Auckland actor Kalyani Nagarajan has some clear advice for audience members attending the rambunctious, curry-fuelled Kiwi play called Mrs. Krishnan’s Party.
“Be ready for a party. Don’t be shy,” she begins over the phone from a sunny morning on New Zealand’s North Island. “You’re going to have a good time. You’re going to enjoy yourself. You’re going to want to call your mom. Also, don’t come too full.”
If that doesn’t sound like the usual preparation for a night out at the theatre… Well, Mrs. Krishnan’s Party is not a usual night out at the theatre. The comedy is an interactive experience that invites its audience to a dinner celebration, offering spots right at the table, plus standing room and nearby seating.
In the fun-loving yet bittersweet creation from Indian Ink Theatre Company, Nagarajan’s title character contemplates selling her convenience store—better known as a “dairy” in New Zealand. Her husband was shot during a robbery there over two decades ago, and she’s been running it alone, as a single mother, ever since. But her boarder James, a young Maori DJ, decides to throw her a party celebrating Onam—the Indian harvest festival feting life, death, and rebirth—and the audience members play the party guests for the event in the corner shop’s back room.
“She’s still grieving and this is about her facing her demons,” Nagarajan explains. “James is putting it right in front of her and saying, ‘You need to face this. Some grief has to happen for you to really change.’ ”
Amid all this, there’s a lot of laughter—and a lot of cross-cultural fun, says Nagarajan, who explains the show reaches far beyond the South Asian community with its intergenerational tale.
“It’s terrifying,” admits the actor with a hearty laugh, adding that only about 60 percent of the action is scripted. “It’s different every night. We warm up and me and my co-actor Justin [Rogers] say, ‘Oh shit, there’s nothing else we can do to prepare!’ It’s audience-dependent—which is both a blessing and a curse.”
At least Nagarajan doesn’t have to stretch too far out of her comfort zone to play Mrs. Krishnan: creators Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis drew heaps of inspiration from her own South Asian mother.
“This character has been in development for seven years now, and a lot comes from my own experience from my Indian aunties and my mom,” says Nagarajan, who dons false teeth and glasses to take on the older character. “So I’m pretty much taking the piss out of my mother, but with a lot of heart and a lot of integrity.”
Aside from her acting skills, Nagarajan is putting to use the culinary talents she honed living with her family, which hails from Madras.
“Cooking is something I grew up with; cooking is my second-biggest passion after theatre,” explains Nagarajan, who makes her traditional dahl throughout the play. “When we were building the show, we knew we wanted the audience to have food to build community. You see that with every culture: to build community you need food. The cool thing about the show is it’s happening in real time, and all the drama happens within one hour.”
That means Nagarajan is juggling a lot over the course of a highly multisensory, family-friendly hour, from burning incense to blowing up balloons and mixing ingredients.
“You really have to be on as a performer. But it’s also great, because you don’t get lazy,” says Nagarajan, also encouraging people to bring their kids. “Then, at the end of the show, people hang around for 45 minutes talking and connecting. And that’s exactly what you want theatre to do.”
Mrs. Krishnan’s Party is at the Vancity Culture Lab from Tuesday (January 15) to February 3.