Madhuri Shekar has been writing since she was a teenager. Growing up in India, she was a devoted Potterhead, so her first forays into writing were Harry Potter fan fiction, which she posted on Fanfiction.net, Sugarquill, and Fiction Alley. “I didn’t even bother to use a pen name, you can actually look it up,” she told me.
Now in her 30s and about to give birth to her second child, Shekar retains a youthful energy, as well as plenty of Potter thoughts; the Broadway hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, she offered, “is bad fan fiction, but I really enjoyed the production.”
She owes a debt to the Boy Who Lived, after all, because he’s the one who made her fall in love with what she does. “I just love going into different worlds, where they have totally different rules,” she explained over lunch at BCD Tofu House in Manhattan. She’s attracted to worlds in which “norms are really different, and people are trying to live within those rules and break those rules—that’s always the best part of genre storytelling.”
Shekar also attributes that love of fantasy to a nomadic childhood: She grew up in San Francisco, then her family moved to Singapore, and later India. She now lives in Jersey City with her husband and her 2-year-old son. “I’ve always been in two cultures, and living in India is so different than living here,” she said. “I enjoy that sort of vicarious [sense of], ‘Here’s a totally different society, and how are we going to make it?’”
No two Shekar plays are the same, and the American theatre is suddenly about to see a lot of them. Shekar’s breakout hit In Love and Warcraft, which had runs all over the U.S. in the mid-2010s, takes place partially in the online world of the World of Warcraft role-playing game. Her new play Queen, now onstage at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre through June 5 and set for an Off-Broadway run, the author’s first, at ART/New York, June 10-July 1, takes place in the world of academia and honey bee research.
Meanwhile House of Joy, set for Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Aug. 26-Sept. 18, is a historical fantasy during the Mughal Empire, and her rom-com A Nice Indian Boy, about a gay Indian man introducing his white boyfriend to his parents, is slated to run at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland in May 2023. Shekar also wrote the book for a children’s musical, based on the book The Incredible Book Eating Boy, that goes up at the Alliance Theatre July 13-Aug. 14. Shekar is also working on a commission from the Perelman Performing Arts Center in lower Manhattan to adapt the classic Sanskrit tale The Little Clay Cart into a play.
Like many of her writing peers, Shekar has racked up screen credits as well: She was on the staff of The Nevers on HBO, a series about witches living in Victorian England, and now she’s writing for The Three-Body Problem, the new Netflix series from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, that’s adapted from Liu Cixin’s novel about aliens contacting Earth. And in 2020, a horror play called Evil Eye that she wrote for Audible was adapted into a film for Amazon Prime starring Sarita Choudhury. As if that’s not enough, she’s also written the screenplay for Sister Act 3 for Whoopi Goldberg will star in. Suffice it to say that Shekar has come a long way from Fanfiction.net.
Mia Katigbak, who runs the National Asian American Theatre Company, a co-producer of Queen, chose Shekar’s play to launch NAATCO’s National Partnership Project. Taking a page from the Sol Project, NAATCO is joining with theatres around the country to co-produce plays by Asian American playwrights. After Long Wharf, the next producer that NAATCO is working with is Soho Rep in Manhattan.
In thinking through what partnering with a larger organization would look like, Katigbak said she didn’t want the partnership to be a “one and done” situation, where the theatre produces a show and considers their obligation to the Asian community finished. Instead, Katigbak wants theatres to commit to fostering Asian American talent and audiences. “Another action of the partnership is that they do active outreach to have more Asian Americans on their staff and on their boards,” said Katigbak. Also on the agenda: to produce events around the productions that center Asian Americans.
Queen follows two female scientists, Indian American Sanam and white American Ariel, as they work on a report about how the biotech company Monsanto may be contributing to the death of America’s honey bee populations. The play is also about the barriers faced by women in STEM. Katigbak had also read Shekar’s House of Joy, and said that what she loved about Shekar’s work is how she writes female characters. “Her women are so super fierce, very articulate, very intelligent,” said Katigbak. Her work is also “so thematically rich without bashing you over the head or taking sides in an issue.”
Said Long Wharf’s artistic director Jacob Padrón, who was exposed to Shekar’s work through Queen, “I haven’t read a lot of plays that center women and women of color in science and STEM.” But it wasn’t just the subject matter but how Shekar approached it. “She’s so smart in the way that she’s able to tap into human emotions,” said Padrón, noting “the way that she’s able to take something like the collapse of honey bees, put it in a context that feels so personal and put it in a context that also feels so universal, in a way that we actually care deeply about these people.”
