Theater Director Pooja Ghai: “I Couldn’t Sit and Complain About the Roles I Didn’t Get” Theater

Pooja Ghai struggled to find his place as a professional actor at first. It was in the early 90s and she didn’t have a lot of auditions. When coins were offered, they were reserved for older Indian aunts or grandmothers. “My first role on television was in Holby City, as a 60-year-old woman. I was 23, ”Ghai says.

Then she discovered the Tamasha theater company, created in 1989 by Kristine Landon-Smith and Sudha Bhuchar, and everything changed. Originally providing opportunities for South Asian artists (the company has since expanded its reach to include all world-majority artists), Tamasha immediately felt at home, says Ghai, now award-winning director and actor.

“They were telling stories that summarized experiences of migrants, colonial and postcolonial and I thought”This that’s why I want to do what I’m doing. I had found a space to tell important stories.

More than two decades later, Ghai, who worked as Associate Director at Theater Royal Stratford East in London and Associate Artist at Kali Theater Company, is Tamasha’s new artistic director and she has big plans for her future.

A recurring and problematic characteristic of organizations dedicated to artists of the global majority is their perennial status as “emerging” companies, she says. It’s something she wants to tackle.

“Tamasha has been around for over 30 years and is still an emerging company that focuses on talent development. My ambition is to continue to develop this foundation, but to elevate it to a mid-size touring company that also promotes and works with mid-career and established artists. There is no reason Tamasha should not be on a par with the English Touring Theater or Headlong.

Jaz Deol, Shubham Saraf and Raj Bajaj in Lions and Tigers, directed by Pooja Ghai at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, in 2017. Photography: Marc Brenner

This of course requires more financial support, she adds, as well as support from established institutions. Would she like to stage works by Tamasha in our larger venues, such as the National Theater?

“I absolutely think we should be at the National, and I would be happy to have a conversation between the two organizations. In my 20 year career, The National has not felt like the natural home for world majority stories that celebrate our nation’s multiculturalism.

She does believe, however, that there has been a breakthrough with black diaspora stories. “To see this work on our stages is amazing, but we still have a long way to go. It is about opening this reflection to all the other artists of the world majority and questioning what we consider to be a “risk”.

Clint Dyer, a black Briton, was named deputy artistic director at the National last year. Does that make her more optimistic? “Clint is a brilliant artist and a warrior. It’s an exciting thing to see him there and, yes, I hope that will change the conversation.

Stories about the British Empire, its colonial history and its postcolonial experiences are vital to her, and she would like to see these questions explored on stage. “We are not taught our colonial stories in schools. We are not talking about the darker side of the British Empire and we must be. “

To this end, she wants to revive Tanika Gupta’s Lions and Tigers, originally staged at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London in 2017 and directed by Ghai. “These were about young revolutionaries from the 1930s trying to overthrow British rule in India and it was one of the most important plays I have ever done.”

She also wants to examine what it means to be Asian in Britain today and runs Lotus Beauty, a Hampstead theatrical production in association with Tamasha, this spring. By chance, Ghai was asked to direct Satinder Chohan’s play before taking over Tamasha (Chohan was originally commissioned by Tamasha 10 years ago). Lotus Beauty follows the lives of five multigenerational women in a beauty salon in Southall and addresses identity, female friendship, domestic violence and suicide. “It’s very funny, moving and deeply honest about the complexity of being a migrant and building a community together,” she says.

Joanne Sandi (Rapunzel), Michael Bertenshaw (Witch Maddy) and Julie Yammanee (Goldilocks) in Rapunzel at the Theater Royal Stratford East, directed by Pooja Ghai in 2017.
Joanne Sandi, Michael Bertenshaw and Julie Yammanee in Rapunzel at the Theater Royal Stratford East, directed by Pooja Ghai in 2017. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / the Guardian

It’s the job of theater makers to grapple with difficult topical conversations, she thinks, especially when there are so many divisions in society and when ‘canceling culture’ poses a threat to society. artistic freedom. “The question is how do we conserve the space for difficult conversations and debates with opposing views with respect, and find common ground to move forward, so that we don’t just stay in our silos and our echo chambers. “

What tough debates is she talking about? Stories of racism, colourism and misogyny within majority global communities as well as Islamophobia: “Since September 11, we have seen the capitalization of the culture of fear. For me, having conversations about Islamophobia and what it means, not only because of the impact of a white supremacist system, but also on attitudes within our own community – what is happening there. interior and how it affects our young people – seems important to me.

Ghai was born in Kenya to Kenyan Indian parents and spent her first 14 years there. She signed up for her first play at the age of 11 while in boarding school and immediately became addicted. “It was Tom Sawyer and I was playing Aunt Polly. I fell in love with what I had experienced after our first performance. And looking at the cast around me, there were all beliefs, cultures, and colors. We all celebrated our differences and we took advantage of them. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

Satinder Chohan whose piece Lotus Beauty will be directed by Pooja Ghai.
Satinder Chohan whose piece Lotus Beauty will be directed by Pooja Ghai. Photograph: © Katherine Leedale

She encountered a very different world after arriving in Britain and launching her acting career. She started a college theater company while studying psychology and sociology at Oxford Brookes and has performed on the sidelines of the Edinburgh Festival each year, producing, directing and acting. “It gave me a real feeling that I was building something. It was exhilarating.

But on a drama class elsewhere, her eyes were opened to the limits and labels placed on her. She remembers being told, “You’re a pretty good actress but you’re Indian and you’re fat so you won’t be working.” It left her “stunned,” she said. “I didn’t know I was out of place. It was only as I progressed in the profession that I said to myself “Why is everything so limited for me?” “”

Fifteen years later as an actress, she still felt confined: “I did a lot of radio, television and theater but I could see that I was never going to be really challenged as an actress because of roles that I got or for which I was seen. . “

She was so disheartened that she decided to quit the industry, but after a heart attack and a diagnosis of lupus, she returned, now more determined to campaign for change. “I felt like I couldn’t get away from acting and storytelling. I felt we needed more channels, we needed to give people of color more voice, we needed to have new leadership at the table, to diversify our boards. I couldn’t sit down and complain about what I wasn’t getting. I needed to come out and figure out how we could make changes and not feel that because we weren’t white, we didn’t have a voice.

She joined the activist group of Artistic Directors of the Future, of which she is co-president, which aims to demystify leadership. The good thing about the pandemic is that it gave us a chance to reassess and rebuild, she believes. Just as she has seen solutions and gained strength, after hitting rock bottom she believes we can collectively do the same. “It has been a difficult time for the industry, but as artists we challenge the structures. We are thinking about how we will take it to the next level and what systems and structures are in place that will not allow that level. There is a long way to go.

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