Vivek Shraya may have 'failed as a popstar,' but as a multihyphenate art star? She's doing just fine
The prolific Calgary artist on her new play, her new book and the perils of success in a capitalist system
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
"I think in my 30s — especially my early 30s — I started making this joke that I felt like my music career was like 'fetch' and I needed to stop trying to make it happen."
While pop superstardom may not have been in her cards, Vivek Shraya — a Polaris Prize nominee, visual art, filmmaker and author of bestsellers like She of the Mountains and I'm Afraid of Men — has certainly had a lot of everything else happen to her. But it was this one specific not-quite-journey that inspired her stage debut, How to Fail As a Popstar.
"Sometimes I worry that I named it wrong because it's more of how to fail at becoming a pop star," she says. "But basically it's about my journey of trying to make it as a pop star as a queer kid from Edmonton — having, you know, Rolling Stone covers on my wall and really, really I think genuinely believing that at some point it would happen for me. And then it not happening for me."
"The thing about pop music in particular is that there is a bit of a clock on it. It's not like being a writer where people can find their literary voice in their 50s or 60s. So I think the play, in a lot of ways, is reconciling the fact that this thing that I really wanted to happen...didn't happen. And also I want to create space for other people to own their failures because I think so many of us have dreams or ambitions that don't actually work out. And I think we live in a society or a culture that's very much about being like, 'appreciate what you have' — which is not a bad thing, but I think there has to be room for honouring failure as well."
Shraya honours her "failure" by including the very thing at its heart: pop music. She wrote three original songs for How to Fail as a Popstar, in addition to including a number of pop songs that were significant to her.
"One of the things I love about the play is I feel like it's kind of a snapshot of my music trajectory but also late 1980s or early 1990s [pop music] until like early 2000s in general...and so I feel like it there's like a moment of music history that gets told."
For Shraya, taking on a stage in this specific manner for the first time has come with challenges. As a writer, she says she's felt generally protected in the sort of "I've written my story and then I send it to my editor and then they send me notes back" process of it all.
"Everything's done in the privacy of my own home, for the most part," Shraya says. "But I found in theatre, when we were workshopping, there's three people in the room and some of them I don't know. People are weighing in and it's like, 'Read a line, now read another line, read the next line, move that line to the beginning.' I think for me, I've never been the kind of artist that uses the audience as a way to test material. I would never do a reading from a work in progress...that's just not me. Usually when I have a show, it's like, 'This is the song, this is the show.' But with theatre, so much of it is about feedback. So for me, it's felt very vulnerable."
An element of that feedback that's consistently come up in Shraya's feedback sounds deceptively simple: eye contact.
"There are these moments where I need to sip water, and I have to keep eye contact with the audience. I find that so bizarre. When you're performing music, you just like, go to the back to your microphone and you drink your bottle of water. People will pay $500 to see Beyoncé but then they're on their phones the whole time; they're not watching the stage at all times. But with theatre, my understanding is that to hold the audience's attention, I need to be giving eye contact at all times — even if it's not to you directly, just to the room. And so as soon as I look elsewhere, the audience just disappears."
Notably prolific, in the past year Shraya has — in part thanks to a new teaching gig at the University of Calgary — found herself in a position to attain the most valuable asset an artist can hope for: time.
"This past summer when I was juggling like five major projects, I was miserable," she says. "And they were all amazing opportunities, but I found that if I'm just chasing a deadline, it doesn't feel like fun anymore. It doesn't feel creative and I don't want to be chasing a deadline; I want to be enjoying the project."
Shraya says that in a capitalist system, success is problematically often equated with "more."
"It's just about more, more, more, more. More follows, more money, whatever it is. And I think for me in the last year it was really realizing that actually, for me, success is more time — time to be creative or time for myself or time for a walk."
Or time to write another book. In the midst of staging How to Fail as a Popstar, Shraya wrote the novel The Subtweet.
"It's interesting because both projects are about music, in a way," she says. "The book is about two brown women who are musicians in Toronto. I really wanted to write a project that looked at female friendship because I think that there's so few of those stories. [It's about] brown female friendship but then also thinking about things like jealousy and social media and callout culture."
"It's easier for me to get mad with you as a queer person than for me to get mad at the systems that have created one opportunity for us to have to fight over, right? So I just wanted to sort of tackle the nuance of callout culture and its intersection with social media."
You can read Shraya's tackling of just that when The Subtweet comes out on April 7th, and can watch her onstage as How to Fail as a Popstar has its world premiere at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre from February 18-March 1.