How Vivek Shraya’s one-person play about failure became a career highlight and a book

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As far as realizations go, the one that led Vivek Shraya to turn her theatrical show How to Fail as a Popstar into a book seems like a bit of a downer.

The one-person show was meant to have a much longer life on stage. Shraya workshopped it in Calgary as part of the High Performance Rodeo in mid-January 2020. It then moved onto a successful 12-night run in Toronto in February, ending not long before COVID-19 shut all theatre productions down. But it was also supposed to travel to Germany in the spring of 2020 and then Vancouver in 2021. The idea of publishing it as a book initially held little appeal for Shraya but became more enticing as the pandemic wore on.

“It’s weird to think that in April of last year, I was like ‘I can still go to Germany in May, it will be gone by then,’ ” says Shraya. “But as it began to look more and more like I may never perform this play again, I think a book felt even more important.”

There were other reasons. Publishing the work will allow it to officially become part of an archival record of Canadian theatre, which the Edmonton-raised, Calgary-based artist felt was an important step for a play written by a trans woman of colour. But on a personal level, Shraya also sees How to Fail as a Popstar as a career highlight. This is significant because she has had an impressively multi-faceted career in the arts. Currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary, her prodigious and eclectic artistic output has included novels, poetry, short stories, memoirs, graphic novels, visual art, film, solo albums and music created with her brother under the name Too Attached. But there is also a certain irony to the play being such a personal and creative triumph. While the impact of COVID-19 on the play’s touring schedule is hardly a failure on Shraya’s part, the fact remains that How to Fail as a Popstar is unabashedly about failing. It’s about dreams being derailed and coming to terms with a harsh reality that some things were never meant to be.

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“My conversation with (director Brendan Healy) from the beginning was that I don’t want this to be a play about failure being generative,” she says. “Because I think that’s a narrative as well: ‘Let’s celebrate success and even if we look at failure, it will be about how once you were down you picked yourself up and look at all the things you’ve done!’ We could have easily created a play that said ‘Well, I failed at music but then I became a multi-disciplinary artist and I’m publishing books.’ That’s one story. But that’s not the story that keeps me up at night. The story that pains me is that I’m 40 years old and, realistically, because of the lines around pop stardom and the parameters around it, I will probably never play SNL. I will probably never be on the David Letterman Show. I probably won’t have a No. 1 pop single. That particular dream will probably not happen and it felt so important to create space for all of us and sit in a room and think about this thing that we actually have in a box in a closet that still pains us a little bit.”

Which doesn’t mean it’s a downer. Published by Vancouver’s Arsenal Press, the book maintains the source material’s charm, humour and poignancy. While it includes lyrics to original songs Shraya wrote for the play, it also unfolds more in short-story form with vignettes about discovering her dad’s vast pop-music collection, experiencing homophobia in junior high, participating in singing competitions and generally growing up in Edmonton as a “brown, queer kid” who was once so sure that playing stadiums and landing the cover of Rolling Stone was in the cards.

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How to Fail as a Popstar was Shraya’s first real try at acting and theatre, a daunting trial-by-fire prospect given the marathon requirements of a one-person show. But she thoroughly enjoyed the experience, with the performance allowing her to combine music, storytelling, dance, writing and more. Commissioned by Canadian Stage, a Toronto-based performing arts company, the partnership allowed Shraya to concentrate on her performance and left some of the technical aspects to the organization. This is not a luxury that indie music artists often have. Ironically, it made her feel like a bit of a pop star.

“Someone was working the lights, someone was tuning my guitar, someone was even heating my tea to the right temperature,” she says. “I felt like Mariah Carey every night.”

Vivek Shraya will hold an online book launch and conversation with Bif Naked on March 2 at 6 p.m. as part of the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival in partnership with Shelf Life Books. Visit shelflifebooks.ca for more information.

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