Titles are extremely important to Calgary-based singer, theatrical performer, author, and visual artist Vivek Shraya.
To her, a title can be evocative. It can be terrifying. It can challenge people. Or it can draw people in.
“I really think about the title as its own form of art, if not an extension of the art,” Shraya tells the Straight by phone.
In fact, she says that the title of How to Fail as a Popstar, which will be performed at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, is what helped persuade her director, Brendan Healy, to take on the project.
Described as a theatrical memoir, the show sees Shraya sharing through anecdotes, song, and dance how she hoped to make it big in the music business. It received rave reviews when it premiered in Toronto in 2020 shortly before the pandemic turned out the lights in theatres across the country.
“I think the play is an opportunity for people to not only bear witness to my failure but to think of their own and honour it,” Shraya says. “To really think of their own and [say to themselves], ‘Like, wow, this thing didn’t work out and that kind of sucks. It kind of hurts. Here’s a space where I can sit in that feeling as opposed to needing to project a kind of resilience,’ if that makes sense.”
As a nonbinary South Asian kid born in Edmonton in 1981, Shraya gravitated to pop music, taking inspiration from Madonna, Whitney Houston, and other divas. It’s no coincidence that there’s a great deal of ’90s and early 2000s pop music in her show.
“When people think of pop music, it’s sort of seen as trivial,” Shraya says. “But when you’re a queer brown kid in Edmonton, I think pop music is an escape. It was for me. It’s how I felt I was going to get out and survive, by getting on a stage and performing.”
It's time for a "not-success story"
Shraya devours music biographies and, along the way, discovered how stars like Timbaland, Mariah Carey, and Joni Mitchell became so successful. Shraya hoped to write a similar autobiography but realized that few people were familiar with her music.
On a certain level, it troubled her that the biographies of successful music-industry figures so often followed a similar narrative. These celebrities would convey a message that they always knew that they were destined for success: the stars would align if only they worked really hard and just believed in themselves.
But Shraya realizes that there are many thousands of “not-success stories”, where people had the same belief in themselves and also tried their very best but didn’t break through in the way they would have liked. So through her show, she has created an opportunity for such people to process those emotions.
“I was really thinking: what does it mean to tell an anti-success story and the importance of telling an anti-success story?” Shraya says. “Especially in a time of social media where everything is about, ‘Look at me, I’m amazing.’ ”
She said the title How to Fail as a Popstar suddenly entered her head. And she felt that theatre was the right art form because audiences don’t need to be familiar with a back catalogue for it to work on-stage.
People Change offers classroom revelation
Nowadays, in addition to writing and performing, Shraya is an assistant professor of English in the creative-writing program at the University of Calgary. Even though she loves being on-stage, where audiences can look at her as a nonbinary performer, she actually downplays this side of herself in the classroom.
Her new book, People Change, reveals that she prefers wearing a “uniform”—a white dress shirt with black leggings—so that she’s approachable to students while not overexpressing her gender.
“Being at the front of the classroom, my job inevitably involves being looked at, but when you are gender non-conforming, you are also prey to a particular kind of omnipresent fixation, a perplexed gaze,” Shraya writes in People Change. “So here I choose assimilation as a means of self-preservation, because the freedom to express my interiority through my external choices is a privilege I don’t always have.”
She wants to take attention away from her appearance so that more emphasis will be placed on education and learning. It’s a deliberate choice born out of consideration for her students.
In her interview, Shraya also comes across as an exceedingly considerate person, thanking the Straight for covering her work and expressing gratitude to audience members courageous enough to attend live theatre in the midst of the pandemic.
Her new book and the stage show both acknowledge that, in her younger years, Shraya was a devotee of a popular Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, who died in 2011. With his giant afro and bright orange robe, Sai Baba presented a rock-star aesthetic to the then impressionable Shraya.
“That was, like, one of my early introductions to a public persona,” she says.
Sai Baba also talked a lot in his life about being the embodiment of masculine and feminine energy. That prompts Shraya to suggest that it’s “not a leap, in some ways, that I’ve ended up who I am and with the life that I have chosen when these were some of my earliest experiences”.
“This was someone who was not only talking about in a lot of ways being gender nonconforming but in a lot of ways he was beloved, right?” Shraya adds. “And so when you’re a 13-year-old kid and you’re trying to figure out how to be loved and how to be safe, he made sense as being aspirational.”
Because Hinduism is entrenched in this idea of devotion, Sai Baba was, in a way, the first love of her life, even though she no longer prays to him. But she does reveal that she sings a bhajan (a Hindu prayer) in the show and that as a child, she was fascinated with Bharatanatyam dance.
“You know, people will always cherish and remember the first love of their life—and the love of their life will always be part of their fabric,” Shraya says. “Sai Baba will always be part of my fabric.”