A Conversation with Neeraja Ramjee on Broken Images at the Red Sandcastle Theatre

With Broken Imagess Canadian Premiere at the Red Sandcastle Theatre comes a unique, one-woman show starring Neeraja Ramjee, written by the contemporary playwright, Girish Karnad, and directed by Clinton Walker.  This psychological thriller is a commentary with many different layers, focusing on the ways in which we construct ourself in our current world.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Neeraja to discuss the context of the play and the way in which image dictates our self-worth in our current world.

Kimberley Drapack: How did you first get involved in theatre? What was your first production? 

Neeraja Ramjee: I went to acting school in New York, I wanted to put what I was learning into practice and auditioned to be a part of theatre companies in New York. I became a part of a couple theatre companies and started auditioning for parts and got more involved in the acting/theatre community. The first production I was part of was very special for me, it was my first time acting in front of a large audience, and it was equally terrifying and thrillingJ. It was a lovely one act play and I portrayed this character who wanted to commit suicide and through the play, she talks herself out of it.

K: Tell us about your experience in presenting a one woman show. What are the difficulties? What are the surprises? 

NR: This is my first time performing in a one woman show and also producing it. I wanted to do something where the story excited me, was different and challenging, and this show presented all of these elements to me. Any solo performance is a challenge, because you are the only flesh and blood actor on stage, with all eyes on you and you have to take the audience through the journey of the character and tell the story. There is a lot of technique, tact and authenticity that goes with it and you cannot afford to sit behind on your heels. When you have another actor on stage, you can play off of them and you get energy from them. In a one woman show, really the audience is the other character. The playwright has written such a masterpiece with such an arc for the character and so many levels of complicatedness – so to hit it, be present in the moment and move the story along, all by yourself is definitely a challenge. There is a technology element to this piece of theatre and a level of precision involved there, which is also very exciting and challenging at the same time. I surprise myself everyday by discovering something new about the character, and her underlying intentions. It’s been quite the journey discovering her, and quite frankly discovering parts of me through this journey.

K: Tell us about Broken Images. How did you stumble onto this play and what can it teach us? 

NR: BROKEN IMAGES is a masterpiece of self-delusion and self-worth, taking a cutting look at the Indian literary establishment, the desire for fame, and the need to win at all costs. When Manjula, a mediocre Indian writer gets international fame for a book she wrote in English, and not her native tongue,  she gets flak from her literary community, and is questioned without warning by her ‘Image’ to unearth the scandal behind her sudden rise to fame.

I had watched Broken Images staged over a decade ago, and it stayed with me because it was a unique storyline that was edgy and I knew people would connect to it.  Fast forward a decade, when the opportunity presented itself to produce a play, I knew I wanted to recreate Broken Images. . The play explores themes such as identify crisis (do we really know who we are), reality vs hyper-reality (do we live in a false reality, do we project ourselves to be different from who we really are?), and the desire for fame, which are all still very relevant in today’s digital/social media world.

K: It is said that with Broken Images, you hope to nudge diversity in the local theatre scene a bit further, as well as make people aware of the negative effects of social media. What does this mean to you? Why do you feel that people are unable to be within their present moment?

NR: As an avid fan of the performing arts, and most certainly theatre, one would be hard pressed to find many diverse actors in lead or one person shows. If this show could open doors, nudge diversity in theatre a bit further, wouldn’t that be great. There is so much talent out there, so many stories to be told from different cultural standpoints, it would be great to walk in and see more diverse actors in prominent roles, telling stories that hit us as human beings, irrespective of race, gender, caste, and creed.

I think social media and digital is great for a lot of things, it makes our life more efficient, makes the world smaller, gets us information way faster, helps us spread important messages, gets people together etc., however I think it’s great as long as it does not affect the emotional well-being of people. We are all performers in some way or the other, and the question really is do we project ourselves to be different than who we really are and is that false reality of ‘perfection’ impacting our emotional well-being, because we tend to evaluate our life based on a ‘false reality’ we see. I think, and I am as much prey to it J, sometimes we are so interested in capturing the moment, vs. actually being present in the moment and soaking it all in.

I was reading an article recently on how social media is harming the mental health of young people. There is a need to constantly feel a sense of ‘self-worth’ with the number of likes you get, and a fear of missing out and not being looped in with your friends. I think we chase ‘perfection’ that we see on social media/television/billboards, which quite frankly does not exist, and can be quite harmful, if it affects the emotional well-being of people.

The play touches on themes such as false reality, self-delusion, self-worth and the impacts of it is relevant to the current digital/social media world we live in.

K: At the same time, as being a successful actor, you are also a very successful business consultant. How do these two worlds collide? How do they intersect?