Though most of Shekar’s plays have Indian characters in them and matter-of-factly refer to cultural elements specific to Indians, she doesn’t focus on identity or set out to explain her culture in her work.
“Because I grew up in India, I never had that experience of growing up as an Indian American, and feeling the constant pressure to honor the culture and honor myself,” she explained. “So I really don’t care if people see me as an Indian playwright, because I am an Indian playwright. I just write what I’m interested in.” What Shekar is interested in is how many different worlds she can play in.
Shekar’s journey to playwriting spans multiple continents and degree programs. In the Bay Area where she was born, her dad worked as a software engineer, but he also spent his free time with a local Tamil community theatre group. “They would do these Tamil plays for the Tamil community, and they would all rehearse at our house,” Shekar recalled.
When Shekar was six, her dad lost his job and was offered a new one in Singapore, so the family moved. The classism and colorism in that South Asian republic rubbed Shekar the wrong way. For example: “Singapore had this program in their public schools where if you were not the appropriate height and weight, you had to take exercise classes during lunch,” Shekar said. “So that was humiliating and awful.”
When she was 9, at the end of their annual family vacation to Chennai in India, Shekar told her family that she wanted to stay behind—that she hated Singapore and wanted to live in India full-time. Her parents went back to Singapore, leaving her with extended family in India, convinced that Shekar would change her mind. She didn’t, and after five months, her parents relented and moved the entire family to India. “Whenever people ask me, what’s your foundational story? This is,” she said with a chuckle. “My parents love telling that story—mostly how much I tortured them.”
In Chennai, Shekar attended Stella Maris College, an-all-women’s college, where she majored in history, because, as she explained, “I always wanted to be a writer, but then I didn’t know what that meant. So when I got into college, I decided to study history, because I thought I would get better stories from history than if I chose English literature.” She was also part of the college’s drama club for three years.
After graduating, Shekar still didn’t know how to be a writer, so she applied to a bunch of Master’s programs. She enrolled in the global media and communications program at the London School of Economics, and for years after that she worked in marketing as her day job. The second year of that Master’s program was spent at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where Shekar signed up for a playwriting course taught by Velina Hasu Houston. It was in Houston’s class that she wrote her first full-length play, which led her to getting a second Master’s in dramatic writing at USC. Though it was fully funded, her parents did not approve of the choice, with her dad asking her, “Do you know what opportunity cost means? You’re gonna give up three of your prime earning years.”
Shekar, drawing on the same innate wisdom that led her to insist on that move to India, said she responded calmly, “If this is a mistake, I’m young enough to make a mistake. When I graduate, I’ll be 26, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s fine. I can start over again.” It was at USC that Shekar wrote In Love and Warcraft, which would become her calling card: It got Shekar her first playwriting award and then a production right out of college, at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. The play introduced her to director Chay Yew, who would then produce the world premiere of her plays Queen and Dhaba on Devon Avenue at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. The play is still working for her: Just a few years ago an executive at Audible read In Love and Warcraft and commissioned Shekar to write Evil Eye.
But rather than be confined by genre, versatility has become her secret weapon, Shekar said. “People would read something I wrote, and because I write very different plays in different genres, people would come to know of me because of that, and then they think of me for something else.”
Despite making a living at it, Shekar said she hates writing—she said it gives her “physical pain”—but enjoys researching. Unlike many, though, she doesn’t tend to front-load this process; for Shekar, research is a way to help her deepen a story she already knows she wants to tell. “I have discovered that the best time to research is after you’ve figured out your characters,” she said. “After you’ve figured out, not what is the story you want to tell, but what is the thing I want to feel with the story, what is the point of view of the story—then I come up with a possible framework for the story. And then I research.”
Shekar started writing Queen in 2013, when she was in Center Theatre Group’s L.A. Writer’s Workshop (in a heavy-hitting group that included Bekah Brunstetter, Carla Ching, and Jason Grote). Queen was inspired by a close friendship between Shekar and her best friend. “I just really wanted to write a play that actually reflected female friendship in the way I experienced it: incredibly intimate, goes really well until it doesn’t, but then it goes well again. Just a deep, deep, deep collaboration between women, professionally and personally, in each other’s lives.”
