wiped out, anyway. Right now the scope of it feels so vast that I’m having trouble coming up with ideas. But it makes me angry enough that I feel I’d be remiss not to dramatize it in some capacity.
I’d also like to successfully write a historical drama with a large cast of characters. I’ve always been fascinated with court jesters and the roles they played in medieval societies around the world. Sri Lanka had one called Andare, a semi-mythical figure who served under King Kirti Sri Rajasinha in the 18th century. Andare exists in children’s stories as a perpetrator of innocent mischief but we have no knowledge of who he really was or the true nature of his relationship with the King and other nobles in the court. Was he truly just a silly prankster or did he have to carefully cultivate this image in order to survive in the palace? Was he more rebellious than he let on? If so, what price did he pay? As far as I know, no other playwright has attempted to answer these questions so I would love to be the first…
If you weren’t a playwright, who would you be?
I enjoy good food and I like to cook so perhaps a chef? It’s also very creative work so I feel I’d be right at home in a large kitchen.
What is your favourite Canadian play?
The Adventures of Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil — it taught me that good political theatre can be as funny as it is fearless.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.