NR: The two worlds I live in are on either end of the spectrum. As a consultant, your emotions are always in check, controlled, it’s the exact opposite as an actor – emotions are raw, with no inhibitions. At the end of the day – art imitates life, it is about people, human behavior and there are elements from my personal and professional life that I bring to the characters I portray. The discipline, professionalism and analytical side of me helps me as a producer and actor, and my creative side helps me look at solving business problems with a different lens.

K: What is wrong with society’s obsession of image? What are the dangers, and how do we navigate away from this?

NR: As human beings, we are perfectly imperfect, which is beautiful. However, we project ourselves in society to be ‘perfect’ and quite frankly perception is reality J. There is a pressure to be ‘perfect’ . Most of the posts you see online are of people having a ‘perfect’ time, it’s the way we like to project ourselves. You seldom see posts about challenges in people’s lives on social media. I don’t know if our lives can be as perfect as Instagram J. If we chase this perfection which does not exist and it affects  our emotional well being, that’s when it becomes dangerous. What’s real and what’s not? Why does someone look so perfect at 7 am in the morning, when I look pretty crappy with my tousled hair and puffy eyes……if this leads to questioning your self-worth, if you begin to define yourself by a social media post, or a like or comment – then we have a problem.

K: How did your collaboration with Clinton Walker begin? What is it like working with a director in an intimate, smaller rehearsal space that makes up the one woman cast?

NR: When I knew I wanted to move forward and produce Broken Images, I knew I wanted a director who was talented, was on the same page as me in terms of the vision for the show and also someone who was focused and challenged me. My agent (we share the same agent) introduced me to Clinton who had directed a one person show last year at the Fringe and has been in the industry for close to 40 years. When I met Clinton, we had an instant connection, it’s hard to put in words and we bonded because we both don’t have patience for BS :D. I am very fortunate that he jumped on this journey with me. It’s been an incredible journey so far. We entered this maze of what’s real and what’s false, and the different avatars we play. It’s been a frightening and thrilling experience. We’ve shared laughs, tears and discovered things about ourselves and most importantly had fun as we navigated through this brilliant piece.

K: Not only are you starring in this production, but you produced it. What was it like to wear both hats? Were there any difficulties throughout?  

NR: This is my first time producing and it’s been a learning experience for sure. Very exciting and challenging at the same time. As an actor, I had more of myopic view to the entire production of a show. I understood the story, my character, how it fits into the larger storyline and did the best to take the audience through the journey. As producer, your pulse is on every element of the show – getting the right people onboard is one of the most important elements, if you have people you can trust and work well with, half the battle is won. Managing all elements of the production and the minutia of it has been challenging and then switching to actor mode J. But I love it, wouldn’t trade it for anything.

K: What do you hope audiences take away from Broken Images?

NR: I think a good play entertains you and hopefully affects you, impacts you in some way. Hopefully the audience walks away entertained, and also slightly impacted/changed or with questions to ponder on J.

K: What can we expect from you in the future?

NR: Depending on how we do, it would be lovely to take the play to New York. Continue to work on my craft and see what is interesting, challenging and authentic for me to take on J

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Bands Spotted: August Edition

Trying to find up-and-coming artists can be time consuming, unless you are like me with not much of a life and all the time in the world to keep an eye out for new talent. With an abundance of music coming out each month, we can sometimes get lost in the mix. Who can blame you? With websites constantly posting, articles like “Top 10 Artists You Need To Keep an Eye On” almost every other week, it can be a lot. And who’s to say that their choices are worthy?

While I may seem contradictory, I have carefully selected a list of 6 artists who you will want to add to your Spotify playlist to impress your cool friend Devon at the next kickback. Or they are a great bunch of artists to listen to on your 30+ minute commute to work on the TTC. So pick up your phone or your laptop, click away, and come along for the ride.

BROCKHAMPTION

This self-proclaimed All-American Boyband managed to pull out one of the summer’s best albums in under a month. This group is made up of Kevin Abstract, Matt Champion, JOBA, Ameer Vann and Rodney Tenor and moved to LA just one year ago. On June 6th, the group dropped their second mixtape, Saturation, and set a whole new standard for a quick turnaround in lyric writing and music production.

JESSIE REYEZ

Toronto-born artist Jessie Reyez has the ultimate response to a cheating ex: write a song about him. Debuting in August of 2016, the song, Figures, has over 5,676,499 views, and is still climbing. Jessie is thankful for Toronto’s eclectic music scene, for allowing her to create the music we are so grateful that she is sharing. Jessie released her debut EP, Kiddo, this past April.

