Here and Now with Pooja Nansi

We chat with poet, playwright and performer Pooja Nansi about digging into her family archives for You Are Here – her tender, illuminating solo show about what it means to find a place to call home.

What inspired you to write You Are Here?

You Are Here is a project that came out of me trying to make sense of who I am and where I feel like I belong. I’m a child of immigrants; I was born in India and only arrived in Singapore at the age of one, when my parents decided to settle in another country. I’ve grown up here, listening to them always reminiscing about “home”. At the same time, I’ve heard so many stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents.

In 2015, when I did my writing residency at NTU, it afforded me the time and resources to travel and conduct oral interviews with family members and dig into their personal family archives. It made me realise there were extraordinary stories there, within otherwise ordinary lives, that deserved to be documented and honoured.

As a poet, you also tell stories through the poetry you write. Why did you decide to create You Are Here as a piece of theatre? What is it about the medium that helps you tell the story you want to tell?

People often think poetry only happens on a page. But my practice has always been in performance poetry, and I have always thought of words as living things that carry energy. For me, these were stories that needed to be shared. And so much of these memories lie in sensory objects, like photographs and songs, that a performance piece allowed me to explore these mediums.

How has the play evolved since you first came up with the original concept?

The show is different every time I perform it, because I find myself in a new place each time. Since the last time I performed it four years ago, I’ve become a mother, which makes me look at the women who mothered me in a new light. I’ve also learnt to navigate the challenges of encountering this city in my body – as a minority woman – differently than I would have in my younger years. All of that makes me look at the material through a different lens, and that’s why the stories land differently for me each time as well, even though I have told them so many times!

Pooja performing You Are Here at The Esplanade in 2016

Tell us about the evolution of You Are Here – how, where and when did this show encounter its first audiences?

The first incarnation of the show was actually in 2015 at the Singapore Writers Festival. As mentioned, it coincided with my residency at NTU. So, a lot of the writing and research happened before that iteration, which was actually just a pretty simple presentation with readings and PowerPoint slides. I was working with my friend and collaborator, Joel Tan, on the dramaturgy of the piece.

Subsequent iterations at Esplanade Studios RAW and Kalaa Utsavam involved thinking about how we could harness the possibilities of a theatre space for the show. We also took the show to the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2016, which presented us the challenge of contextualising details that were so uniquely Singaporean for an international audience.

How will you be updating this play for this new production with Wild Rice?

In this iteration with Wild Rice, I’m so happy to continue to have Joel on board to help me re-examine the writing and text, and add to it elements that feel urgent for where I am at in my life. Working with this current creative team – especially Edith [Podesta, director], Ramesh [Krishnan, sound designer] and Mervin [Wong, multimedia designer] – feels like a real gift too, because each of them has been so intuitive about the intention behind my writing and all of their work adds a layer of meaning to the text I could never have achieved on my own.

Does performing come naturally to you? What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of performing a show, as opposed to writing it?

I don’t know if performing is natural to anybody. Performance, by its definition, is artifice. But using words to connect to audiences and readers is what my practice is about. Writing is a solitary process. You make sense of complicated things, put them on a page and you’re done. When you need to be the conduit of those emotions for an audience, you need to relive the intention behind all of those words and feel those feelings in your whole body. That can take its toll but it also constantly reminds you of the beautiful complexity of life.

The concepts of ‘home’ and discovering where you belong lie at the heart of You Are Here. What does ‘home’ mean to you?

Hah. I wrote a show about it. It runs from 22nd April to 2nd May at Wild Rice. Come watch it. 🙂

Click to find out more about You Are Here!

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