As she has friends who are scientists, Shekar decided to write a story about female friendship set in the hypercompetitive world of scientific study. She chose bee research because, she said, perhaps counterintuitively, “Everybody loves bees.” The first draft had the play’s four characters in it, but the story was much different; she initially had Ariel and Sanam’s friendship frayed by one getting credit for the other’s work, but her scientist friends told her that wouldn’t happen in real life. So she asked them for things within the scientific communities that could be sources of conflict.
“They talked to me about the really gray area of fudging data, rushing papers to publication, sexy publications getting media attention, and how that media attention then translates into funding,” Shekar said. “And immediately it was like, this is so much more interesting.”
That specificity is what makes Queen such a rich piece of drama. The stakes are always clear, and the audience is made to deeply care about both the friendship and the science.
This gift for taking an esoteric world and making it understandable and emotionally resonant is a key Shekar strength. And her path on In Love and Warcraft paralleled her experience writing Queen. Inspired by the intense online friendships she formed in her youth with fellow Potterheads, Shekar situated the action in the world of online gaming, but since she’d never played World of Warcraft she wrote a sort of a “skeleton draft” with placeholder moments instead of dialogue, then took a gamer friend for coffee and asked them to help with the details of how a conflict would play out in the game space.
She is likewise unafraid of rewriting, of killing her darlings. When we spoke, she was doing a full rewrite of House of Joy, which had a well-received run at California Shakespeare Theater in 2019. House of Joy takes place in the all-female world of a Mughal Empire harem, and in the version of the play done at Cal Shakes, one character, a queen named Mariyam, gets help from a young female guard, Roshni, in escaping the harem because the emperor is abusing her. It wasn’t until until Shekar saw the play produced that she realized she had written a play “where a man who is coded as Muslim beats his wife.” Shekar pulled the play from being licensed and produced, feeling she was “causing harm” in perpetuating a stereotype.
When St. Louis called asking to do the play, Shekar took the opportunity to rewrite the play. Now Mariyam isn’t escaping because of the emperor, who is no longer in the play. Instead the impulse to make a change is her love for Roshni, which gives both characters motivations that deepen them. “My first draft came at it from the point of view that harems are inherently bad. But I don’t think that’s true. I think everything’s complicated,” said Shekar, putting her face in her hand in thought. “People have always found a way to live and thrive, no matter their circumstances. The idea that we are better off now is very uncomfortable for me to agree with.”
Shekar is rigorous with her own work, always open to giving it more texture, more dimensions; during the pandemic, she even adapted In Love and Warcraft for Zoom for a production by American Conservatory Theater.
This same tendency to examine and reexamine has led to her complicated feelings about the American theatre. Shekar has recently decided to stop accepting commissions from theatres, except for TYA shows, which to her are bringing “joy to people who really deserve joy.” The pandemic has caused many artists to reevaluate their relationship to the field, and Shekar, who is almost approaching a decade as a working playwright, admitted that she’s disillusioned.
“As artists, we enter into an unspoken contract with these institutions, which is: We [the theatres] will help you be legitimate artists, and the artists supply the actual substance of the theatre’s business.” The pandemic exposed the unequal terms of this bargain, Shekar said: “When we needed them, they were not there.” Up until this point Shekar had been easygoing and jovial, but her mood now darkened considerably. “Nobody tried to push for local initiatives for artists. The pandemic made it clear that nobody gives a shit about artists. The pandemic made it really clear that theatres cared much more about their real estate.”
These days, Shekar is less interested in writing plays for donors and traditional subscriber audiences than for children and underserved audiences. And she’s been thinking back to the plays she watched growing up. “The plays that my dad did really served their audiences,” she said. “They were so meaningful to our community. They brought people together. They were really funny. I got to see plays in my language. That’s the type of theatre that really, really, really served its audience.”
So what, finally, is the value of art and storytelling? What gets Shekar to put herself through the pain of writing? She admitted that it’s a “selfish” impulse, and that “storytelling is not going to change anything, especially not theatrical storytelling; I think the way we live our lives is going to change everything.” Even so, she said, “Art is such an important part of how we sustain ourselves and find a reason to keep going.”
Then Shekar then visibly relaxed, almost as if being able to say her piece had taken some weight off of her. Then this inveterate world builder, observing the rules of a more dispassionate universe, smiled and added, unpretentiously, “Anyway, that’s my rant.”
Diep Tran is a former senior editor of this magazine. Follow her on Twitter @DiepThought.
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