DEEM SPENCER

Deem Spencer is a 21-year-old artist hailing from Queens. Mixing influences of pop, R&B, and soul, he creates a fusion of sounds that make up a flawless soundscape. In October 2016, he released his EP, sunflowerthat weaves together emotional lyrics with a hopeful optimism. We see great things up-and-coming for this youngster, and we urge you to keep an eye out.

SABRINA CLAUDIO

This rising R&B singer is a Miami native who now calls L.A. home. In March 2017, she released her EP, Confidently Lost, written exclusively by herself, that discusses heartbreaks and revivals that any young adult can relate to. Along with the story told through her lyrics, Sabrina works hard to express a story through her expressive videos, revealing complementary aesthetics that blend in with her melodic voice.

JELANIE ARYEH

Jelani Aryeh is a 17-year old from a small town in San Diego who is inspired by the likes of Brockhampton and Frank Ocean. Released about a month ago, his debut EP, Suburban Destinesia, is inspired by his suburban upbringing and the banalities it may hold. Destinesia is described as the following sensation: “when you get to where you were intending to go, you forget why you were going there in the first place.”

DUA LIPA

Dua Lipa has gained exposure across the globe with her her self-titled debut album released earlier this year. This UK native has climbed her way up the charts producing bangers after bangers. She is the perfect addition to any summer playlist. Not only are we at Novella giving her the stamp of approval, but big artists like Lorde have tweeted out words of praise for her video, New Rules.

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Is Rock Really Dead?

Ever since its invention all those decades ago, rock music has been a corner stone in popular culture and entertainment. New artists innovated to create new branches of rock music and its reach expanded over time. However, in recent years, rock’s popularity went from a roaring flame to a mere pilot light. The days of stadium rock and roll band glamor are all but memories as indie bands struggle to find the limelight that once bathed countless acts.

Black and white promo photo of Chuck Berry Holding His Guitar and winking
Chuck Berry — photo: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

In The Beginning…

Rock music quickly gained momentum after Chuck Berry defined its sounds in the early 1950s and it began to infiltrate everyday life more and more. Fashion began to take heed of what was going on in the world of rock and roll; the art world took on a new life inspired by the fury of rock music; and movies and television started casting quintessential rock stereotypes to appeal to the growing interest in rock music and culture.

By the 1970s rock solidified its positon as the most popular genre of music, beating out the great pop music makers of the 1950s and ’60s. As the ’70s pushed forward, musical acts like Janice Joplin, Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones, and Lynnard Skynard branched off into various sub-genres of rock ranging from folk and psychedelic to southern and hard rock. This influx of rock artists eventually came to obliterate the disco explosion that had just started taking over the United States at the time. And by the start of the ’80s, rock had effectively killed disco and remained the driving force in the entertainment industry.

A vintage Guns n' Roses press photo
Photo: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Shoot for the Stars, Land in a Stadium

As the ’80s motored along, pop began to once again infiltrate the charts. Artists like Tiffany and Madonna became the idols of teen queens everywhere. However, rock music was also going through drastic changes. Acid-dropping bell bottomed psychedelic rockers were quickly phased out and replaced with artists and bands that oozed far more heart stopping edge than ever before. Gone were the days of smoking dope and singing about white rabbits. The ’80s ushered in drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Bands like Motley Crue, Guns and Roses, The Cure, Whitesnake, Metallica, and Aerosmith swept the globe with stadium rock. Rock bands no longer played festivals and bars. They now sold out entire sports arenas to tens of thousands of adoring fans who wanted to live the glamorous lives of rock music’s biggest stars.

However, as rock left the ’80s and entered the ’90s, artists were no longer interested in the glamour of hair metal and stadium rock. Rock once again returned to its roots of rebellion, self-expression, raw emotion. Bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Garbage, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Hole pushed against the money and fame the ’80s promoted and carved their own paths in the music world.

Vintage Nirvana promo photo
Photo: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The Slow Descent

After the ’90s left many a grunge rocker battered and beaten, the 2000s rolled in and ushered in the birth of pop punk — rock in its most agonizing and commercial state. While the ’50s birthed rock and the ’70s nurtured it, the ’80s gave it a money making platform and the ’90s saw it return to its roots. In the 2000s rock music once again went through a change. Unfortunately, this time the change would be fast the worst kind there is. As the 2000s progressed, rock became more of a novelty than a platform of expression. Society and mainstream media began to shift its position on the idea that rock could continue to be a profitable genre of music. Bubblegum pop took hold of half the music industry and hip hop and R&B began to dominate the rest. Countless bands popped up throughout the 2000s, attempting to dominate the music landscape by creating sub-genres like indie rock, alternative rock, pop punk, screamo, and more. But the music world no longer had room for rock music to grow in like it did in the ’70s and ’80s.

