21st Century Voices Interview with Playwright J.Stephen Brantley

December 19, 2018
As 2018 comes to an end we’re looking forward to kicking off the new year with new plays! Our 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival will run January 3rd-6th featuring five staged readings and talkbacks with playwrights from all over the country. Here’s an interview with New York based playwright J.Stephen Brantley whose play SHRUTI GUPTA CAN TOTALLY DEAL will be presented on Friday January 4th at 8pm.

Shruti Gupta is a Dreamer, a DACA recipient in her senior year of medical school at CUNY. She lives very efficiently in the apartment above her uncle’s jewelry store on 74th Street in Jackson Heights, and leaves the drama to her brother Raj, the soon-to-be-married prince of the family. But when Irish actor Liam appears in Shruti’s patient communications simulation exam, a cross-cultural romance threatens to upend all her practical plans. As their unlikely relationship blossoms in the late summer of 2017, they find themselves having to navigate cultural traditions, DACA tweets and ICE raids, newly unfettered racism, and what it means to be ‘American’.

What are you most looking forward to about 21st Century Voices?
I’m looking forward to connecting with new collaborators and learning how the themes of the play – immigration, racism, cross-cultural romance – resonate with Floridians.

What inspired you to write this play?
Jackson Heights, Queens, NY, is a beautifully diverse, thriving, immigrant neighborhood where as many as 167 languages are spoken. I was lucky enough to live there until quite recently, and its various commingling communities have inspired much of my writing. After the 2016 election, there was a noticeable tonal change in the neighborhood. Along with ICE raids, travel bans, and previously almost-unheard-of hate crime came fear and suspicion. I wanted to write something hard-hitting snd unabashedly political about a place I loved and how it was being impacted by policymakers who didn’t know or care what made it great. Instead I wrote a multi-culti rom-com, but I think the same point is made nonetheless.

What has the life of your play been like thus far?
Theatre 167, a multilingual indie theatre company founded in Jackson Heights, workshopped the play for a week in 2018. In those few days, I completely rewrote the play. Characters came and went. Entire subplots were discarded. I always learn so much from actors. Working with South Asian artists, some of whom had much in common with their characters, was invaluable.

What do you hope to gain from having a director and actors work with your piece?
I an really interested to see how artists who may not have first-hand knowledge of the world of the play will encounter it. I hope to learn whether and how this story fares in other hands, and to see what bits need refinement, or development, or elimination entirely!

What would you like to gain from having an audience hear your play?
I’d love to discover what people hear in the play, how the story resonates with them, whether they identify with its characters and, if so, why. I know what the play means to me. What might it mean to an audience, especially to those who may not have seen this kind of story before?

What do you want people to take away from your play?
My hope is always that people ask new questions of themselves, and of the society in which they live. In this case, I want them to consider what it means to be American and who gets to define that idea. I also hope it brings joy to people who don’t often see themselves or their neighbors in the kinds of stories we tend to tell about today’s immigrant population.

What are your hopes for the future life of your play?
A big splashy production with a diverse cast of terrific actors that ends with a ravishing Delhi-meets-Dublin dance number!

Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights?
Write the bad version. Go ahead and let your first draft be as corny and clumsy as it can be. You have the rest of your life to perfect it. Seriously. Peter Shaffer was revising Equus decades after it won the Tony. And listen to actors! Trust them! If they are any good, the choices they make in rehearsal will tell you more about your play than you can possibly tell them about how to act it. Let that magic happen.

Visit americanstage.org/new for more info and tickets to our 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival.
Individual Tickets: $10 per reading
All-Access Pass: $40 General Public | $30 American Stage Subscribers & Act 1 Club Members*
*Subscribers & Act 1 Club Members need to call box office for offer.