Acclaimed international performer Nilaja Sun will return to Geelong next month direct from Edinburgh Fringe with Pike St, part of GPAC’s 2017 Deakin University Theatre Season.
Hey Nilaja, thanks for chatting to Forte Magazine. How are you and what have you been up to recently?
This year has been such a beautiful whirlwind of all things “Pike St”. I started the tour in Edmonton, Canada and have taken it to Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. To know that I am bringing a story about my hometown, the Lower East Side, fills me with so much pride and to feel the love “Pike St” is receiving in every theatre is overwhelming and surely welcomed!
You’re a solo performer of extraordinary skill, capable of embodying two, three, or four characters at once, in conversation or argument and in this show you’re performing as three generations of a Puerto Rican family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. How did you get into solo performing?
When I was in college getting my BA in theatre, I took a playwriting class in my senior year. Part of the final grade was to have student actors perform my play but I went to a predominately White college and all of my characters were Black and Latino. As one of the only theatre majors of colour, I decided to make my play into a solo piece and perform it for anyone who wanted to witness it. That was my foray into the land of solo work. When I graduated, I brought that play home to NYC and performed it in as many places I could. From there, I started to become known as solo performer and with the assistance of theatres and grants that appreciated my talent, I started to write more and more solo pieces. “Pike St.” is my seventh solo piece to date.
What are the main challenges you encountered with this performance?
I always want to make sure Candi, one of the main characters of the show, is being conveyed as clearly as possible. She is a young girl who depends on life sustaining equipment to live and is a very integral part of “Pike St”. Her journey and inner life is one of the main reasons why I have continued to perform this piece internationally. She deserves to shine on stage and I will see to it that she does.
To perfect your performance, do you find you need to really isolate yourself for a long time to practice? What’s a typical routine for you to get into each character?
I am an only child and although one might think that existence is a lonely one, I beg to differ. It has allowed me to spend most of my life studying, watching and listening to people. Accents, body language, what is said and unsaid are just a few things I notice immediately, no matter where I am. So, when I write a play, I have already done so much listening that I know these characters inside and out. Now, it’s all about making it clear to an audience. That is what a great director is for. Ron Russell, the director of “Pike St”, was able to give me the outside perspective that I don’t have. And rehearsing it a million times doesn’t hurt either.
Your most famous play, No Child, dramatises some of your experiences teaching in state schools. How was the transition from being a teacher to a solo writer and performer?
They are one in the same. When I am not teaching, I’m acting and vice versa. I am forever inspired by my students who have come to the world with such open hearts. Many of the students I’ve worked with throughout the years have had to grow up too fast. Thus, many of my characters share that same experience. A great portion of my work is about invisible communities and the pressure to wear thick masks to hide one’s tender heart and how the peeling of these layers can sometimes turn out to be the most beautiful and necessary action one must take in life.
What are you hoping the audience takes away from the show?
I always hope audiences will recognise the love, hope and pain that we all share. And, since this is a play about a family, I pray that audiences will see that every family goes through the fire, as it were, and hopefully comes out of it closer and tighter. I think family exists to teach us all how to be better individuals. I have learned so much from my family, in the good and the bad and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You’ve had a hugely successful career thus far, with multiple awards and even some TV appearances. What’s next for you, where do you want to take your career?
New York City is buzzing with TV productions and new pilots. It’s the best time to be a New York actor. You’ll be seeing my face on your small screens more and more, though my solo work will always bring me back to the people.
Thanks so much for chatting, and good luck for the performance. Was there any last words?
Geelong’s audiences were so loving and joyous when I travelled there for “No Child…” Coming back to the vivacity of Geelong is such a yummy full circle moment for me. I can’t wait! Thanks for welcoming me back to the hugs.
When & Where: Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Geelong – September 6 – 9
Book at gpac.org.au or phone Box Office on 5225 1200.