Photo: John Varvatos

“Well They Say That Rock is Dead, We’ll They’re Probably Right…”

When grunge goddess Courtney Love uttered these lyrics back in 2004, it made her futile attempt at solo career all the more heartbreaking to watch. Now many have stated that rock is officially dead, and many have argued that rock lovers just aren’t looking deep enough. But the truth of the matter is that rock most definitely isn’t dead, but it sure as hell is breathing its last few breaths. While a handful of acts seem to burst onto the scene every year from the realm of indie rock, none can really claim to have the success of bands like AC\DC or Judas Priest. And it really comes down to a simple and completely unavoidable fact: Rock is no longer profitable. Unlike the baby boomers and their kids who made various musical acts and, in turn, various genres profitable by connecting with and see parts of themselves in the music, millennials fall in love with the packaging before sampling the product. This in turn caused the mainstream music scene to become unbearably homogenized. Folk artists blur lines by merging soft pop songs with dancehall beats, while pop princesses become rappers for one song and teen idols for another. Poetic rap has been replaced with set guidelines and molds that spell success for those willing to follow them, and irrelevancy and empty bank accounts for those who try to push against them. The same has happened to rock music. There isn’t a shortage of dreamers wanting to become the next big thing — that hasn’t changed in the slightest. What has changed is that the rawness and intensity have been drowned out. The likelihood of ever having another Patti Smith challenging the status quo or a Marilyn Manson using our own discomfort against us to send a message are slim to none. Rock has become a game of who can sound the most easygoing and digestible rather than mesmerizing and self-exploring.

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Wonder Woman Lives Up to Hype

In the last few years, DC has tried and failed to match up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with their own series of related films, most of which have been massively hyped but ended up being disappointments. Man of Steel was so-so, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was an epic failure, and Suicide Squad, which had promising trailers, turned out to be such a dumpster fire that countless blogs and videos attempting to unpack exactly what the heck happened (depending on who you ask, there was either too little or too much Joker — I think the movie would have been better if it was just Margot Robbie, but that’s just me.) In any case, Wonder Woman was similarly burdened with high expectations. However, unlike its predecessors, it lived up to the hype.

There was so much to love about Wonder WomanGal Gadot’s earnest performance as the titular role and her romantic/comedic chemistry with Chris Pine as Steve Trevor; Patty Jenkins’ marvelous direction; and the movie’s ability to stick to its comic book origins without losing focus on its themes or feeling too silly.

Chris Pine as Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman

Part of the issue with previous DC-Universe films was that Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman (and Man of Steel, in a way) were both attempting to live up not only to high expectations, but also to their predecessors. Jared Leto was trying to match up to Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as the Joker (but failed to do so), Batman v Superman was facing the Dark Knight trilogy, and Man of Steel is one of many, many depictions of Superman on film. It gets old after a while.

Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were meant to have a gritty, more serious feel than most superhero movies, and Suicide Squad was meant to be dark comedy. None of that really worked. In order to drive gritty movies, you need some actual conflict, some moral ambiguity, and better character writing. And dark comedy needs to be, you know, funny.

In Batman v Superman, what is meant to feel like a conflict between two superheroes with opposing values, feels more like a boring rich guy fighting a boring powerful guy, both ultimately wanting to be good people. As characters, Batman and Superman come rife with interesting questions. Superman is all-powerful and all good, but what happens when his god-persona comes into conflict with his own wants? Batman is just a privileged rich guy with fancy gadgets, so why does he get to act as the moral judge of Gotham? Sadly, Batman v Superman doesn’t really know how to deal with any of these questions, and in the end the movie doesn’t have anything to say.

If Batman v Superman had troubles with its expectations, Suicide Squad was destroyed by them. After the release of what was admittedly a great trailer, Warner Brothers actually hired the same people responsible for making the trailer to reshoot and re-edit the movie, to the point where there ended up being two Suicide Squad movies with two different tones, one funny and one more serious. In the end the versions were merged into the bizarre and sub-par version that wound up in theaters. Also, somewhere along the way most of the Joker’s scenes were cut. This was a strange choice, considering how much the trailers focused on him, and how hyped Jared Leto acted about his acting decisions and his disturbing on-set behavior. Of course, if I oversaw the editing, I would have cut him out altogether, but that’s not the point.

So how does Wonder Woman match up to the other DC-Universe movies? It’s a vast, vast improvement, containing the kinds of interesting moral questions that Batman v. Superman tried and failed to ask (in this case, asking if humans are intrinsically bad or good), and the humor and fun that Suicide Squad tried desperately to provide.

