Last fall, Arpita Mukherjee teamed up with Shubhra Prakash to found Hypokrit Theatre Company. Their goal is to provide minority artists with opportunities to showcase and market their work. This month, Hypokrit’s inaugural production Romeo and Juliet opened at the Access Theater in NYC. AIC spoke to Arpita about founding a theater company, Romeo and Juliet, and what’s next for Hypokrit.
AIC: Tell me a little bit about your background: how you got into theater, why you came to NYC, etc…
Arpita: I’ve worked in theater for over 10 years. I started out in community theater in DC, working with small South Asian groups. I went to work for Washington Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare Theatre Company before starting my own theatre company where I self-produced a lot of plays I was writing. I did contemporary theater because I wanted to include new voices and ideas into the DC theater scene. I was inspired by places like the Studio Theatre when Joy Zinoman was at the helm, but DC’s theater community was so small and there was such a lack of minority voices which led to casting parts with minorities becoming a great challenge. In fact, I remember that Zinoman was casting the part of a South Asian man, and I was helping, and it was practically impossible. There just wasn’t talent that ethnically diverse-so parts were often cast with “ethnically ambiguous” actors. I actually stopped doing theater, finding myself always straddling the line between community and professional theater if I wanted to do the work that I wanted to do. I moved to NYC to attend Columbia and study Non-Fiction Writing.
AIC: What inspired you to start a theater company?
Arpita: After I graduated, and as I was finishing working on my book, I was pulled into doing theatre completely by accident. I met Shubhra Prakash (the co-founder) when she was writing the play For Our Own. We stayed in touch when it was accepted into the Planet Connections Festival and I sort of watched the play come to fruition, helping where I could. In that process, Shubhra and I discovered that we could rely on each other, that we listened to each other, and that we both wanted to disrupt the theatre community. By disrupt I mean in the sense that the word is used for start-ups. The more we talked, we figured that yes, we had a different and unique approach to doing theatre that would make us successful in an industry that’s known for failures. Out of those conversations and ideas and being able to answer the tough questions about why us and why now emerged this company.
AIC: Can you explain the Bollywood aesthetic to those who may not be familiar with it?
Arpita: This is a tough one! All I can say is that the Bollywood aesthetic is closer to Shakespeare than we think it is. Bollywood films are all about heightened language, the poetry of love juxtaposed against the starkness of violence, and – relationships (romantic, familial, and platonic). We’re exploring all those thematics through Shakespeare’s text in the play. When people do Shakespeare, they often want to shy away from high drama. Bollywood tells us no, high drama can be potent and powerful and wearing your emotions on your sleeve and being incredibly articulate about what you are feeling can be cathartic.
Bollywood films still do follow (some more than others) that old trope of storytelling – we know the story so it’s not about that. It’s about HOW the story unfolds, HOW the story is told.
Something else to consider – performing arts in India is derived from the ancient theory of aesthetics called rasa where the work one does should evoke a particular emotion. The rasa theory is complex but how the actors worked on it can be seen here.
AIC: Why did you choose Romeo and Juliet as the company’s first production?
Arpita: I’ve always wanted to work on Romeo and Juliet with a Bollywood aesthetic. I’ve read the play many times and it always reminded me of a Bollywood movie – it’s got romance, fights, high drama, familial conflicts and of course song and dance (yes, the text points to musicians randomly coming in!). Also, part of the company’s goal is to bring new people to the theatre and doing Romeo and Juliet made that possible since it’s probably Shakespeare’s most accessible work and one people are the least scared to go see. We still needed to bring something great to it, we still needed to avoid the pitfalls of doing Romeo and Juliet, but it was the right play for a company doing its first production to show off both: our ability to handle and tackle Shakespeare as well as being a company where new audiences could come and experience the classics.
AIC: How did you decide which parts to condense?
Arpita: I’ve made some radical changes in the text, especially in Acts 4 and 5 that might appall some purists. And that wasn’t easy for me, because the language is what inspired me to work in theatre in the first place. But I took my cues from the music of Bollywood movies. I tried to find places where words just weren’t enough. I feel that’s when people sing and dance in Bollywood movies – when words aren’t enough. So I tried to find places where music could do what words never could. The audience has to decide if I was right or not, but it was a risk I felt very good taking, because I knew the music would move people and so far, that has been the one consistent compliment: the music is amazing.
AIC: What has been the hardest part of this production?
Arpita: The hardest part of the production has probably been trying to get support from the South Asian community. I think that on the grounds support in patrons and audiences is there in BIG numbers. We see patrons every day, those that don’t attend plays, don’t like Shakespeare, coming out in big numbers. We are packed on cold, cold nights with people driving in from Jersey and Long Island and it’s really heartening to have that. However, that hasn’t been recognized with institutional support from those well-known in the community. It has been lukewarm at best, which is unfortunate, because we are trying to do something that hasn’t been done before and we’re committed to multicultural casting and it’s two South Asian woman starting a theatre company. We have seen that full-throated, I’m completely behind you support from a few key organizations (like Park Place Group) but I don’t think it’s been community wide. We are indebted to those who are completely behind us now, like Arts in Color and Joya Dass at NY1, and we’re happy to wear the title of the strappy, young, start-up company that’s building its following ground up, but there are significant challenges that we have faced and continue to face.
AIC: What has been the most rewarding part of this production?
Arpita: The most rewarding part has been to go on this journey with some incredible actors that deserve SO MUCH recognition and applause and really all the love that’s out there from the audience. Every day, I work all day to get them seen by as many people as possible, not because of revenue or anything else but because this is why they put in six months of work into a project. This is why the long rehearsals and the endless hours of watching Bollywood movies. These actors need to be seen more and if I complain about funding or institutional support, it’s not to make money, it’s so that I can pay these wonderful artists better wages, enable them to do the arts with a living pay and really just give them the support they need because they deserve it. Artists aren’t charity cases, but their work is consistently undervalued, especially artists of color (often by members of their own community). Shubhra and I are not taking a salary until we can pay the actors living wages. We deeply believe in that and whenever we take even a small step towards that, it’s infinitely rewarding.
AIC: What does it mean to you to be an artist of color?
Arpita: To me, being an artist of color means working harder, having a thicker skin, and ultimately focusing on the work more than anything else. I’m an activist and I’m an artist but I try to keep the two separate because I want the work to stand on its own. And instead of making statements about the state of minority voices in theatre, I want to try to make a change by providing opportunities and by choosing work that celebrates diversity on stage.
What I think as an artist of color frustrates me is to see people get riled up about the world and to ask for change, but be completely clueless about how we go about changing the world. If you believe in social justice and equality, supporting the arts is ESSENTIAL. It’s how minds are changed and hearts are won. Politics, war, discussion, debate – this is all divisive. We have seen what bringing people together looks like just during this Romeo and Juliet run. Actors that may never have met each other, audiences that probably hold some unfounded assumptions about other communities/races, all have come together and loved the production. That is a step forward that we should invest in.
AIC: What do you want to do next with Hypokrit?
Arpita: It’s always a great question. We are looking at a few things: I don’t think we’re done with Romeo and Juliet quite yet, as there’s much interest to take it to a bigger stage and perhaps have it travel and tour to cities across America. But we’re also looking at the next play, the next project that will fit the Hypokrit mission. We’ve set the bar high with Romeo and Juliet so the next steps need to be thought out and evaluated carefully. Whatever we do, it will be: cast race-blind, be something we believe people want to see and include the work of some phenomenal actors.
AIC: How can people follow you and Hypokrit?