Radhika Rao is an actor, improviser, writer and educator. A born performer, she integrates theater into different educational settings where she enjoys finding synergies in the two fields she loves the most – performing arts and academia – imparting life skills, fostering creativity and living a life of art. Her current projects include co-starring in as Tania, the headstrong daughter to Nassar, adapted from Hanif Kureishi’s bestselling book of the same name and playing Brutus in SF Shakespeare Festival’s Educational Tour of Julius Caesar.
Works by Women San Francisco: What’s the path that brought you to working in the theater?
Radhika Rao: Perhaps, when I was cast in my first play in primary school when I was in the 4th grade in Delhi, India. I played the evil consort to the queen. I don’t quite remember why they chose me to play the part or what the play was about but I remember that I won best supporting actress! I was missing a front tooth so that added to my character! Most of the schools that I went to in India had very little opportunities to do theater and I was very inhibited. But a one-time opportunity to be part of a high school production of Starlight Express sealed it for me. And in college, I had a chance to dive right into it — to act and direct to my heart’s content.
WWSF: Who are some of the artists/non-artists who have influenced and inspired you?
RR: So many! Whenever I am moved, I am inspired. It could be at a BART station, in a theater, in a school play, a movie, listening to a radio interview, or in a concert hall. Sincerity inspires me. Passion inspires me. Courage inspires me. I am influenced by my spiritual mentor Daisaku Ikeda who encourages me to be an artist for the sake of peace and for the happiness of others. Most recently I was inspired by the voice of Nelson Mandela playing on the radio the day he died, and by his vow to fight for freedom even if it might cost him his life. I thought to myself, “I must live my mission the way Mr. Mandela did. I must create art that inspires, transforms, shakes us up, liberates us, and speaks to our very humanity.”
My most powerful artistic influences lately have been the world of Improvisational Theater—particularly Leela Improv led by Jill Eickmann and Sanford Meisner’s philosophy and techniques for acting, imparted to me by the brilliant Lisa Berger in San Diego. And of course, much of my early influences were in political, activist theater (Indian Street theater, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Brechtian Theatre) so I am always enthused by gutsy, provocative theater that pushes the envelope, with respect to both form and content.
RR: That’s a complex question that could take years to answer and I don’t think I could place actor/educator side-by-side as it is here, because each is unique. My process is never set in stone and I’m constantly improvising as an actor and as an educator. I don’t think I am at the point where I can say that I have a set process. I am still experimenting with several processes. But I suppose I work outside-in. I think of larger goals, big pictures, visions, and then go in deep.
As an educator who teaches theater and creative writing, I often work alone: I start by considering the goals of my clientele and of the residency and then improvise to suit the needs of the students I serve.
As an artist, my work is a dialogue with the director, and my co-actors, which stands on the foundations laid by the playwright. There is a point where my vision for the character is woven with that of the director and then once the words are mastered, the character starts to emerge, grow, and transform. There is so much that is mysterious about the process of acting that I am still trying to pin down.
WWSF: What projects are you working on or dreaming about right now?
RR: Currently I am acting in SF Shakespeare Festival’s Educational Tour of Julius Caesar as an alternate (I play Brutus!) and I play Tania in ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ at the New Conservatory Theater Center. Both characters are so different and come from such contrasting worlds—what a treat to delve into them simultaneously.
Meanwhile, I dream of:
- Musical, improvisational experimental, physical theater
- Taking theater out of the theater and into the street, classrooms, malls, libraries, beaches: Out!
- Collaborating with poets, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, visual artists, designers
- Creating performances that are powerful, gut-wrenching, moving, inspirational
- Crossing boundaries and working internationally
- Authentically and courageously embodying powerful characters, and getting continued opportunities to shine and grow!
WWSF: Tell us about one show you’ve been very proud of, as also one of your most challenging.
RR: I am proud of everything I’ve been in lately. In the last few months I’ve been in Roberta D’Alois’s innovative play ‘Pashto Dreams’ and then in ‘Yoni Ki Baat’– a Vagina Monologue-inspired, directorless, democratic ensemble performance by the South Asian Sisters. And of course, I am so excited by the work I’m doing with SF Shakes and Leela Improv.
My latest challenge has been taking on the role of Tania in ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ at the New Conservatory Theater, directed by Andrew Nance. Tania appears occasionally in the play but has a powerful presence. Though we share a similar ethnic background, she is very different from me; her impulses are the opposite from mine and so it’s been really challenging to embody this character in an authentic fashion. But in attempting to do so, I feel very liberated! I’m still exploring the nuances and arc of this character every night that I play her (show runs Wed-Sun through Dec 22); I am never complacent or satisfied with how I play Tania, and I feel like there are still miles to go in my discovery of Tania.
WWSF: How have you managed to stay in the theater? What has sustained you financially and artistically?
RR: Let me start by saying that I am very fortunate to be married to someone who has a steady job and through whom I have health insurance! So in many ways, I lead a privileged life as an actor. Having said that, yes, like most artists, I live on a tight budget.
I do not depend on acting for my income, because any income I may earn from acting is scanty, at best and irregular (I am non-Equity). Most of my income comes from working in the world of educational theater where I teach, consult, do professional development for teachers, some administrative work and occasional research. I am a teaching artist for organizations such as Young Audiences of Northern California, SF Shakespeare Festival, and San Carlos Children’s Theater. I also work in Medical Schools and Law Schools as an actor, taking on the roles of medical patients and legal clients respectively. At times I am frustrated by how little I make for the amount of effort that I put in and the distances I have to travel from one work place to another, but to the best of my ability, I try to focus on the positives and the great joy that I get from pursuing my passion for theater. I love working with young people and teachers and feel very proud of the value I create as an educator. I accept that as artists, we will always be on the fringes and we almost have to be, to create groundbreaking art. Having said that, I do dream of a day when artists and educators can be millionaires!
WWSF: What do you think are the challenges facing women in American theater?
RR: The biggest challenge comes from not having enough stories about women written by women. We need a flood of such narratives. And these narratives need to be welcomed by theaters. We are still stuck in a theater world where most female actors are playing supporting roles and where their character’s needs and motivations revolve around men. I am personally striving to write more and develop my craft as a writer, in an effort to contribute to more women-centric narratives.
WWSF: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
RR: I’m not sure I can speak for American theater but I am very inspired by what’s going on in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Yeah, I said I’m a Feminist! salons are a fantastic start and so inspirational to all women. I was very fortunate to move to the Bay Area in August 2012 and be greeted by this newly formed group of powerful women. Valerie Weak is revealing some hard facts through her Counting Actors Project, regarding gender disparity in Bay Area theater through her blog. There are so many incredible local female playwrights who are exploring provocative, bold themes in their work. And there are a growing number of female artistic directors in the Bay Area who are committed to casting women in powerful, leading roles. I am particularly inspired by the recent commitment by the Artistic Director of SF Shakespeare Festival Rebecca Ennals to “improve gender parity and diversity on stage in future seasons, with the goal of “50% men, 50% women, and 50% actors of color” in their casts. And of course I am so inspired by Works by Women San Francisco, and how women are supporting the performance and artistic work by other women.
I am grateful for the umbrella support and leadership of Theatre Bay Area and all they are doing to create a more equitable theater community here. I am full of hope for the future and am very aware of my personal responsibility to open up the way for the next generation of female actors and artists.