From July 15 through July 25, 59E59 Theaters will hold the East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual festival for 2021. Nine Fringe-worthy productions will be available on demand, including playwright and actor Priyanka Shetty’s #Charlottesville. Her play reconstructs the events of August 11 and 12, 2017, when the “Unite the Right” rally occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here are the highlights of our interview about how the play came together and how #Charlottesville is part of a larger series or triptych with The Elephant in the Room and a forthcoming play, The Wall.
Do you have a favorite place in Charlottesville?
I have a lot. Bodo’s Bagels used to be one of my favorite haunts at the University and I haven’t found a good equivalent for it in Philly yet.
Which of your earlier theater roles is your favorite?
There are two of them. One is Kyra Hollis in Skylight, a play by David Hare. I’m really fond of that particular role. I also really enjoyed playing Doreen in Tartuffe.
Why did you want to come to Charlottesville and attend the University of Virginia (UVA)?
I freshly moved to the U.S. in 2015 and started auditioning for grad school. I wanted to pursue a career in theater. I used to be a software engineer. I decided to quit my job and start applying for graduate programs. UVA was one of the nine schools I got offers from. I didn’t know much about the history of Charlottesville. When I made the decision to go, it was for a lot of reasons. I attended some classes. I really liked the program there. It was fully funded. The idea of not having any student debt, especially with a career like acting, was appealing. We could even teach undergraduate students all three years of our program. Teaching was something I was fond of and wanted to pursue in the future.
What people speak about in the play is the beauty of Charlottesville. Everything was seemingly on the surface perfect: a perfect opportunity and a good school. But when I would share that with people, they would say, “Are you sure? You’re going down south?”
I didn’t understand why people had that response to it. In hindsight, it seems like it was fate and destined, because the trajectory of my life completely changed.
What did you initially plan for after graduation?
It was totally focused on acting. I was committed to the typical path actors take: you audition and you’re cast in plays, film, or TV. That’s what grad school was preparing us for. I was known as a writer when people associated me with anything creative before acting. I wrote a lot of short fiction, which took a backseat. I remember communicating an interest in play writing and directing to the program director. But acting was my main focus at that point.
A lot of events at UVA or in Charlottesville really made me consider. No matter what I did or how well I did, when it came to casting in department productions, it was from a very skewed perspective of what Americans thought I was suitable to play onstage. There was a frustration associated with that because I couldn’t fully explore my skills as an actor.
When August 11 and 12 happened, it was a real wake up call, because there were microaggressions I was dealing with already. #Charlottesville was supposed to be my first play. It [became] the second because when I returned to the University [for] fall semester, something pretty blatantly racist happened to me in the UVA drama department. It was a punch in the gut to the extent where suddenly is it okay to be openly discriminatory and not try to address it? I felt I had to express that artistically before I could approach something as deep as what’s covered in #Charlottesville. My autobiographical show The Elephant in the Room was about my transition from India to America, the highs and lows. I talk about what transpired at UVA.
What’s challenging about working on a one-person show?
It is liberating in many ways. You have full artistic control from storytelling to what you do on stage. The difficult part is that it takes an immense amount of energy and skill to keep the audience engaged for 60 to 90 minutes. Every time the audience changes, it feels like a different play. Sometimes it can get lonely because you don’t always travel as a team. If I’m touring, sometimes it’s just me alone with setting up and striking the stage. The communal aspect of being in a show is lost. I think the moment I step on stage and there’s an audience, I stop feeling alone. [Laughs] The thrill of it is immense and amazing.
Did you always intend to build a triptych of shows?
After I wrote The Elephant in the Room and I started writing #Charlottesville, I realized these two plays were interconnected. They address the same topics but from very different perspectives. I was going through what a lot of immigrants from India and other countries go through, especially in the arts in the United States. There are so many hoops to jump [as] you’re doing your graduate program. There’s all of this pressure and tension of what’s going to happen once I graduate. Many of my friends were going through this in other fields. I realized that the third part of this triptych would have to be about the immigrant experience in America.
