Actor-playwright Sarena Parmar is at the forefront of a quiet revolution on Canadian stages, one that’s fundamentally changing what we picture when we think of “the classics”.
Born in Prince George and raised in Kelowna, the Punjabi-Canadian star has featured in works by everyone from William Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw. And now she makes her Bard on the Beach debut, tackling the lead role in an All’s Well That Ends Well set in 1946 India.
“I love doing Shakespeare, I love Chekhov, and I’ve gotten to know Shaw very well,” she tells the Straight by phone before rehearsals at Vanier Park. “The ideas are so big, and I love ideas, and I love the poetry and rhetoric of all the classics. And the characters just seem larger than life. So I think it’s such a treat to be able to step into those shoes and figure out how they feel.”
Still, Parmar allows that breaking into the traditional theatre world hasn’t always been easy for someone with a South Asian background. “I had a passion for this kind of work and I just kept my head down and did the work,” she explains. “It’s been very difficult; you know, when I came up 10 years ago there was only a handful of artists in the generation above me that I could turn to for advice. It was not a path that was clearly laid out.”
Trained at the National Theatre School, Parmar has starred in a Brampton-set, South Asian–themed Much Ado About Nothing for Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, and she’s appeared in festivals from Stratford to Shaw. As a playwright, her spin on a Russian masterwork, The Orchard (After Chekhov), reimagined the story as taking place on the kind of Punjabi-Canadian–run fruit farm she grew up on in the Okanagan; it debuted at the Shaw Festival, then came to the Arts Club Theatre this season.
At Bard on the Beach, Parmar is part of another bold, South Asian spin on tradition. She plays Helena in an All’s Well That Ends Well set on the eve of India’s independence from Britain. Travelling from the Delhi area to the Punjab (instead of the original’s France to Italy), the new production reimagines Helena and Bertram’s fraught love story as an interracial one between an Indian woman and a British aristocrat-officer.
The new rendition by codirectors Johnna Wright and Rohit Chokhani (who helms the annual festival Diwali in B.C.) holds big challenges, not least because of its loaded historical setting, when British colonial rule was about to fall. “It was a really complicated and charged political time, which we found in the prerehearsal process, meeting with the designers and the cast and the cultural consultant,” Parmar explains. “We all have been sharing books and trying to understand the climate.”
In the original All’s Well, Helena is a lowborn ward of a French-Spanish countess, and she wants to marry Bertram, the Duke of Rousillon. In Bard on the Beach’s new version, just like the old one, he rejects her because of her lower social standing. But here, after the viceroy forces Bertram to wed Helena, he immediately runs away to fight as a soldier in northern India. Helena follows him there and tricks him into accepting their marriage.
In this rendition, Helena has lived with a British family since the death of her father. Parmar explains that her character finds herself in a precarious social position, more privileged than the Indian servants in the household, but not as privileged as the British.
“The more we go through the rehearsal process, it’s less about her cultural identity and more about realizing it’s about her access to class,” Parmar says. “She’s awakening as a woman, and this coincides with the awakening of India.”
Like The Taming of the Shrew, which gets a radical new treatment as part of Bard’s 30th-anniversary season, All’s Well is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. It’s inescapable: Bertram treats Helena badly, but she still pursues him. Yet, centuries later, we are sometimes attracted to people who are bad for us, Parmar points out. “Helena is so smart, has so much agency, and she’s pursuing this love that is clearly not reciprocated,” she says. “So how do we navigate that?”
This version of the play sticks fairly closely to the original script, but it has added interludes that explain the Indian historical context, Parmar says. The directors have also added bits of Hindi and Punjabi to the text—changes that have required Parmar to learn languages that weren’t passed down to her by her parents, who came to Canada in the 1960s.
Parmar says the learning curve has been steep. “Many of the sounds are so different; just to get my mouth to make these sounds was hard,” she adds with a laugh.
“People just assume you must have some facility speaking Hindi. But when I was young, it was a different time when multiculturalism wasn’t a thing,” she adds. “There was a desire for us to assimilate.”
The new production weaves in South Asian dance choreographed by Poonam Sandhu and music composed by Ruby Singh. Carmen Alatorre and her team of costume makers have developed new dyeing and design techniques to create historical Indian fashions, Parmar says.
“And the sets have a beautiful backdrop. They’ve really captured the hotness of India,” she says of the designs by Pam Johnson. “All the sets have this sunbleached-out colouring to them.”
From its setting to a creative team that’s more than half South Asian, Bard’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well is part of a nationwide theatre conversation about diversity. And Parmar is happy to witness the shift that’s happened over her career—although she admits it’s not always come at the speed she’d like.
“I think that’s the funny thing with change: it can never be fast enough to match how we are seeing our world,” she observes. “I’ve worked for a lot of big organizations—Stratford, Shaw, Bard, and the Arts Club—so they are embracing these ideas, on-stage, backstage. And audiences are too.
“That’s a long process because it can be intimidating and it’s about building a trust,” she adds of those audiences. “That can take many seasons for the community to make them feel welcome.”
By sticking it out, tackling roles like Helena, and even creating new-style classics for her peers, she hopes she’s making the classical stage a little more open to South Asian actors who follow in her footsteps.
“With The Orchard, I loved Chekhov, so I put my story into it,” she says. “And now a whole whack of [South Asian] actors have had the chance to do Chekhov. And I think the opportunity to do this work and accessing this work makes you better at this work. If someone’s not saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you a shot at this role,’ then there is no way you can level up your experience to keep up with your peers.”
Bard on the Beach presents All’s Well That Ends Well at the Douglas Campbell Theatre in Vanier Park from Sunday (June 30) to August 11.