ISAASE director Dr. Rice and Vishal have known one another for over 20 years (and performed a duet for their middle school talent show together, and acted in plays together in middle and high school!), and reconnected to chat for ISAASE’s Be Inspired project. Here, Vishal shares how he got into performing on Broadway, describes growing up in Burtonsville, shares what’s next in his career (and the need for stability in performers’ careers), his thoughts on diversity and representation for South Asians in performance spaces, and why he hopes Monsoon Wedding the musical or Bend it Like Beckham the Musical become big hits. Here’s the interview…
How did you get into performing on Broadway?
I went to college for musical theatre, and also international relations at American University. Then, I did shows in DC and lived there a few years, then moved here [to New York] in 2012. So I’ve been here about five years, just pounding the pavement, and making connections and working on a lot of new shows. And finally, last year, I had a lot of momentum in the Spring auditioning for a lot of Broadway stuff, and I got the audition for Groundhog Day, and after five or six auditions, I got the offer! And then we started this year.
There are varying routes to take to get to Broadway. Some people move here and a month later get their offer, some people are here 10 or 15 years. I’ve worked hard, but I also acknowledge I’ve been pretty lucky. I got representation as soon as I moved here, so I had agents sending me out all the time.
DC is also a really good theatre community, so I was able to go back and work whenever the opportunities came up. But Broadway has always been the main goal of mine.
What was growing up in Burtonsville, Maryland like?
You and I were really lucky to live in a really diverse community, in Burtonsville. We had Koreans and Ethiopians, and Pakistanis and Indians… everybody, really. We started doing plays and musicals in middle school. And that being said, I was definitely a STEM-oriented kid, but even though I knew I was good at STEM stuff, theatre was where my passions lay.
I always hear: “wow that’s so cool that your parents let you do that!” There was a sense that “these are skills you have, so you should go into medicine, or some sort of science.” And I get why those careers are important, and why so many Brown parents want their kids to go into them; it’s stability, especially financial stability. And there will always be a need for doctors, and pharmacists, and engineers. And those careers have a very clear trajectory, which is not the case for the arts.
It’s one of those weird things, where I want Brown kids to pursue things outside of [STEM] if that’s where [their interest] lays. But at the same time, as a country, we actually need more people in STEM; we’re so behind in math and science. But obviously you don’t want to force people to do things they don’t want. With STEM careers there’s a definite answer to a lot of things. Medicine is a little more tricky, but science-based careers [tend to be] fact based. And you can learn the rules of the trade if you work hard enough. That’s the beautiful thing about those careers.
I didn’t want to do that though. I knew what I wanted, and I had the conviction, and I worked hard. And I had to battle at first. Initially, my parents were like, “are you sure?”
And it’s a hard path. You’re never “settled.” It’s never “I made it!” Because theres always more to go and you always have to stop hustling, unlike track based fields, where you get a job, and you’re there five years. This Broadway show [Groundhog Day] was my sort of “I’ve made it!” — but it only lasted nine months, and it’s the longest gig I’ve done. That’s something to consider.
But it’s increasingly important to see ourselves in the storytelling fabric of the US because we’re a part of it! For me, it’s important to be representative of that. And, since there are so many Brown doctors, why not play one on tv?
What’s next for your career after the success of Groundhog Day?
Going to Broadway has always been my goal. So now that I’ve done it, it’s kind of fun to be like… so, what else? I think writing is something I’ve always done, but it’s taken a back seat, so now it’s time to sort of go for it. I’m not getting any younger, so might as well put stuff out there. And also, TV, and commercials, and all of that. I want to do it all.
That’s the crazy thing about performing; there’s so many different channels.
Groundhog Day ended on the 17th of September. I have a lot of auditions, and a bunch of little gigs, a bunch of music to learn. I’m auditioning on Broadway, auditioning for concerts, and getting coached for voiceover work. If you can get great working at voiceover work, that’s the closest I’ve heard that it gets, for stability. I don’t [want to] have to put the pressure on the art.
What does it mean to put pressure on the art?
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, talks about that. One of the reasons she was able to get where she was because she never relied on writing. She always used that to invest back into her exploration and her education as a writer. That’s something I wish I knew earlier on. I’m still always striving for that.
I’ve been very lucky, but probably 50% of the time, in life, I’m not acting as my job; I’m having to do other things. My goal now is to get to a place where I don’t have to rely on the art for the money. Because [otherwise], I’m auditioning for things I don’t feel right for, or that don’t speak to me, and I don’t want to have to do that.
How would you react to pressure to take on stereotypical South Asian roles?
I’m not my skin tone. I can be — but if its just skin tone? That’s not the only qualification one should have to do something. But, my agents are actually really good about that. I’ve been very lucky because of that, to get to do so many types of roles and get to audition for a lot of different things.
And I’m not a stereotypical Indian guy. If people want a Dev Patel, [and they get me] they’re going to be like, “that’s not him.” I’m weird and off-beat and goofy, so that’s already going to change things. And there’s only so many stereotypical Brown roles in theatre — there’s like an Indian role.
Is there a need for more South Asian roles?
There are a few Indian shows that are workshopping right now, like an out of town production of Monsoon Wedding the musical, which is Broadway-bound, and in Toronto, there’s Bend it Like Beckham — but I don’t fit in them, and they’re not right [for me].
I hope that one of the shows [focused on South Asian culture] being workshopped ends up a big success… South Asian kids don’t have a vehicle into Broadway or that sort of vehicle for training. Most of my East Asian friends who are actors have done King and I or Miss Saigon — those are the two big shows that have a cast of Asian characters. It’s taught them about playing fully formed Asian characters and playing an Asian story. We don’t have that right now. There was Bombay Dreams but that was, what, over 10 years ago?
So I’m hoping that happens, because if there’s that, they will be constantly seeking or at least acknowledging that theres at least one show that they can work on, or work towards. But on the other side, a [South Asian focused show] is not everything… We’ll continue to see more Brown people on Broadway. (There’s actually two really young South Asians that are going to be in Mean Girls).
What do diversity and representation, on Broadway and other performance spaces, mean to you?
Diversity and representation are very important to me, because growing up, I didn’t see myself on stage. I knew I wanted to do it, but there were no real people I could look to. Even right now — at the beginning of the year there were about South Asians on Broadway (and now there’s one). And it’s getting better, people are actively seeking to diversify their shows and have more representation on tv. But also, I think more South Asian kids in general are studying acting and theatre, so that’s helping too. [When doing Groundhog Day], I just got so excited whenever I saw Desis in the audience.
We’re a part of the American fabric. Just because I’m Brown doesn’t mean I’m only Indian — I’m also American. I think it’s important to see that.