Every time I performed The Elephant in the Room or #Charlottesville, the best part is the community conversation that happens after: how insightful it is and how it becomes a place for people to ask questions and wonder a lot about topics that these plays broach. That’s what I’m really excited about in 2022/23 when I’m premiering the entire triptych together. It’s also a multidimensional and holistic view of all the problems that are plaguing not just America right now, but also the rest of the world.
For #Charlottesville, there are excerpts from interviews. How long were the actual interviews with each person?
They were at least an hour long. Some went an hour and a half or two. It depends who I interviewed. I had close to 100 interviews. While I was still a graduate student, I completed my classes in the morning and did interviews in the evening or the weekend. In the drama department in UVA, there is a room in the basement kind of like a black box space. I would set up a camera and lights, which is pretty much what you see in the play. We captured that aspect of people being interviewed. It was literally them reliving their memories more than anything else and as if I was with them. I built an amazing connection with each [person] I interviewed.
Was it easy to figure out where to lift the excerpts for the script?
That was one of my main concerns. I’m done. I’ve got so much material. Where do I begin? I was transcribing the interviews, typing every word. That process was amazing because I was finding these connections in my brain. Soon the entire picture emerged in my head.
I started with the things I knew for sure I wanted. Initially, it was an ensemble piece where I gathered eight actors from the community. I would go to the rehearsal room with these excerpts and we would devise scenes around them. I would go home and write. It was an iterative process, developing creatively and organically from that point.
How did the solo show come together?
For the ensemble version of #Charlottesville, I felt this play needed more attention and it was timely. As a solo show, it was easy to take to other places. I wanted what Elephant in the Room had for #Charlottesville just in terms of making that conversation happen with multiple people across different cities. I feel like people were already forgetting about it.
It wasn’t planned that way, but it was in February 2021 that we ended up performing this show. What happened at the Capitol and the name Charlottesville were still fresh in people’s minds. We streamed a livestream version of the show with a very small in-person audience at The Abbey Theatre of Dublin in Dublin, Ohio, with 15 to 20 people in a space for 300. It was helpful to have a live audience there and people streaming it online.
Could you tell us more about the Kennedy Center Summer Playwriting Intensive and The Wall?
I’ve had a relationship with the Kennedy Center because they gave me the opportunity to perform the first play in the triptych in 2019 at the Millennium Stage. It was a great memory. Over 400 people in DC showed up to watch what was a pretty unknown playwright performer. Then I was accepted into the playwriting intensive this summer. I’m developing the third play in the triptych, The Wall. It’s about the immigrant experience in America.
We’ve had writing assignments and I wrote two scenes for The Wall. That’s a great start. Somehow, I feel this is destiny playing a big part, because the assignments tie so beautifully into what I’m writing. I was struggling with finding an “in,” even though I knew what it was about. With the first two plays, it was easy and obvious what that was. I knew to start with interviews for #Charlottesville. I knew it was autobiographical for Elephant and I could start from my own story.
Where do you think we are in the landscape of social justice in plays?
One of the playwrights whose work I followed, he called it “the United States of Amnesia.” It resonates with me because every time, it takes something super drastic for people to sit up and pay attention to an issue. Then it’s forgotten so quickly. No one knows what’s happening with the detention centers anymore. What happened to that issue? We move from one thing to the next so quickly. Even though things happen that still shouldn’t be going on, we’re onto the next thing. I’m hoping that we won’t need that if there are enough projects like #Charlottesville to keep reminding us, “Hey, listen, this is something we’re still dealing with.”
I hope it doesn’t take us another tragedy to remember and take steps on things needing our attention the most. I hope these three plays that tackle so many issues under one umbrella will start a national conversation. I think we need to think on that scale now, because it’s not just entertainment. It’s not something we can afford to forget about. Plays and films can lead us to ask the right questions, but the transformation is up to us. We all come from different walks of life and we will all have different ways of effecting that change. Art will not give us the solution, but it can serve as a good reminder of what we need to focus on.