I interview Megan Kelly

Hanging out in the TA office, our home away from home away from home, I interview Megan Kelly.

Megan Kelly touches a store decoration

Megan Kelly touches a store decoration

MADHURI:     Hello Megan.

MEGAN:         Hello!

MADHURI:     It’s nice to see you. We haven’t talked in a while.

MEGAN:         (laughing) I know! (uncertain pause) No, wait, we have.

MADHURI:     I’m going to ask you something you asked me the other day. If you were going to create a comic character for a TV show, based on your own personality, like what Larry David does in Curb Your Enthusiasm, what would that character be?

MEGAN:         Well the thing about Larry David is that- he’s this guy who just has to be right, and can’t keep it in, that he has to be right, and he keeps doing it over and over again. So the thing that I do over and over again is… care. An inordinate amount. About being liked, and about everyone being happy. And that can get me into trouble that can sometimes be funny, so I think that’s where most of the comedy in my life comes from- needing to be liked. And it’s kind of a ridiculous desire, needing to be liked by people I don’t like.

MADHURI:     Can you point to an example or a story of something like that?

MEGAN:         Um…

MADHURI:     We can change the names to protect the identities. We here in the interview studio.

MEGAN:         (laughing) Okay. I had a nemesis. (Madhuri squeals and claps her hands.) Well, you know about her because I talked about her constantly and was obsessed with her.

MADHURI:     Yes!

MEGAN:         But the only reason she was my nemesis- the single only reason- was that she didn’t like me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get her to like me. I think she found my, uh, accommodating sweetness like, really annoying. And she was very open about that. And so I would try harder, and then… yeah.

There wasn’t any single thing that happened, except she told me that I mispronounced your name, and that really annoyed me. And I came to you and said I absolutely DIDN’T mispronounce your name, and you said, well, yes, you do.

MADHURI:     (laughing) I tried saying my name the way you say my name, today, and it felt weird in my mouth.

MEGAN:         Yeah.

MADHURI:     So-

MEGAN:         Also, my character- my character is pretty personal. My character in my play. She wants to be liked, but that’s not really… her thing. Her thing is that she’s a Christian and an intellectual, and those things are constantly at war between her. Within her. So… I’ve written a play about that character based on me… there’s enough comedy fuel there.

Megan Kelly watching a bad stand-up set.

Megan Kelly watching a bad stand-up set.

MADHURI:     And it’s funny, because you’re on this weird meta journey with your play- you’re going through the same journey your character is going through, where she kind of has to balance the Christian world and the comedy world. And that’s you- because- when we do this play, we will have people from the theatre world seeing it, and responding to it in a certain way, and we’ll also have your family and friends from your Christian community also there, so it’s kind of like- how to you serve both?

MEGAN:         Yeah. Yeah. It’s like this endless loop of… (laughing) 

… anxiety- that I’ve put in the character, and then I behave the way she behaves in real life. And her mother behaves the way my mother behaves… well, in some ways. Actually the mother in the play has gotten further and further away from my mother. Like today, I was on the phone with my mom, and I said, oh, I wrote this for you, I’m writing this for you, and she said, oh, that’s sweet, but then she was like- But… the mother’s crazy! She thinks Jesus told her that thing! And I was like, she’s not crazy, what if Jesus told you that same thing, what if that happened, and she’s like, yeah, I guess I’d have to believe it.

I’m rambling, what was the original question?

MADHURI:     I don’t think there was. I made a statement and we talked about that statement.

MEGAN:         Oh, yeah.

MADHURI:     I really liked your personal statement that you wrote for that fellowship application recently. Can you talk about- your- your- artistic statement?

MEGAN:         Oh yeah, artistic statements are always thrilling. (laughing)

Thrilling to write. I think artistic statements are- are a way of making sense of yourself as a writer in a compelling way. Making sense of yourself as a special writer. That’s what we’re all trying to do, and I don’t think that’s bad. I finally found the thing I’m trying to be in life and work, which is something my Mom came up with. She says I always defend the stranger, that I always, always am on the other side- it’s something I’ve done since I was a kid- in an argument between a stranger and the Kelly family, I’m always on the side of the stranger. This annoys her, and my brother- one of my brothers- and I used to think this was because I disagreed with my family, but it turns out that it’s just- I just do that. Like, I was always against Christians- well, no, because I’m one of them, but theoretically, you know, I was against them, and then I came down here, and here, there aren’t any Christians to disagree with. (laughing)

So I started disagreeing- or rather defending the stranger, Christians, down here- because I didn’t realize people didn’t know what they were like. That never occurred to me. So I think that’s what happens in all of my plays, and all of my work. Because even when it’s not about Christians per say, it’s about something that- someone that’s misunderstood.

