During previews of my Off-Broadway play Washer/Dryer this winter, I noticed a strange trend: when I emerged from the stage door, my friends would say “I didn’t know you were in the show!” Didn’t know I was starring in my own show? Really? My name was on the poster. I posted about it on social media. I even sent out a casting announcement out in my MailChimp newsletter. Why didn’t anyone know that I was acting in my own play? What was going on?
The truth is that I had been playing down my role in my own play! Even now, weeks after closing, I find it hard to write “starring in my own show.” It feels grandiose. Having grown up in a household where the motto was “Self-praise is no praise,” announcing to the world that I had written a leading role for myself seemed too much. Although I started writing plays specifically out of the frustration with roles out there for me, I had a hard time stepping into my own play with pride. Somehow I felt I needed permission.
So much of being in theater is asking permission. We audition. We submit. We apply. We ask to audition, submit, and apply. And we get rejected. A lot. For women, I believe this experience is amplified by the fact that there are much fewer roles for us both onstage and off, and that in our culture, judging women seems more socially acceptable. To combat this debilitating cycle, some of us create our own work. Indie theater exists today largely because of this impulse. I started writing in 2006 to create the kinds of roles that could have been played by my friends rather than the cast of Friends. I liked being a writer. For once, I didn’t have to ask permission to be creative–I could just pull out my computer and write. Unfortunately having that creativity produced for other people to see still required permission.
After noticing the alarming trend of no one knowing that I was acting in my play, I decided to embrace it. I wrote a Facebook post, of course! I was a female artist of color who had taken matters into my own hands. Hear me roar! Inhabiting a role that I had written as a response to what I never auditioned for was nothing short of revelatory. For once I was able to present my own vision of me to the world instead of one that the world imposed up on me. The lesson that I learned from the experience was the most important person to give me permission to act was me.
Nandita Shenoy is a New York-based actor-playwright who enjoys hearing an audience laugh. Her most recent play, Washer/Dryer premiered at East West Players in Los Angeles and was subsequently produced in Chicago by Rasaka Theater and Off-Broadway in New York by Ma-Yi Theater Company where she played the leading role of Sonya. Her first play, Lyme Park: An Austonian Romance of an Indian Nature, was produced by the Hegira outside Washington, DC. Nandita is the winner of the 2014 Father Hamblin Award in Playwriting for her commissioned one-act, Safe Haven. Other one-acts, Marrying Nandini, By Popular Demand, Rules of Engagement, and A More Perfect Date, have been produced in New York City and regionally. Notable acting credits include World Premiers of Eric Pfeffinger’s Some Other Kind of Person and Richard Dresser’s Trouble Cometh as well as a season at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. She is a proud member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab and the Dramatists Guild. Nandita holds a BA in English literature from Yale University. www.nanditashenoy.com