Barbara Jwanouskos interviews someone with an even more intimidating last name.
This week, I had the chance to chat with Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, a comedian, storyteller and self-described nerd, who created a one person show influenced by some of her experiences called Nerd Nation. If you haven’t already checked out her website, http://dhayacomedy.com/, it has a lot of great clips that will get you pumped to see Dhaya in action. Here’s a little interview we did where I got to ask Dhaya about her influences, creative process and hopes for the future of theater and comedy.
BJ: Okay, so I’m reading here from your bio that before this you were a venture capitalist and have two degrees from MIT – first of all, what??! How did you make this turn? Or do you lead a double-life?
DL: My solo show, “Nerd Nation” draws on all aspects of my life: the nerdy, the humorous, the socially awkward, the feminine, even the hardcore gangsta (ok well, only in my imagination). For a long time on stage as a stand-up comedian, I could not talk about being a nerdy smart person. I felt like I was distancing myself and audiences wouldn’t like that. I slowly started to find a way to be more ME. But I still felt I was hiding. And this show allows me to be 100% me: laughs, jokes, and even painful to talk about stuff. And you don’t have to be a hardcore physics nerd (like my dad) to love the show. Anyone who has ever hid who they were to fit in will enjoy it.
BJ: Was there a turning point in your growth as an artist and comedian that compelled you to begin working on a one person show?
DL: What I love about stand-up is I am always learning: from my comics I respect, from audiences, from socio-political trends. And I am always learning how to be honest and myself on stage. But stand-up is fundamentally about eliciting laughter. There were things I wanted to talk about on stage that weren’t “ha ha” so I started becoming involved in storytelling. I have been on NPR’s Snap Judgment several times. I host the Moth StorySLAMs in SF (always sold out at Public Works). I have performed storytelling to sold out theater crowds (Nourse Theater, Castro Theater etc.). Those experiences allowed me to sit with the more serious or painful parts of the human experience. And “Nerd Nation” brings my wit and sarcasm of my stand up, the emotion of storytelling, and also multimedia elements. Yes because I AM A NERD there is multimedia.
BJ: What was the process of creating it like? Any snafus or interesting challenges along the way?
DL: It took years of asking myself questions that two-year olds might ask of their parents: Why? How come? But why not?. I first started reflecting on why I was hiding being a smart nerd. Was it social acceptance? Did I feel bullied even as an adult? Would being smart be a detriment in the entertainment industry? Then I started asking my nerdy friends, “Have you ever hid who you are, your intelligence, in a social situation or to get something?” And these fellow nerds didn’t just respond yes. They could recall vivid moments: purposely getting lower scores to avoid being bullied. Failing at sports. Getting dates by hiding their college degrees in math. Lying about awards even well into adulthood. That’s when I knew I had to interview “subjects” and be very faithful to telling their stories word for word on stage. So there are parts of Nerd Nation which are directly from the mouths of other nerds. I disguise their identity. But I am glad they are with me on stage. They help me tell my story.
BJ: What are you most excited for people to see in the show?
DL: I’m excited for people to laugh and be lively! A solo show is an evolving process. I talk about contemporary issues in some parts. The next time people see the show it will be different again. I want folks to feel like they get to see something weird and new being created that is also entertaining and hopefully moving and informative.
BJ: Was there a particular part that you really loved writing? Is it the same as a part you really love performing? (And if different, tell me more!)
DL: Most of my “writing” was done on stage. I took pieces of the show and would perform them in front of an audience at storytelling shows, solo performance one nighters, even nerdy lecture series. Marga Gomez in particular gave me stage time at her shows. So writing was performing. And that comes from my stand up background. Creating was awesome. It’s editing that is hard!
BJ: Any elements of the performance/theater/comedy world you would change for the better? If so, what and how so?
DL: Oh definitely. I come from a nerdy business background. My parents are immigrants and they literally came from third world poverty and became middle class because of hard work and pragmatism. I bring my pragmatism and my business sense to every endeavor. Each workshop version I did of this was sold out. I made money. That is how art can meet commerce. I believe artists should be paid better and if we could unionize or have some set rate we would not undercut each other for gigs. I spent a few years as a management consultant and sometimes I can’t turn off the part of my nerd brain that says “OMG, I could definitely help this person with the business side of things.” In order for American Theater to survive we have to start embracing new ways of monetizing, social media, and bringing in more diverse audiences (age, race, identity). But never ever ever have cell phones on during a performance. That is my old skool values coming through. A guy’s cell phone went off in one of the workshop versions of the show and I stepped out of character to school him. Nerds need to be taught social skills sometime. And I feel like I have to cred to do it.
BJ: Any words of wisdom for those of us who would love to do something similar?
DL: Speaking of business-savvy, I teach and coach. So hit me up on my website for advice
BJ: Shout-outs for shows around the Bay (or anything else cool) we should check out?
DL: I will be doing a ton of stand up after my run of solo shows is over. I’m opening for Greg Proops (Whose Line is it Anyway) at the San Francisco Punch Line on New Year’s Eve (and then two shows on January 2nd). I will also have a show I produce focused on socio political issues. Check out my website: www.dhayacomedy.com because shows are always added.