Exploring Space and Race: Pratima Agrawal on Voided
The slimmest biography of Kalpana Chawla would record her as an astronaut who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003. In Fringe Festival entry Voided, writer-performer Pratima Agrawal explores Chawla’s fuller life story as the first Indian female astronaut, intermeshing her own experiences in a consideration of who gets to tell stories in theater, whose stories are told, and how do those stories and people impact our world. She asks “What is it to be an unconventional Indian woman trying to exist in a marginalizing world?”
Agrawal spoke to FringeArts about how she first encountered the astronaut’s story and why she decided to work it into a Fringe show.
FringeArts: What moved you about Kalpana Chawla’s story?
Pratima Agrawal: I only encountered Kalpana’s story about a year ago. I’ve been in Philadelphia for four years now and last year, I had started to become disillusioned by the scarcity of opportunities for POC performers in this city through the established theater companies. So I began thinking about creating my own work. I’d never considered doing a solo show, but my collaborator, Sarah, encouraged me to think about doing one and to brainstorm ideas.
I thought of this book I heard of a couple years ago called The Edge of Time, which is the authoritative biography of Kalpana’s life, written by her husband. Curious to know more about her life because of her inspiring achievement, I read the book and was intrigued by (and connected to) her experience as a very unconventional Indian woman with a passion for flying, having to repeatedly fight against expectations and norms, and then have to leave her country and make her way in a new one as an outsider. Then, of course, there’s the space accident that took her life and the aftermath of that.
Pratima Agrawal: There are a lot of themes that come up in the piece, but I think the main ones are “foreignness” and “loss”, whether it’s a loss of connection, loss of power, loss of control, etc. I hope that, in light of what’s happening with immigration, the show can shift some perceptions about how we see people as different from us.
FringeArts: Where does this piece fit within your art career?
Pratima Agrawal: Up until now, I’ve been doing ensemble work and only in the past four years did I even do any writing for performance. Working on this as a solo performer has really been challenging, but has provided me with an opportunity to grow. It’s also pushed me to delve into writing more, which is something I’ve been procrastinating on. I’m hoping to do more writing now!
FringeArts: What inspired you to enter Voided into the Fringe Festival?
Pratima Agrawal: After performing the first version of the piece back in April, I felt it was missing a sense of urgency to it. I wanted to do more with it and applied for a Leeway grant. Then the 1812 residency came along early this summer and Sarah and I decided to spend it by “wrecking” the piece to make new discoveries. At the same time, the conversation around immigration in the U.S. had started to heat up, and there has been a call for better representation in the arts for a while now.
FringeArts: What else are you looking forward to this Fringe Festival?
Pratima Agrawal: I’m thinking about seeing Lee Minora’s show White Feminist, and Ruckus Dance’s Baby’s First Time to Philly, plus catching some in my neighborhood of Kensington. I’m sure there will be other shows I want to see!
FringeArts: Thanks Pratima!
When: September 8 – 10, 2018
Where: Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street
Created by Pratima Agrawal