So, yeah.

MADHURI:     Yeah.

I have to think of another question now.

MEGAN:         Yeah.

MADHURI:     (pause)

There are so many things we talk about, and they’re all so interesting, so it’s hard to pick one.

MEGAN:         We’re so interesting.

MADHURI:     We are such interesting people.

(long pause) (Madhuri decides to put up a picture of Megan Kelly instead.)

Megan Kelly at the beach.

Megan Kelly at the beach.

MADHURI:     I think this was a very good interview.

MEGAN:         Yeah. Thank you. I feel special and self-conscious.

Megan Kelly's got the moves.

We’ve got the moves.

The Writer’s Workout

Doctor Who inspired me to start running.

If you haven’t seen the show, there’s a lot of running involved. The Doctor and his companion(s) run, all the time, from every kind of monster and creepy crawly and terrifying psychic beast imaginable. I started to think, if the TARDIS  shows up one day outside my door, and The Doctor steps out and offers to show me the ultimate wonders of space and time and bow-ties, I would have to say, you know Doc, I’ve seen your show, and I don’t think I’d last the entire 42 minutes of our first adventure. Sorry mate. I can’t run.

So last summer, I downloaded a Couch to 5K app on my phone, bought a pair of Brooks Adrenaline sneakers, and started running. I was doing well for a little bit- made it through the first 10 weeks of the program- when I hurt myself and took a little break. Somehow that little pause in momentum threw me off completely, and although I’ve been running for six months now, three times a week, I still can’t break one mile without feeling like I have to throw up and die (not necessarily in that order).

So don’t worry, this isn’t a post about the wonders of running. I’m not gonna Murakami you. Running kinda sucks. Maybe it isn’t for me. But I need to find some kind of physical activity to do, because the majority of my time is spent with my butt on a chair (or my bed, or the floor- my butt doesn’t like to fight gravity much), and I hate most forms of exercise.

Also, there have been studies that show that if you have to make several tough decisions in a short span of time, your brain winds up craving sugar. Or naps. Just craving it. And what is writing if not making a series of tough decisions, word by word, under a terrible deadline? I’m practically doomed. [Don’t ask me for citations, it’s Sunday afternoon and this is a blog.]

The brief period in my life when I was actually physically active was from the ages of 16-20, when, on a random impulse that paid off in spades, I joined a Bharatanatyam dance class.

Most Bharatanatyam dancers started dancing when they were 5, or 6, or 7, maybe 10, but rarely 16. However, no one told me outright that I was crazy, so I had nothing to stop me. I was in the beginners class with a bunch of 6 year olds, and felt a little stupid at first, but because my brain was so much bigger than theirs (suck it, pre-pubescents), I quickly advanced through the first few levels until, in less than a year, I was dancing with nine year olds! SUCCESS!

Check out this picture from my very first stage performance, in 2003-

One of these things is not like the others.

One of these things is not like the others.

I still hated the exercise. I remember, very vividly, the feeling of utter terror that would grip my entire body each time I was driven to dance class. I could barely breathe. My heart would be racing in anticipation of the brutal workout I was going to put it through.

But I loved the dancing. I loved Bharatanatyam because I didn’t have to be thin to do it- some of the best dancers in the world are older, even larger women. I loved Bharatanatyam because it was story-telling, and I loved it because I got to go on stage and perform.

And, okay, I liked that I got skinny too.

Two years later, with the same group.

That’s me in the middle, two years later, with the same group.

I haven’t danced consistently since I left India almost six years ago, partly because it’s hard to find an instructor in LA who teaches my particular style of Bharatanatyam, partly because I can’t fit it into my schedule, and partly because classes are way too expensive for me out here. So I’ll get back to it one day, but probably not very soon.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to give running a rest, and start walking instead. I do like walking. I’m never too tired to walk. I have like six hundred podcasts to catch up on. And I do my best writing when I’m relaxed and outside the house. So let’s see how that goes.

But don’t worry. If The Doctor does show up, I’ll have my trusty pair of Brooks ready. Just in case.

The Leaning Tower of Pizza

Rewriting is hard.

Is the first draft more difficult to write, or the multiple revised drafts that follow? That’s a dumb question (that I just posed). Every single step of writing and developing a play is ridiculously hard and makes my brain crave sugar and naps.

(Never trust a skinny writer.)

A Nice Indian Boy has been a real challenge for me to rewrite. The reason why will make me sound very full of myself, but it’s kinda true- the first draft is actually pretty good. The first draft, of this play, surprisingly, turned out pretty well. I don’t know how it happened. It’s intricately plotted and well structured, and has multiple motifs and running jokes that all intertwine and pay off at the end. It’s pretty good.

