‘Mrs. Krishnan’s Party’ immerses audiences in the stage play — and cooking a meal to eat later - Indian Ink Theatre Company

‘Mrs. Krishnan’s Party’ immerses audiences in the stage play — and cooking a meal to eat later

Mrs Krishnan, played by Kalyani Nagarajan, taste-testing. while Justin Rogers looks on in shockBy: Latonya Turner

Immersive theater — when audience members are actually part of what’s happening on stage — directly engages the audience with the performers, the set and the story. Add to that the ingredients of preparing and cooking a celebratory meal as part of the play and you have the premise of “Mrs. Krishnan’s Party,” which runs March 6-9 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

The production is the work of co-writers Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan. Lewis spoke with WPLN’s LaTonya Turner about the concept for this theatrical dish.


Turner: What is the basic premise of the play?

Lewis: Basic premise is that the audience are invited to a party, a celebration in the back room of a convenience store, which in New Zealand we call a Dairy Day bodega. I think Happy New York. So this is a party going on on the back of that, shop. It’s been organized by a student, who’s a border in the shop without the woman who owns the shop, Mrs. Krishna, knowing about it. So she arrives home to find this party in full swing, and everything runs from there.

Turner: So, it centers around a cultural celebration — tell us about that and why you chose it as a theme.

Lewis: There’s a festival in South India called Kerala, where my writing partner Jacob is from, which is called Onam. It’s a harvest festival, a time of renewal, and what’s remarkable about that festival is that it’s celebrated by all the different religions in Kerala. So, the Christians, the Hindus, the Muslims, everybody celebrates it, and it really brings everybody together. And that’s a lot of what the inspiration for the show is about, is about connecting people, art, building community and having a joyous celebration.

Turner: What made you think “I want to write a stage production about this festival”?

Lewis: One of the sparks for this show was that we wanted to make a show for this performer, Kalyani Nagarajan, who’s in the lead, because she’s a spectacular performer. And we’d spotted her when she was at drama school. So, we spent a few years trying to figure out something that would be for her brilliant talents. And one of her great gifts is this ability to be kind of interactive with an audience in a really wonderful way, keeping everybody feeling comfortable, which is one of the awkward things sometimes about interactive. So, we wanted to find a form or a story that would would capture that. And we kind of came to the idea of a party being something where audiences, everybody, knows what to do at a party.

Turner: What is the audience interaction for this stage production is like?Actor Justin Rogers as DJ Jimmy J acting as a DJ

Lewis: If you’re a little bit nervous or shy about this idea that you might be interacted with, don’t be. You can be a wallflower and sit and just watch the whole thing and enjoy it in a really light way. But if you like to be much more in the thick of things, you can be in the inner circle or at the top table, and you can be right in the middle of it all. And really, the performers are acknowledging and just talking to the people who are in the room as the drama unfolds … and, there are bits that people do that kind of help with the story. There’s food that’s cooked, and at certain key points, the audience become involved in the whole thing of delivering the party, of helping with the food preparations, with getting that back room of the shop looking great for the party.

Turner: So Kalyani, the artist performing the role of Mrs. Krishnan, is improvising as she goes to some extent?

Lewis: To some extent, absolutely. She has to be really alive to the moment. And there’s another performer, Justin Rogers, who’s another extraordinary performer … The two of them have to play with one another, and they have to play with the audience as other characters. So they’re always doing this balancing act between keeping the story moving forward … and in the best moments, the audience are involved but also moving the plot forward, whilst we kind of have these fun and games. The other element, which is really big in any party, is music. So Justin Rogers — who plays the other character, James — is a DJ, and he’s doing the music for the party. And there’s fantastic Indian music, fusion music, lots of contemporary stuff, some classics and bangers that people will recognize, from the American canon.

Turner: But there must be moments of unexpected drama, right?

Lewis: Absolutely, absolutely.

Turner: Tell me about something notable or memorable. And how do the performers handle it?

Lewis: One of the things that I remember, which I love is, there is a moment in the show where an audience member is asked to open a tin can to help with preparations of the food. I never imagined this would be true, but there’s been quite a few young men who don’t know how to open tin cans. There’s a lot of fun around all of this that Mrs. Krishnan can play with: “You don’t know how to open a can?” and so on. There’s always something you never see coming. It’s part of the pleasure of it.

Turner: Since cooking and food are front and center in the show, do the audience members get to eat?

Lewis: They do. So, Mrs. Krishnan and James and the audience really cook dal over the course of the evening. And, after the show’s over, that dal is served by the performers to the audience … And there’s a real sense of community that’s been built over the course of the evening where people actually kind of feel like they’ve gotten to know one another … And so, people will stay and eat. The food is delicious. They’ll spend time with their friends, sort of just basking in the glow of the show.

Actor Kalyani as Mrs Krishnan looks into a pot lit which has a light shining on it while she stirs the dahl in the potTurner: Recently, I’ve done a couple of features on theater that is similar to this — that is, immersive and interactive. I’m wondering: Is this type of theater actually happening more now? Why do you think interactive or immersive theater like this seems to be getting more attention and popularity?

Lewis: Yeah, I think it is growing. And, my theory is that theater has to do something that screens can’t do. You know, the old style of play — where you went and you sit quietly in the dark and watch the show and then the curtains close and it was all over — television and film do that, I think better than the stage. So the stage has to do something that screens can’t do. And that’s about that immersive, interactive live experience, where it really is an experience for the audience … I think it’s been going on for a while, but I think COVID has just accelerated that. I mean, it’s interesting isn’t it? Some people, remain scared of kind of being in public spaces with one another, and other people just have a huge hunger for it. And definitely that period of isolation has reminded us all how important it is to connect with one another in that live way.

Turner: What do you want audiences to take away from this — besides a full belly?

Lewis: What I hope they take away is a really joyous experience, and a feeling of a community being developed and being connected to one another and kind of a recognition of the things we all share as humans. That you get an experience of another culture, which is the South Indian culture, with its food and some of its music and dance and this fantastic festival of Onam … And so I think that people will take away a sense of connectedness from the whole thing.