Vivek Shraya’s How To Fail As A Popstar, now at Canadian Stage, is about confronting failure, showing that it’s not the end of everything, but also not downplaying the disappointment and significance of the experience. It’s about living a life that refuses to conform to an expected narrative arc, and the second-guessing that can occur when that happens. It’s about a love of music that can never quite die, even when it’s in question. It’s about grooving to a ‘90s and 2000s musical nostalgia trip. And it’s about being fabulous and singing your heart out.
Shraya dreamed of being a popstar from childhood, learning to sing to please her mother, and performing devotional bhajans at the Sai Baba Centre in Edmonton. Discovering in high school that knowing the right tunes could make an outcast as cool as OutKast (ice cold), her singing and songwriting trajectory progressed from local talent competitions to a basement recording studio, to meetings with producers, a European record label deal and touring with Canadian indie superstars – but never becoming one herself. For each raised hope, there was an equal dashed one.
There’s power in her descriptions of the horrors of the recording industry, but what really resonates is her commentary on that crushing sense of profound indifference from a world unwilling to make room for your story.
Some would say that her experiences were a success in themselves, and that she got farther than most. Shraya, to a point, agrees: “When I say I failed, I mean I did not become a god,” she says. My guest observed that Shraya did an excellent job of walking a tightrope, not coming off as self-pitying, and acknowledging the gifts and privileges her life has afforded, but letting us see the pain a dream deferred had cost her without brushing it off as meaningless or shallow.
All of this is delivered in a package that’s sharp and snappy, self-aware, funny, and instantly appealing. As well as the music industry, her skewering targets include Albertan life and the pop culture of her coming of age – if you were born in the 1980s, like this reviewer, the references will land especially well. Transitions between song and dialogue are instant, keeping up the pace.
Similarly, a list of reasons for her perceived failure effortlessly ricochets between humour (not wearing the right costume piece), personal angst (did having a safety net mean not wanting it enough?), and social commentary (the ugly realities of trying to succeed as a performer while being Brown or trans).
Shraya’s voice settles in early on to a rich, resonant timbre, with silky-smooth melisma. She uses a microphone with varying degrees of distortion, resonance, and vocal effects to pop-ify her music. The mic is less necessary in the small house when she’s just speaking, adding a performative layer to her presence. I found myself wishing to hear her dispense with it even briefly for a couple of moments, especially when she deliberately reaches out to the audience.
The microphone does, however, track with one of her more refreshing points, which is that adding technology and effects to art does not mean creating artificial distance from the self. Though she comments that an early acoustic recording felt more like “her” than a slickly-produced record, she also turns that stardom cliché on its head. She plays an equally-slick track that also felt “right,” because it came from her creative input.
Joanna Yu’s set is simple and extremely effective – a jet-black, glossy floor gives off the impression of an endless pool, enhanced by the contrast of a central circle of neon tubes that forms the boundary of a stage. The tubes glow in different colours, highlighting Shraya’s simple romper and glittery shoes, and the more ostentatious sequined gold robe she alternately dons and puts away (also Yu). Leaving the bounds of the glowing circle to “get real” is an expected device, but no less moving for it. Projections (C.J. Astronomo) show us the titles of stages in the process, emphasizing that the expectation of a proscribed journey to stardom will not be met.
When our ideal meritocracy isn’t as advertised, sometimes our best just isn’t good enough. How we deal with that helps shape who we are. In embracing failure, Shraya scores a big success.
- How to Fail As A Popstar plays at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre (26 Berkeley St.) until March 1, 2020.
- Shows run Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday at 8:00PM, Friday at 7:00PM, with Sunday matinees at 2:00PM.
- Tickets are $29 – $59 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-368-3110, or in person at the Theatre Box Office.
- The show runs approximately 75 minutes.
Photo of Vivek Shraya by Dahlia Katz