Unfortunately, it also has one huge, glaring, impossible-to-overlook problem- the protagonist is the most boring character in the story. Whoops.

So in the quest to actually make his story interesting, dramatic and meaningful, my rewrite has resulted in my beautiful structure crumbling to pieces. And in my laziness, I clung to my old draft, defended it, convinced myself that my baby is perfect as it is- which it really isn’t. The problem is in the foundation. The problem is in the very premise of the play.

In short, my first draft is like the Leaning Tower of Pizza. Delicious, but fundamentally flawed.

Mmmm.

And so if I want my play to stand upright, function structurally, and be beautiful at the same time, I need to tear this thing down and rebuild it brick by brick. Layer by layer. Topping by…

Anyway. The good news is that once I got over myself and let go of my first draft, the writing has actually gotten easier. Retooling the premise has given me room to make the story more about the characters, and not so much about the cleverness of the jokes. I’m actually enjoying the writing instead of dreading it.

Today I am, anyway. 🙂

And now, time for lunch. Guess what I’m having.

My play, my Valentine

I’m so relieved Valentine’s Day is over (as I am every year). But Luis Alfaro surprised us with the sweetest gesture yesterday, during our 7-10pm thesis class on 2/14, with these racially-specific teddy bear Valentines.

valentines

(We’re all doing the faces of our teddy bears. Megan really captured that soulful look there).

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

I think a lot about romantic love and relationships in terms of storytelling, and A Nice Indian Boy is all about love and marriage. As the title suggests, it is the story of my protagonist Naveen falling in love and deciding to get married to a nice Indian boy. There are a whole load of complications in that relationship (a pretty major one being that his boyfriend is technically more Caucasian than Indian), but the play ends with Naveen deciding to trust his heart over his head, and getting married to the man he loves. 

Although I celebrate romantic, passionate, impetuous love in this play, and have a lot of fun writing about it, I’m not sure I would do what Naveen does. There’s another couple in this play- his older sister Arundhathi and her husband- who had an arranged marriage years ago, and are now going through a divorce because Arundhathi can’t deal with the lack of romance in their relationship. But I’m not entirely on her side either.

The third couple in this play are Naveen’s parents- Archit and Megha- and they are the ones who represent my ideal. Two vastly different personalities who had an arranged marriage, and have stuck it out for 35 years. They bicker a lot, and disagree, and get frustrated with each other, but throughout the play they move as a team, as a single unit. Even as they disagree in private, they stick up for each other in front of their kids, and by the end of the play I hope the audience is left with a real feeling of how deep, true and steady their love for each other is.

It’s not the kind you write songs about, or celebrate with flowers and rings and fancy meals on a certain day, and it’s not for everyone. As much as I respect it, it’s probably not for me. But it’s the love that my parents share in real life, and it’s the love that inspired me to write this play.

May 31st, 1984

June 1st, 1984

Artistic Statements (stab stab stab)

Oh, hello.

Oh, hello.

Hey, writing is hard, has anyone mentioned that yet?

Last night, during our thesis class, Megan explained how tricky the rewriting process is.

Megan: I’m trying to do this high-wire act with my play as it is, what happens when a 50-pound bear cub falls on me?

Zury: I can see the expression on the bear cub’s face as it’s falling on you. [bear cub noise]

ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ. ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ.

In addition to my thesis play, one challenge I’ve been struggling with is writing artistic statements for applications for grants, and fellowships and residencies… it is seriously time consuming, and very, very hard to do. Because that’s not how you usually write. You usually try your best to write subtextually, subtly, to let your characters tell the story and not beat your audience over the head with what your story is about. I don’t think any writer sits down at their desk and thinks, “Ah, now I will write a scene that will encapsulate the duality of a bi-racial existence in a post-post-racial world with ironic elegance and just a hint of pathos”, no, mostly you’re just sitting there trying to figure out how to make your story not suck.

And so now I’ve had to teach myself to write artistic statements that really just seem to be an exercise in humble-bragging in 1000 words or less. ‘Here is why I’m so awesome you should give me the money/the stipend/food and shelter/fame and glory, but not so awesome that you’re put off by my self-important pigswill. Here’s why my writing will CHANGE THE WORLD, even though, really, has a single play actually changed the world yet? Has it really? Call me if it has, I should probably read it.’

My first round of statements are done for now, and I might share them later if I draw up the courage, but here’s what I really wanted to share this week. As I was angsting about these applications, and questioning my life choices, I stumble across this absolutely perfect, brilliant, heart-breaking quote by certified genius Junot Diaz, who just off-handedly says it all. 

“You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

– Junot Diaz, Speaking to students at Bergen Community College

I found this quote on the Facebook page of the awesome Tumblr  Dark, Lovely and South Asian.

