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6 Questions with Playwright Dipika Guha

Inspired by Shakespeare and set in those hazy post-college years, Blown Youth examines what happens to the universe when a woman is at its center. We talk with the playwright Dipika Guha about Hamlet, feminism, and the type of life experience that leads one to writing.

Blown YouthWhat was the inspiration behind Blown Youth?

My original intention was to write a play that interrogated, examined and exploded the role of the most prized male role in the canon. So having set myself up to do that, I found I couldn’t write at all! I spent the better part of the year not writing the play and despairing. It was only in rereading Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends that the play unlocked. I threw out what little I had and began writing about a group of young women. I found myself writing about the bittersweetness of these relationships, the ideals of feminism and female agency.

The play’s title comes from Hamlet but there’s a fragment of dialogue in Fefu that was a touchstone for me. She says “Women are restless with each other. They are like live wires…either chattering to keep themselves from making contact, or else, if they don’t chatter, they avert their eyes…like Orpheus…as if a god once said ‘and if they shall recognize each other, the world will be blown apart.’”

I thought, yes, I know! We are like that! But this idea of feminine recognition haunted me. I wanted to understand this shattered world…I wondered about the shards that we carry inside us as women. Writing the play was a way, I suppose, of trying to trace the back the moment of shattering and the circumstances around it.

Blown Youth is largely influenced by Hamlet, even including a pivotal scene that makes use of Shakespeare’s text. What do you think it is about Hamlet that is still so resonant today?

In writing about female agency it is perhaps no surprise that I ended up rethinking about Hamlet. And then, curiously, the characters ended up inside Hamlet (the play). For me, I think, female agency is tied dangerously to our complicity with and need for the dominant culture we live in. The scenes where the women speak Shakespeare’s text is both beautiful and ugly. It’s beautiful because of the unmistakable glory of that language so etched in our consciousnesses and ugly because something still isn’t right, it still doesn’t fit. That part of the play is like a ghost play to me, it can’t be sustained.

At some point we have to forge our own new narratives, but we also want to inhabit that great text, we want to recognize ourselves in the canon. And when the women get there, it should feel exhilarating. But buried in Shakespeare, do we really have the tools to unearth our own voices?

You were born in Calcutta and raised in several different countries. How do you feel your background has informed your development as an artist?

I grew up mostly in India and England and also Russia for a short time. I think being in so many new environments and cultures early on gave me, both, an outsider’s vantage point and a point of view which perches in between cultures. Wherever I was, I had to communicate with the people around me so there was also a real practical imperative to asking what it is that we all hold in common. That sense of necessity really made me pay attention to behavior, intentions and what remains unspoken.

I spent a long time gathering up impressions of the world but I never wrote anything down. I don’t know why. I spent a long time looking and seeing and engaging but not recording. It took a long time for the amalgamation of images and sounds and stories to settle inside me but when it did it happened quickly and I found I had a poetics of my own. That it had somehow essentialized inside me.

My plays are rarely set anywhere specific. And I think that’s because my notion of home is more to do with the experience of love, in life, in literature, in theatre than it is to do with a particular notion of nation or country.

What type of theater excites you?

The bare stage excites me. The sense that the world is being born in front of me and will only unlock in communion with my imagination is maybe the most exciting thing in the world. Oh and watching the moment when an actor disappears inside a characterhorribly, horribly addictive.

Any advice for aspiring playwrights?

In my first playwriting class my very brilliant teacher Sam Marks told me that my own resistance to writing meant that I might have something to say. I suppose before that I thought that my resistance meant that I was not suited to writing. To be told that it might mean the opposite gave me a great sense of permission and freedom. So my advice would be not to disqualify yourself from writing based on your resistance. To consider it as fuel. Or as a signal that it’s covering something quite loud that’s actually not that far under the surface and it’s waiting for you!

Blown Youth examines what happens when communal living is governed by a particular philosophy, in this case feminism. Have you ever been a part of a communal living situation?

I haven’t ever lived in any kind of intentional community like in the play. But In my early teens I did go to a school which was governed by a very distinct philosophy. The tenets of the school in themselves seemed sensible; attention to the natural environment was encouraged, communal chores inside the school were compulsory and we had set aside class time to discuss large philosophical questions. But there was also a deep kind of strangeness. An inevitable insularity often resulted an atmosphere of bristling righteousness. As a teenager I was primed, I think, to see the danger in this. As a child you often have to go along with things because you don’t know any different. But my travelling had shown me that different existed, that buying into any set of principles was a choice. Being there heightened my sense of vigilance about placing my whole sense of identity on identification with any system (or nation). Because I saw that most systems rely on a kind of insularity and someone is always left out. It’s perhaps not a coincidence I’ve gravitated to a life with affiliations with a number wonderful institutions, many I’m deeply honored and proud of. But I think being at that school was my first indication that I would spend my life watchful of my own participation with them. So, you know, I think it turned out quite well!

 

Dipika Guha was born in Calcutta and raised in India, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Her plays include I Enter the Valley (Weissberger nom ’14), Mechanics of Love (Crowded Fire), Blown Youth (published by Playscripts), andThe Rules (San Francisco Playhouse). She is the inaugural recipient of the Shakespeare’s Sister Playwriting Fellowship through Lark Play Development Center, A Room of Her Own, and Hedgebrook. Her work has been developed at Playwrights Horizons, Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, the Drama League, Cutting Ball Theatre’s RISK Festival, New Georges, Roundabout Underground, Leviathan, Shotgun Players, Red Bull Theatre, Judson Church, Naked Angels, Fault Line Theatre, One Coast Collaboration, The 24 Hour Plays on Broadway, and the Tobacco Factory (UK) amongst others. She’s been awarded residencies at the Hermitage Artist Residency, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, SPACE at Ryder Farm, McCarter Sallie B. Goodman Residency, Ucross Artists Residency, and the Rasmuson Foundation in Sitka, Alaska. She’s an alum of Ars Nova Playgroup, the Dramatists Guild Fellows Program, Soho Rep W/D Lab, the Women’s Project Lab, a proud member of Ma-Yi, and a current resident playwright at the Playwrights Foundation. She holds commissions from South Coast Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and is developing a new play with the Satori Group in Seattle. She is currently a Visiting Artist at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School. Dipika received her MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama under Paula Vogel. Despite a long run in the Northeast of the United States she still drinks tea. Website: www.dipikaguha.com

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