Erasing the Distance's spring show The Small, Dark Room opens on April 8th. ETD volunteer Amanda Belo recently spoke with director Reshmi Hazra and asked her a series of questions about the play, her craft, and what brought her to Erasing the Distance.
What was your path to theater?
I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been doing theater since I was 4 years old. My father did theater in our Bengali community, so I got to sit in on his rehearsals and just fell in love. I thought it was so amazing to be able to affect people so immediately, and be in the room with them and be live with them. Growing up, I continued to do theater, and decided that I would audition for New York University (NYU) and see what happened. When I got in, I felt like it was meant to be. Shortly into my NYU education, I realized that I might not be a performer, but fell in love with directing. And I never looked back.
How did you decide you wanted to have a more behind-the-scenes role in theater as a director, as opposed to being onstage?
I realized two important things: 1) Other people were willing to work harder than I was as a performer. I didn’t understand the work that you had to do as an actor. It felt so focused and pointed, and I didn’t have the work ethic in that direction. 2) I had a lot to say about the story as a whole. I was much more willing to take a step back and analyze what the trajectory of the play was overall, rather than the individual story lines. Also, I am a highly physical/visual person (I have a dance background). I could imagine how each of the bodies worked in space much better than how to say the lines myself. Nowadays, if I ever have to run lines with people, I can’t help but be a little robotic, whereas when I am in front of the room as a director, I feel so inspired and ready to go.
What is your process as a director? Is it different for each production that you work with?
Yes and no. My first thing that I do is read the script a few different times. I try to understand what story is emerging for me, and I work from that direction. I end up visualizing a lot of play for myself, so that when I work with designers, stage management, and actors, I know what story we are telling at all times. Each process is a little bit different, though, because the format is different. Working on a play like Blood Wedding, where the script is written a long time ago, is vastly different than a project like Erasing the Distance, since that script is still being put together. I get to help develop the play before it becomes a production, and put my stamp on it that way.
How did you become involved with Erasing the Distance?
Brighid O'Shaughnessy [founder and executive artistic director of Erasing the Distance] reached out to me, on recommendation from a mutual friend of ours. In that first meeting that she and I had, I acknowledged how much mental health issues had affected my life. Having grown up in an Indian community, I was lucky since my mom was willing to talk about things. However, it’s not prevalent in the Indian community to acknowledge issues. I did not know about ETD prior to Brighid’s reaching out, but I went and saw a performance and really fell in love with the work that they do. It’s so important, as we keep moving into the future, that we are building an environment where stigma is diminished. We cannot be scared to talk about mental health issues if we hope to help people and have a healthier society. So I was very excited when Brighid agreed for us to move forward together.
How would you describe The Small, Dark Room?
While there is a focus on Asian American and Middle Eastern American issues, in particular, there is a more universal message. The depression and isolation that many of our stories encompass is a human problem, not necessarily an ethnicity issue. What is most important is that each of these people finds coping mechanisms, whether through medication or spirituality, or changing their original routine. This is a piece about the darkest moment in our lives and the path back into the light. I think this is a piece that can reach out to the masses and bring people of all races together.
Did you find a connection with one or more of the characters in this play, in terms of your own life experiences?
There are aspects of each of these characters that resonate with me. My own experience with depression has more to do with observing people that I love go through dark days. It’s interesting because many of them talk about their support systems and how they helped them realize how to ask for help, or that they needed help. That is what I have witnessed: nobody is a rock or an island. A group cannot cure an individual, but they can hold their hand while they figure it out.
The play touches on mental and personal health journeys of people of Asian and Middle Eastern descent. Do you have any thoughts on the differences in cultural experiences in these diverse societies when it comes to mental health issues?
I sort of touched on this earlier, but I think the biggest thing is stigma. While I know there is stigma still in the USA, there is a different mentality here. People go see their doctors, especially in big cities. It’s almost a rite of passage to have a psychologist, or psychiatrist. To the best of my knowledge, that does not exist for people in some of these other countries, which makes dealing with it out in society all the harder. One of the characters talks about how she was made fun of by other physically disabled people for having a panic attack. Mental health is even more taboo than physical disabilities where she comes from. That makes it harder for people who are afflicted to get help and support in their time of need.
How much does the collectivist society characteristic of many of the countries in these areas of the world play a part in how mental health is approached and handled? Is there a variance in more individualistic societies?
I think that it impacts it entirely. There is of course the idea that we live in a modern age and that we can approach things differently than our predecessors could. However, when there is more pressure to worry about the community, or even your family’s needs over your own, you can be swayed to ignore problems, or believe that they are not important. In an individualistic society, or even in the Me Generation (Baby Boomers), it’s easier to believe that it is necessary to fix your own problems rather than worry about anyone else’s needs. What is not taught as much, but is equally as important, is that until we take care of ourselves, we are not really useful to society as a whole, or even our family members. The greatest gift we can give to others is to take care of ourselves; mind, body and spirit.
What do you think are the major takeaways from The Small, Dark Room for audiences?
Forgiveness. Forgiving yourself, forgiving others around you, especially those who have maybe harmed us in different ways. You cannot start to heal from anything until you stop beating yourself up, and blaming everybody else. We are built individually and uniquely and there is nothing wrong with any of us. We just need to stay as healthy as possible and that comes from acknowledging any issues that we may be dealing with.
How important is a production like this in present society?
Direly important. We cannot keep ignoring problems and expect them to disappear. This type of production is to, first and foremost, acknowledge that there are issues under the surface for everybody, and then it is to allow the audience to engage and understand themselves and one another. I think we have to accept that the world is constantly changing and that we have to move with it in order to survive and evolve.