“I will never write something for mere entertainment. I have to write to change the world.”
THE GOLDEN DRAGON by Roland Schimmelpfennig, directed by Ross Manson, with David Fox, Lili Francks, Tony Nappo, Anusree Roy and David Yee. Presented by the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews from Tuesday (January 10), opens January 18 and runs to February 19, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday (and some Saturdays) 2:30 pm. $20-$51, limited Friday and Sunday $12 rush. 416-531-1827, tarragontheatre.com. See listing.
Most Toronto theatre artists wait years before they get a Dora Award nomination - if it ever happens. Not Anusree Roy. Her first play, Pyaasa, won statues for acting and writing.
But don't you dare say it was beginner's luck.
In the few years since that double-fisted victory, Roy's become an indispensable part of the theatre scene, offering up fascinating scripts like Letters To My Grandma, Roshni and last season's Brothel #9 (which earned her Dora #3). She performed in all three, and lately has been doing more acting in other writers' plays, like the all-female ensembles Tout Comme Elle and 9 Parts Of Desire.
Now she takes on one of her biggest acting challenges to date in The Golden Dragon, German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig's look at the lives in and around a Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurant.
"Honestly, I feel grateful any time someone offers me a part or thinks I'm worthy to speak their lines," says Roy, who was approached by director Ross Manson to tackle the complex role.
Like her characters, Roy is absolutely bubbling with stories. Her eyes widen to emphasize a point, or she'll pause, trying to hold back tears, or her mouth will spread into a huge grin.
I've asked to meet her in a place that means something special, and she's chosen the Green Beanery café in the Annex, where she edits all her plays.
"Usually in a corner," she says, swivelling to indicate one area. "I figure out timelines and storylines, where things are happening. I write very privately at home - I can't write in public. But I've asked many questions about characters here, like ‘What if she leaves?' or ‘What if she doesn't leave?' I've solved them all here.
"And," she continues, "I had a really meaningful 12-year friendship break up at this café. It taught me a lot about relationships and dynamics. I've used it in a play I'm writing for the Blyth Festival that looks at what happens when the carpet is pulled out from under you."
That's a typical Roy outburst, full of asides, grounded details and revelations. If there's one thing that defines her work - on the page and on the stage - it's spontaneous, authentic emotion.
"I operate from here," she says, pointing to her chest. "That's what I bring to the table. That's how I know to be an actor. I have no formal training - I didn't get into York for acting. I'm literally just doing what I always knew I should be doing."
To be clear, Roy didn't get into the York University acting program but did pursue theatre studies, and continued that with a master's in drama studies at U of T, where she met Thomas Morgan Jones and David DeGrow, who would later form their company Theatre Jones Roy, with Jones directing and DeGrow designing. They mounted Pyaasa while still in grad school.
"I was telling Tom a story about an ‘untouchable' servant in India, how I treated him and how my family treated him, and thought there might be a play there," explains Roy, her focus like a beam. "Tom told me to write it, and gave me a three-week deadline. After three weeks I gave him my first draft, and that draft made up about 90 per cent of what made it onstage."
That single performance of Pyaasa was initially a fundraiser for Theatre Passe Muraille; the trio produced a brief run, which won the Doras, and then TPM remounted it later.
They haven't looked back.
For The Golden Dragon, in previews this week at the Tarragon, the five actors play several characters and also help narrate the work. (Anyone who saw Schimmelpfennig's Peggy Pickit Sees The Face Of God, also directed by Manson, knows what kind of theatrical experimentation to expect.) Roy's characters range from a Chinese male cook who gets his rotten tooth extracted in the restaurant's unsanitary kitchen to a suave womanizer known in the script as "the Barbie-fucker."
While humble about her achievements, she admits that, thanks to director Jones, she knows how to define and switch characters quickly. They've been working on certain techniques for years.
"For Pyaasa, Tom sat with a pen" - she grabs my pen to illustrate - "and went, ‘Okay, you're Chaya.'" She hits the table. "‘Now you're Meera.'" She hits the table again. "‘Change so I believe you!' We altered everything: feet, posture, even my pinky was different for each character."
The Golden Dragon also deals with the immigrant experience, which Roy knows first-hand - her family moved here from India in 1999, and she drew on that in her semi-autobiographical work Letters To My Grandma.
During an early read-through of a passage in the new play about her Chinese character's difficulties in a new country, Roy broke down.
"There was a line about money that just hit me," she says. "My family lost all our money when we moved here. We went from having a comfortable life back in India to having our passports, immigration and landing papers stolen and $36 left in my dad's bank account."
She and her sister remember those times. Her father didn't find work for a year.
"If there was juice in the fridge, things were okay," she says, "because juice was a luxury and you didn't need it. Whenever there wasn't juice, we'd know things weren't good."
Roy and her sister took jobs in retail, her mother, a physics teacher in India, began working in childcare, and her father, a powerful engineer back home, did telemarketing before climbing his way up in banking.
But life was hard, especially after 9/11 hit and she was ostracized even more for the colour of her skin.
Roy doesn't take her calling lightly. She's written about class differences in Pyaasa, poverty in Roshni and prostitution in Brothel #9. Tough topics.
"I'm grateful to be given a platform," says Roy. "I will tell the stories that I feel are truthful. In my home back in India, there is still an ‘untouchable' servant who comes and cleans our toilet. It's just a reality, as it is in many of my friends' houses. Is that airing dirty laundry? Well, it's fact. Am I lying? No.
"Bollywood is doing a really good job of entertaining with music and dancing. Let me do what I know best. I will never write something for mere entertainment. I have to write to change the world.
"I will act in other people's films or plays that are completely commercial - absolutely. But work that I create has to make a difference. My grandmother would kill me otherwise. If she were alive, I can imagine her saying, ‘Why are you wasting your time? If you don't have anything important to say, don't say it.'"
Reaction to her plays in Canada's South Asian community has been mixed, she says. Her parents have been hugely supportive from the start; back in India, Roy's uncle is an actor, and that late grandmother she mentioned once put on plays to raise funds for Mahatma Gandhi.
Others, though, haven't held back their fury.
"I've been at the dinner table with family friends who've said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are? Is there nothing good to say? And if there isn't, shut up!'
"Instead of being defensive, I've had to say, ‘I believe in it, and I'm going to keep saying it. Oh, and by the way, my next play is about prostitution.'"