Thank you, Mr. Diaz, you beautiful soul. I am pinning this quote up to my wall now.

And because it’s Friday, and because I think Mr. Diaz would appreciate it, let’s have some Grover.

A Nice Indian Boy

Ganesha on the iPad

Ganesha on the iPad

Back in January of 2011, when I was 24, my parents were trying their best to arrange my marriage. (If that sentence doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will). My wonderful, liberal, wordly parents called to tell me about the various nice Indian boys who had responded to the online matrimonial profile they had set up on my behalf. I love my parents and I trust them, but wow, was this hard to take. I decided to go along with it at the time, deeply conflicted about the whole thing, but also treating it with the same attitude I treat everything else in my life- hey, it might make a good story.

It was also time for me, at the beginning of my second semester, to start writing a new play. Our professor Oliver Mayer encouraged us to write something personal. Of course since the idea of arranged marriage was in my head, I wanted to write about that, but hadn’t it been done a million times already?

I remember walking through campus with my friend and director Nathan Singh (here he is)

nathansingh

and talking about this problem, when he said- “You know, I’ve always had this idea. This Indian guy goes to his parents and says- ‘Mom, Dad, I want an arranged marriage.’ And they’re so happy. But then he adds… ‘to a man!'”

And suddenly the play appeared before me. I saw that scene in my head, I knew who the family was, the love interest arrived fully formed a few days later, and I wrote the play over the course of the semester like my fingers were on fire. I had so much fun writing it, and I got to ask the big big questions that were bugging me- why get married at all? How can you reconcile your own romantic and sexual desires with what your family expects from you? Does arranged marriage make more sense these days than the irrational process of marrying for love? What happens if I ‘settle’ for an arranged marriage and wake up one day ten years later unhappy and regretful? How do my parents (who had one conversation before they got married, and have stayed married for 25+ years) make their marriage work?

The reading at the end of that semester was so fantastic- it was so gratifying to hear these great actors read the play out loud, especially since I had written the characters with them in mind.

Sunil Malhotra, Pia Shah, Karthik Srinivasan, Kyle Gundlach and Puja Mohindra

Sunil Malhotra, Pia Shah, Karthik Srinivasan, Kyle Gundlach and Puja Mohindra

My friend Paul Rockower who happened to be there that day, amidst his nomadic travels, blogged about it and made my week.

Last year this play won 2nd place in the 2012 East West Players Face of the Future Playwriting Contest, and I got to see it done as a staged reading at the David Henry Hwang Theatre in Little Tokyo, directed by Nico Raineau. The turnout was so surprisingly great- so many South Asians in particular showed up, and laughed at all the right places. We got a standing ovation at the end, and it really was an incredible feeling.

Karthik and Kyle, in rehearsal for our East West Players reading.

Karthik and Kyle, in rehearsal for our East West Players reading.

And now, this semester, my challenge is to push the play to the next level. First drafts are typically much easier for me than re-writes, so this is tough. The advantage is that it’s been nearly two years since I first thought of this idea, and I’ve changed and matured as a person, and I’d like to get the play to mature over the next few months as well. I can see what it could be- and that is very exciting- but I am also a little lost about how to get there.

But I have time, and Megan, Zury and my professors, and with their help I can hopefully end up with something I’ll be happy to show the world (i.e., my parents).

Amrish Puri says I can do it!

Amrish Puri says I can do it!

Table read

Zurylighting

Zury, in sexy lighting.

We had our first table-read of Zury’s thesis play last night, and you guys- it was amazing. I’m so excited. Our professors called it “Cheech and Chong meets Dexter”. At points we had to stop reading because we were laughing too hard. It’s going to be the funniest, weirdest, sweetest play about illegal organ harvesting that you will see this year.

(Zury, don’t punch me.)

Megan and I typically can’t get through a draft (or even go ahead with an idea) unless we talk it out completely with each other, and so while we’re very familiar with each other’s work in all its stages, Zury works alone. And so we won’t really know what she’s up to. She’ll work on an idea and live with it, and emerge a few months later with a story that is absolutely delightful and funny and surprising- like herself!

Last year we had a staged reading of Zury’s play ‘Señorita Monthly Juice’ (just as amazing as it sounds) directed by Jesus Reyes of East LA Rep, and I’m sure everyone who was there will remember it as one of the best readings they’ve seen, not just at USC, but anywhere. It was a delightful wicked, uproariously funny satire, and last night our professors said that this new play was similar, but had even more depth to it.

Basically, it best represents Zury as she is, and I can’t wait to see how this play develops over the course of this semester. I can’t wait for everyone to see it up on its feet in May!