Shunya Theatre got both its name and its start from nothing (the former, literally and the latter, figuratively.) "The word 'shunya' means 'nothing,'" Sara Kumar, the artistic director for the South Asian performing troupe, tells us. "It means nothing, emptiness. It refers to the idea of the cyclical nature of time in the East. Like the cyclical nature of the theater, with time, you begin with nothing, with dust and then you build and then you tear it all away and it's all gone and you're left with dust again."
A graduate of Rice University, Kumar recalls the beginnings of Shunya Theatre. "Most South Asian immigrants [30 and 40 years ago] came to [the United States to attend] universities and study sciences like engineering and medicine. Their children were encouraged to be engineers and doctors, not painters or actors. When we were coming out of college, we saw the lack of artists in our community and it bothered us. The idea was that here we were struggling with old world versus new, and we weren't seeing any of that being discussed on television or in the films that were out then. So we decided to create it ourselves."
At the time, Kumar was considering studying play writing in graduate school and had already been writing short works while at Rice. A group of actors, directors, designers and writers came together and launched Shunya Theatre. That was several years ago. Now Shunya produces two shows a year. "Some are original, some are Indian classics. Some are by American and European playwrights and we've done them with non-traditional casting." Most recently the group produced Partition, a play by Ira Hauptman that chronicles the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a young mathematical genius from India who worked with G. H. Hardy at Cambridge at the turn of the 20th century.
What She Does: Currently the artistic director of Shunya Theatre, Kumar works both on and off stage. She acts, directs and organizes the upcoming productions. "My major job is to build a season, and through that to figure out what we want to say. Everything starts with the scripts. If you have scripts that you believe in, that you think are magical, that you think say something and are powerful, nuanced scripts, everything flows from there.
"I also develop new talent in the South Asian community. My personal role is to find people that are interested in working with us. We want to become a bridge between 'Hey, I like acting in high school,' to 'Hey, I want to apply to an MFA program.'"
Why She Likes It: "That's almost an irrational question for me. It's like asking 'Why do you eat?' and 'Why do you breathe?' Once you step on stage and interact with an audience, once you transcend yourself and become another person, go into another world, and become part of something that's bigger than you are alone, that's addictive.
"This is just my personal soapbox, but I think we need to find a way to make theater relevant again. It is and should be relevant especially in these times when we have not only film, but the Internet and social media and all these other things that let us communicate with the whole world at once. Why would you write a play and spend $20,000 producing it when you can just go on Facebook and tell everybody what you think? To some extent, that's real. But I think all of those mechanisms and forms of communication are dangerous because you're putting yourself out there without this really sacred, incredible, erotic experience of rehearsal. That period of rehearsal is when you build this world and these characters. Then after six weeks of rehearsal you step up and say, 'This is the story. This is who we are.'"
What Inspires Her: "I'm a spiritual person so my God inspires me. People telling the truth inspires me and I think theater is a platform for the discovery of truths. My family and the craziness that it is continually inspires me. People working hard, people giving of themselves without thought of loss or gain, that inspires me."
If Not This, Then What: "I'd like to be a professor of literature." Kumar admits that's not as unrelated to theater as it might seem. Both involve telling stories, crafting fictional characters and creating imaginary worlds.
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If Not Here, Then Where: "I like it here in Houston. The South Asian community in Houston is really incredible, with a strong base. I've been to New York and I've been to LA and I couldn't hack it there; people were really mean to each other. I didn't want to do that. In New York it seems everybody's just out for themselves. You have to deal with that to a degree in anything you do, because it's human nature, but New York is tough."
What's Next: "We have to figure out the season. There's a really good play called Merchant on Venice, which has taken the Shakespeare play and set it on Venice Beach in Los Angeles. It's brilliant and funny and witty and provocative. It think it brings up a lot of good issues that we need to discuss."
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