Also, unlike almost all superhero movies, Wonder Woman is definitively a feminist one. It’s the first major superhero movie featuring a female lead directed by a woman. Where other movies have women in near-constant states of needing rescuing and reassurance, Wonder Woman gives us Diana Prince kicking ass, saving Steve’s life, and trying to help those around her. Sure, the movie may remind us a little too much of how beautiful Diana is and how her wearing a skimpy costume is a bit distracting for the men around her. But the camera never ogles her, nor does it stop her from being strong and athletic. And yes, her armor may be revealing, but at least it’s armor and not just a metal bra or a glorified corset. And when Diana is confronted with the sexism of the 1910s, her confusion and annoyance is meant to remind the audience that our assumptions of gender roles are invented, not inherent. And seeing an island full of badass warrior women ready to battle is also very cool.

Still from Wonder Woman showing Themyscira, the mystical all-female warrior island

Right now, Warner Brothers has a long list of future movies for the DC Extended Universe, featuring characters like Aquaman, Shazam, The Flash, Cyborg, Nightwing, and Batgirl, along with more sequels and team pieces, like the upcoming Justice League. If Wonder Woman is any indication that DC has finally figured out how to make a quality superhero movie, then I’m quite excited to see what’s next. If not, there’s always Marvel.

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5 Binge-Worthy Shows That Came Out in May

Ah, May. The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and I’m cooped up indoors binge-watching some of the best TV out there. Here are 5 binge-worthy TV shows that came out, or is coming out, in May.

  1. Master of None (Season 2): Aziz Ansari’s series had a brilliant first season, and the comedian had room to explore family, race, and relationships with humor and insight. While season one had an overarching storyline mostly connecting everything together, season two has a much more episodic feel. Season Two was released on May 12th and and continues with Dev in Italy before moving back to New York, with more room this season to discuss themes like religion and the modern acting business. All in all, this season was a spectacular, hilarious, and grounded follow up to what is quickly becoming my favorite Netflix series. Master of None season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.

    Aziz Ansari as Dev in Master of None
  2. House of Cards (Season 5): Last season ended on a powerful note with (spoiler alert) Frank (Kevin Spaceyand Claire (Robin Wright) turning toward the camera after having just apparently allowed a terrorist action so they could stir up popular support. I’m excited to see where the show can take us now, especially if Claire does get the chance to join her husband’s fourth-wall asides to the camera. I’m also curious if House of Cards can compete with the actual current President of the United States, and his absurd antics. Season 5 of House of Cards premieres May 30, 2017.
    Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), front, and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), back, on the campaign trail in House of Cards

     

  3. Twin Peaks: The Return: Fans of the original early ’90s series/prequel film may feel slightly betrayed at the change in tone. The reboot isn’t nearly as campy as the original, but it is much darker, and full of more horror. I don’t think this is bad thing at all, however, and the show retains the mystery, the thrills, and the edge-of-your-seat terror that made the original so acclaimed. Kyle MacLachlan and most of the original cast return, along with some new faces rounding out the excellent cast. Twin Peaks: The Return is airing in Canada on CraveTV and The Movie Network at the same time as in the U.S.

    Kyle MacLachlan as FBI Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks: The Return
  4. I Love Dick (Season 1): Based on the semi-fictional book by author/artist Chris Kraus, it tells the story of Chris (played by Kathryn Hahn) and her husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), who move to Marfa, Texas, for Sylvere’s research fellowship. Chris soon falls in love with Sylvere’s fellowship sponsor, the eponymous Dick (Kevin Bacon). This series is unique and bizarre, and Hahn gives a stunning performance as a woman with an obsessive lust, fantasizing about a man who outright tells her that he is not interested. The show should also be commended for flipping the script on a tired old trope: instead of a bored husband hoping to seduce an uninterested woman, we have the exact opposite. I Love Dick was released on May 12th and is streaming now on Amazon.

    Kevin Bacon as Dick and Kathryn Hahn as Chris in I Love Dick
  5. American Gods (Season 1): Technically, this series (based on the bestselling book by Neil Gaiman) came out on April 30th, but it was too good to leave out of this list. Developed by Michael Green and Bryan Fuller (who you may remember as the creator of other fantastic series like Pushing Daisies and Hannibal), American Gods tells the story of Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle), who is released from prison after his wife Laura (Emily Browning) is killed and is hired to be the bodyguard of the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. The series brilliantly blends mystery, supernatural elements, noir, and horror. Be warned, the show is chock-full of graphic sexual and violent content. American Gods is being released internationally on Amazon on a weekly basis.

    Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in American Gods

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