Vivek Shraya takes the Grand Theatre

One-woman show tracks failure to become a popstar

'How to Fail as a Popstar' gave audiences a unique and thought-provoking treat.
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When The Journal entered the Baby Grand theatre to watch Vivek Shraya perform, it wasn’t sure what to expect. What it got was some laughs, a golden cape, and a live concert.

Vivek Shraya, Canadian writer, musician, performer, and visual artist, performed at the Kingston Grand Theatre on Oct. 12 through 15. Her show, titled How to Fail as a Popstar, traced her story from her childhood in Edmonton to her adult pursuit of becoming a popstar.

The Journal attended Shraya’s performance on Oct. 13. It was effectively a one-woman show, combining aspects of song, dance, and storytelling. Overall, it was a strong and entertaining performance full of interesting anecdotes and catchy tunes.

The audience entered the theatre and filed into rows in front of the flat stage. It was a black box theatre with black curtains covering the walls. A circle of lights on the floor of the stage broke the darkness, surrounding a guitar, mic stand, and a stool.

At 7:30 p.m. the lights dimmed, and a title appeared behind the stage: “The Popstar.” Music started playing and Shraya entered the stage to perform “Music Ur The 1.” 

After this, the show continued in segments of 10 to 15 minutes, each separated by a new title, darkness, and a water break for Shraya. In “The Guru,” she discussed learning to sing Hindu bhajans in which “the main objective is to reach God,” she said.

Each segment incorporated a mix of mediums. Shraya told stories from her life in present tense—as if they were happening before the audience’s eyes—and imbued them with both short and longer song excerpts. 

The show was enhanced with colourful lighting and sound effects, all timed and executed perfectly; it was clear Shraya had a great stage manager. 

“The Pretty Girls” depicted Shraya’s experiences in junior high, learning to sing pop songs to impress her classmates. In “The Judge,” she talked about performing in singing competitions at the West Edmonton Mall, and the judges’ suggestion to “wear leather pants.”

In “The Producer,” Shraya discussed recording her first pop album Throat (2002), paid for with a $20,000 loan co-singed by her mother. “The Rockstar” traced her move to Toronto to record more music, during which she lives with a volatile, online bingo-addicted manager named Mamma Carla.

“The Sisters” showed Shraya eventually getting recognized by a successful singing duo, which eventually leads to “The Record Deal.” Shraya signed with a French label who offered to fulfill of all her dreams—but didn’t follow through.

Towards the end of the show, Shraya spoke about her doubts for the first time: “What if I didn’t make it?” She said she “felt rejected by music.” 

This led to Shraya’s conclusion: a discussion of failure. 

She said she “failed at becoming a popstar” because she isn’t known for any particular song or album; rather, she’s “mostly known for [her] collaboration with white artists.”

Shraya listed 40 reasons why she failed, including being born in Edmonton; having immigrant parents; being an introvert; being brown, queer, and trans; and not owning leather pants.

With each reason, Shraya made eye contact with a different member of the audience. This decision, coupled with taking the light off Shraya and shining it on the audience, spoke to how bad we are at talking about failure—it makes us all very uncomfortable.

While initial discomfort could be felt across the audience, the exchange became a little more familiar with each reason, forcing the audience to get comfortable with failure. 

Shraya concluded with this question: since she failed at becoming a popstar, how can she learn to live with her dream “alongside [her] failure?” Her performance suggests the first step is talking about and celebrating both equally, in tandem.

Shraya is an assistant professor in the creative writing program at the University of Calgary and a seven-time Lambda Literary Award finalist. 

She’s known for her album Part Time Woman, which was long listed for the Polaris Music Prize, and her best-selling book I’m Afraid of Men, as well as other varied creative projects.

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